Mozambique: military weakness led to cease-fire with S. Africa

''We will fight shoulder to shoulder until apartheid falls.'' President Samora Machel uttered these brave words several years ago when he stood as a major spokesman of black southern Africa opposed to South Africa's push for political and military hegemony in the area. But on Oct. 3 President Machel's Marxist regime signed a cease-fire agreement with rebels who are supported by South Africa.

Most observers correctly note South Africa's crucial role in training and supplying the rebels as well as offering external bases and logistical support. But Mozambique's decision to sign the cease-fire agreement (and a previous nonaggression pact with South Africa) were also due to two often overlooked reasons: Mozambique's military limitations and the poor quality of Soviet military aid.

In early 1984 the National Resistance Movement (MNRM) of Mozambique, an organization initially based in white Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and then South Africa, was seriously threatening Mozambique's Frelimo (Mozambique Liberation Front) government. Its 12,000 armed guerrillas were also placing tremendous economic pressure on Frelimo by disrupting a fragile rural economy: Mozambique officials estimate that since 1980 MNRM actions cost the nation about one-third of a billion dollars.

In March 1984 Mozambique reluctantly signed the Nkomati Accords with South Africa. The Frelimo government hoped that the accords, which forbade either of the two nations to support insurgent groups opposed to the other, would trigger the collapse of the MNRM. But since Nkomati there have been increased MNRM attacks, forcing Frelimo to deal with the insurgents.

Mozambique's military limitations.Mozambique has had to prepare for two possible types of warfare - conventional and counterinsurgency - despite lacking the resources to master even one.

After independence in 1975 Mozambique's military, which had been born as a guerrilla movement, was facing air and land incursions from Rhodesia and possible attacks from South Africa. As a result Frelimo built a conventional armed force, supplied largely by the Soviet Union. But increased attacks from the MNRM from 1980 on also forced Mozambique to acquire counterinsurgency ability, spreading scarce resources even further.

Mozambique is still unable to field a credible conventional or counterinsurgency force. The departing Portuguese in 1975 left Mozambique with a 90 percent illiteracy rate that contributed to what President Machel acknowledged as ''the low scientific and educational levels of the majority of the (military) candidates.'' The 1,600 Soviet, East European, and Cuban advisers - a ratio of one adviser for every 16 Mozambican soldiers - indicates the inability of the Mozambican defense force to operate technically sophisticated material.

Perhaps more damaging is the lack of morale in the Army, which was 75 percent conscripts. President Machel admitted that the recruitment system's arbitrariness (occasionally akin to press-ganging) has created ''damaging'' and ''incapacitating'' results, notably a ''lack of political conscience.'' Machel has disciplined several officers who did not once venture against the MNRM over a one-year period, and public meetings have featured accusations against undisciplined Frelimo troops. Both South African incursions and MNRM operations have benefited from information supplied by high-level defectors. An American intelligence source states that Frelimo has suffered ''extensive'' desertions, with most deserters joining the MNRM.

Soviet Failure. Soviet military assistance has proved highly ineffective. Moscow supplied unneeded and costly conventional equipment and refused to renegotiate early post-independence arms agreements. By late 1980, with the MNRM increasingly active and the Rhodesian war over, Mozambique did not need conventional weaponry, which had high maintenance costs and was infrequently used against the MNRM guerrillas.

Mozambique's Soviet-built MIGs, about 60 in all, have never ventured into South African airspace to hit rear MNRM bases and have never scrambled to intercept South African planes, which have frequently violated Mozambican airspace, usually to aid the MNRM. Mozambican officers have privately complained about ''costly and outdated'' Soviet equipment. The purchase of such weaponry as MIGs and T-54 tanks apparently left Mozambique without sufficient funds to purchase counterinsurgency equipment such as helicopters, spotter planes, and large supplies of small weapons.

Details of its conventional arms agreements with the Soviets are unclear, yet informed Western intelligence sources believe that they are long term and virtually unbreakable.

Some analysts feel that a unilateral Mozambican abrogation of a major arms agreement could cost Mozambique heavily, possibly including a break in relations with Moscow. Therefore, agreements for costly conventional equipment remain in force even though the need is now greater for counterinsurgency equipment.

While Soviet aid, especially existing arms agreements, was proving inadequate , Mozambique's Soviet ties were preventing it from obtaining substantial Western military and economic assistance. Not only were NATO states hesitant to arm a close ally of the Soviet Union (and political foe of South Africa), but Mozambique was unable to pay for much of what the West offered, a problem traceable in part to its long-term agreements with the Soviet Union. Portugal, Mozambique's former ruler, is the only Western nation that has supplied materiel to Frelimo (an insignificant 18 tons of guns, ammunition, and uniforms). The Reagan administration was not ready to supply weapons to a nation that labeled itself Marxist-Leninist.

Without any chance of substantial Western military aid and facing inadequate Soviet assistance and a growing insurgency supported by South Africa, militant Mozambique had no choice but to negotiate with the MNRM and its South African supporters.

Herbert M. Howe is the research professor of African politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

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