“We need Renamo to see what they will bring,” says Asahel Bin Dando Ossene who, along with most other people on Mozambique Island, survives by fishing. “For 20 years we had Frelimo and they brought us nothing.”
Mozambique Island is closer to Zanzibar than to Maputo and its dhows and mosques emphasise the point. Islanders refer to the rest of the country as “the continent”, just as the British refer to the rest of Europe, and with a similar tone of suspicion.
In last year’s municipal elections, most islanders voted for Renamo: the former armed movement set up by Rhodesian intelligence and supported by apartheid South Africa to destabilise the Frelimo government in the 1980s.
On the lofty gateposts of the island’s colonial hospital building, Frelimo has slapped posters of presidential candidate Armando Guebuza ahead of elections that begin on Wednesday. Behind the gates, the hospital wards are crumbling, the beds gone and most of the windows missing.
For Salimo Hamza Ali, chairperson of the Association of Friends of Mozambique Island, the hospital is emblematic of the decay that has set in on the island that gave its name to the country, and which was one of the first colonial settlements in sub-Saharan Africa. “If someone is sick, we have to take them to Monapo (on the mainland) — some people have died on the bridge, women have given birth on the bridge on their way to hospital. The island is Mozambique’s great-grandfather — who can abandon their great-grandfather like that?”
Ali’s organisation campaigns for the preservation of the island’s 500-year-old architectural heritage and for better living conditions. He recalls the days when the island had tarred roads, and a fish processing plant on the mainland nearby. He insists he has no political affiliation, but warns: “People will punish the government with their ballots”.
For those who wish to punish the government, Renamo, a political party since 1992, is the most visible choice. During the war, Renamo never made it across the long bridge that connects the island to the “continent”. The holes in the island’s coral-stone walls are the result not of bombs, but of poverty and neglect. “If people here knew what the war was like, they wouldn’t like Renamo,” says Bernardo JoÃ£o Baptista, a newly arrived schoolteacher. “Everyone born here on the island is Renamo.”
That assessment is an exaggeration, but it is true that the island represents an extreme example of something common to the entire centre-north of the country: a feeling of having been forgotten by the rulers in Maputo.
The interior of this region was once a rich producer of cashew nuts and cotton. After the war, trade liberalisation policies imposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank led to a fall in producer prices and the closure of processing factories as raw cashews began being exported. A fall in world prices did similar damage to the cotton business.
Seventy percent of Mozambicans are peasant farmers, many of whom miss the fixed-price system implemented by Frelimo in its socialist days.
The underdevelopment of the north dates from before independence, and post-war investment in the Maputo corridor widened the gap. There are signs that the government is now committed to narrowing the gulf: a new road from Nampula town to the coast was finished just weeks before the election.
Ismail Ossemane, chairperson of the national peasants’ union, points out that farmers are no better off in the south than in the north. Yet in Nampula, the north-south divide is taken as gospel, even among Frelimo loyalists.
“They aren’t suffering in the south as we are in the north,” says farmer Laurinda Aliti. “All the kings are from the south.”
She means the Frelimo leadership. Guebuza was born in Nampula but he has lived in Maputo since childhood, and northerners see him as part of the southern elite. Yet Aliti insists: “We have always been Frelimo. We can’t choose someone we don’t know. Many people died in Renamo attacks.”
The people of the “continent” remember the war. They have little enthusiasm for politics when the choices seem to be the party that murdered and the party that presided over the collapse of the cash crop market.
In Nampula town’s market, the trees blossom alternately with posters of Guebuza and of Renamo’s Afonso Dhlakama. Next to them, youths sell the imported clothes that have done their bit to kill the cotton industry.
“I’m going to vote for him and see what happens,” insists one holding a flyer picturing a grinning Dhlakama. “That guy won’t manage [to] do anything,” counters another handing out the Guebuza pocket calendars.
The good-natured banter reflects negative campaigning on both sides. Dhlakama, who has led Renamo since its days as a South African proxy, will get votes because he is not Frelimo. Guebuza will get votes because he is not Renamo. Frelimo has been campaigning hard in the region, and Renamo’s chances have been hit by the defection of Raul Domingos, the former secretary general who’s new Peace, Democracy and Development Party is expected to seize some of the traditional Renamo vote.
Yet the former rebel movement is still taken seriously in Nampula in a way which it could never aspire to in the south. “If Guebuza doesn’t help, we will find other means,” warns Daniel Saidi, the chairperson of the prov- incial peasant’s cooperative. “Dhlakama and Domingos are at his back if he doesn’t change things. People are looking to Dhlakama.”