Mozambique: New president, same old guises?

Roberto, a car guard in downtown Maputo, does not remember the name of Frelimo’s presidential candidate. “It does not matter,” he says with a wry smile.

“He will be there for the next 10 years,” he says, gesturing to the hill and “Ponto Vermelho”, the local name for the opulent former Portuguese governors’ mansion that President Armando Guebuza has occupied for the past 10 years.

A few streets away, a large crowd of Frelimo supporters wave umbrellas inscribed with “Vote Nyusi” while they wait for Frelimo’s presidential candidate, Filipe Nyusi, to arrive.

Hayi wena, vota Nyusi [Come on, vote Nyusi],” the women sing, their hips draped in traditional capulana cloths bearing Nyusi’s image.

When Nyusi appears, smiling broadly from an SUV, he waves briefly to his supporters before being driven away at high speed to his next engagement. There is no time to dance with the people as he often does. This is a “drive through” campaign event.

Nyusi vs Guebuza
Nyusi’s face recently replaced Guebuza’s on campaign paraphernalia. The message: the face may have changed, but everything remains the same. The party is campaigning on “continuity”.

But, until recently, Nyusi was little known. Guebuza maintains a strong presence as the head of the party and he led the early stages of the campaign.

If Nyusi is elected, he will have to navigate a tricky changeover at the helm of Frelimo. He will become the president of the country while Guebuza is the president of Frelimo for another three years. This decision was taken at a 2012 party congress but the prospect is creating uncertainty. In the past the Frelimo president has also been the state president.

The strength of Nyusi’s hand in the party will be determined by the votes he gets versus the number of parliamentary seats the party garners.

“The first indicator is, who gets more votes: Nyusi or Frelimo?” says Erik Charas, the owner of an independent newspaper, @Verdade. “If Nyusi gets more votes then he can say he won legitimately – he is the true president and will have a lot of power internally.”

Should Nyusi accomplish such a win and Frelimo’s parliamentary majority is weakened, he could call for an early party caucus to choose a new party president, Charas says.

Few expect Nyusi to dance to someone else’s tune for long, no matter what power-sharing deal he and Guebuza may have worked out before the elections.

For the moment Nyusi seems prepared to eat humble pie, casting himself as a consensus seeker. Once in office he may change his tune.

Change and continuity
Frelimo’s campaign funding is unmatched by its rivals, the Mozambique Democratic Movement and Renamo. Frelimo has stakes in monied companies and has the backing of many wealthy people. The money shows in its campaign events – it hires buses to transport hundreds of supporters, hires musicians for entertainment and gives away T-shirts and bumper stickers.

Analysts pointed out that Nyusi’s campaign messages are somewhat mixed. He has combined promises of change together with those of continuity.

“Continuity presumes the governance we have today. They [Frelimo] say we will make changes. There is a contradiction. Will you change or will you continue?” asks sociologist Hortencio Lopes, a researcher for the Centre for Mozambican and International Studies.

This contradiction may not go down well with more experienced voters who have seen election promises broken by Frelimo, Lopes says.

Yet to Frelimo, fielding a relatively unknown candidate and a confusing message may not damage it much. Voter apathy may work in its favour.

In 2009 Frelimo won 75% of the presidential vote and 75% of parliamentary seats. A 44% abstention rate was recorded, higher than the 36% in 2004.

“Frelimo will always win” is a sentiment frequently expressed.

If elected, Nyusi will inherit a mixed legacy from Guebuza who, despite his landslide win for his party in 2009, leaves a questionable legacy.

The 71-year-old is nicknamed “Mr Guebusiness” for the vast wealth he and his family have accumulated during his time in office.

“He is leaving us the track record that his family is what matters,” says Charas.

“The biggest businesspeople in this country are either his friends, people associated with corrupt practices linked to him or his family who have benefited from government contracts.”

Guebuza’s legacy
As the end of his term approaches, Guebuza is burnishing his legacy. He recently delivered a record-breaking two-and-a-half-hour State of the Nation speech listing his achievements in the “fight against poverty”.

To his credit, Guebuza’s administration reached some milestones: 40% of the country is now on the electricity grid, compared with 7% in 2004, and the economy has grown at an average 7% over the past decade.

But grinding poverty is a reality for the majority. The country still lands somewhere near the bottom on a host of development indexes.

Some analysts said Guebuza leaves the popularity of the presidency at an all-time low.

“For the last two years there was a visible effort to control public media because the president’s image was deteriorating day after day,” said Tomas Vieira Mario, a Mozambican specialist in media and communications at Maputo’s Politech University.

One of Guebuza’s final decisions as president has been to order the building of a huge new office for his staff. The peach-coloured, chandelier-festooned edifice is largely empty. There is more space than people.

Its scale was to make a  statement about where power is centralised – around the presidency.

After stepping down Guebuza has said he will concentrate on managing his family business, which has, until now, been in the hands of his daughter Valentina. That business empire has tentacles in almost all sectors of the economy, including telecoms, digital television, fisheries, ports, infrastructure and construction.

The extent to which Nyusi will protect these interests, and allow them to flourish, remains to be seen.

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