Growth of a Nation: Mozambique Trades Bullets for Ballots

Villa Algarve is one of the prettier buildings to grace Maputo's elegant waterfront boulevards. Its red-tiled roof and ceramic exterior are framed by elaborate balustrades and awnings in the old Portuguese style.

Twenty-five years ago, the building sent fear through passersby: It was the headquarters of PIDE, the Portuguese secret police, which ruled Mozambique with an iron hand. Now, lines of laundry trail from the windows, and residents boil stew over open fires in the front yard.

When Mozambique won independence in 1975 and descended into civil war soon after, the Portuguese fled, abandoning their elegant villas and apartments. Five years have passed since the fighting stopped, but the poor are still squatting in buildings like Villa Algarve. "These are the kind of issues that the opposition will be raising during the coming election," says a journalist in Maputo, the capital. "They accuse the government of abandoning the poor while lining its own pockets."

Politics as usual? Maybe so, but it's refreshing to find it in Mozambique, where just a few years ago the country's political leaders were trading not words but high-caliber firepower across the bush.

For all Mozambique's poverty, the country has come a long way since the end of the war in 1992. The governing Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), which once sought succor from the USSR and China, has dropped its socialist ideals in favor of free-market economic theory.

And the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo), the peasant terrorist army created by the beleaguered white government of neighboring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and infamous for its brutal tactics, has come in from the bush.

A United Nations-inspired peace deal signed in 1992 brought the fighting to an end. Two years later, 7,000 UN troops oversaw the first free election in years. It was a controversial operation: The UN effectively financed Renamo's campaign, spending $17 million on vehicles, telephones, and fax machines for Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama and his men.

It worked. Analysts agree that Frelimo and Renamo are now firmly embedded in the democratic process. Now, that process is being tested once again. Municipal elections, scheduled for early 1998, will show whether the country's fragile democracy is strong enough to stand on its own. This time, no UN troops will be around to keep the peace.

Analysts say that despite the divisions within the opposition - religious leaders and the tribal chiefs of northern Mozambique have little in common but their hatred of southerners - Renamo stands to get its first taste of real power.

"The elections are an important test case for Mozambique," says one political analyst in Maputo. "Renamo stands a good chance of winning in some cities. It'll be the first time that they have taken any responsibility."

Support for Frelimo, which has ruled since independence, has eroded since 1994 with a growing belief that the party has grown corrupt. Crucially, Frelimo has also lost support by adopting World Bank-style economic policies that have raised the cost of living in the short term and pushed thousands out of work.

The UN's World Food Program still caters to 100,000 people categorized as emergency cases. Maputo's streets are lined with beggars, and the country's borders are plagued by migrants trying to illegally cross into South Africa.

But the prospect of a Renamo election victory inspires horror among Maputo's business community. "Renamo doesn't have an economic policy," says Vitor Barata, a Maputo businessman. "These people are just in from the bush. They don't even know what a car is."

At the end of the day, most Mozambicans are just happy that disputes are being discussed peacefully. "At least the parties are fighting in parliament and not in the bush," says Fernando Couto, an import-export agent here. "They are fighting with words and not weapons. This has got to be a good thing."

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