THE new president of Mozambique, to be formally tapped by the ruling Frelimo party this week, faces an exceedingly tough challenge. First off, he follows a highly popular, charismatic predecessor -- Somora Machel, who was killed last week in a plane crash just inside the South African border. Mr. Machel helped lead the country to its independence from Portugal in 1975 and had been President ever since. He was a dedicated Marxist, but his policies became increasingly pragmatic in recent years. He was considered a force for moderation in the region.
The new leader inherits a Mozambique that is 90 percent illiterate and in serious economic straits, stalked by famine and a falling gross national product.
In addition, Mozambique has been ravaged by a lengthy civil war. Recently the right-wing Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo) rebels, a group of about 20,000 who are sometimes compared to the contras in Nicaragua, have stepped up their attacks on the government and now control a number of important rural areas and strategic towns.
South Africa, which backs the rebels, recently ordered the expulsion of 60,000 Mozambican mine and farm workers. The action, which has dealt Maputo a strong economic blow, was said to be in response to an African National Congress guerrilla attack. South Africa depicts Mozambique as on the verge of economic collapse and threatens invasion if ANC guerrillas continue to be harbored there.
Indeed, the constant friction between Pretoria and Maputo fanned rumors that Pretoria might somehow have had a hand in Machel's death. So far there is no evidence to support it, but leaders in Zambia and Zimbabwe and of the ANC suspect foul play, and their speculation has sparked angry demonstrations in Zimbabwe. To cover itself, Pretoria has urged Mozambican and Soviet participation on crash investigation teams. Surely, such inquiries into the crash should be undertaken as thoroughly -- and promptly -- as possible.
Renamo, seeing fresh opportunities with the transition in Maputo, has vowed to step up its attacks. With increasing morale and organization problems in its own Army, the government may feel pressed to pull in outside support. Zimbabwe has been helping, and other African leaders have talked of sending in a multinational force. Mozambique's several rail lines and its port of Beira offer a valuable alternative trade route for the ``front-line states'' to that offered by South Africa, which threatens its neighbors with countersanctions. But Maputo could also turn leftward for help, perhaps inviting in Cuban troops from Angola, a move sure to intensify Pretoria's concern and involvement.
The United States hope is that the new president, like Machel, will decide to look to the West rather than just to Moscow. Machel, who had nationalized much of the private sector when he took over and largely reversed the action later, had turned increasingly to the West for economic and technical help. The US and Western Europe should be not only receptive to such overtures but should initiate some of their own.
Mozambique's new leader faces no easy challenge. He warrants the support -- and best wishes -- of the global community.