Op-Ed: While Mozambique’s Frelimo is the favourite it will be no cakewalk

By Gary van Staden, Head of Research, NKC African Economics.

Mozambique goes to the polls next Tuesday, October 15, against a backdrop of new investment plans that would significantly improve the country’s economic growth outlook, but also some concern over the possibility of conflict in what is guaranteed to be a disputed outcome.

Presidential, regional, and national elections are likely to see incumbent President Filipe Nyusi returned to office, while his ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) is expected to gain a majority in the national assembly. Some regional governors, however, may well fall to the opposition Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo).

The presidential race requires an absolute majority, or a second round of voting will be needed. As things stand, Mr Nyusi may narrowly avoid a run-off given that Frelimo managed close to 52% of the vote in last year’s local authority elections, although comparisons between presidential preferences and local polls would be a stretch.

The only guaranteed outcome is that Renamo will dispute the results as they have done for every election since 1994 – usually without any substantive evidence of misconduct. The problem is that the continuous allegations of rigging and fraud increase the political temperature, and violence is always a potential consequence.

The other issue is that Renamo has a social media network that works to generate expectations of misconduct even before the elections are held.

Make no mistake, elections in Mozambique are far from perfect. While flawed and often disorganised, the outcome of elections tends to reflect the will of the people and usually qualifies for the ‘substantially free and fair’ verdict from observers. That does not always quell the anger of the losers.

A more significant problem for Renamo is the potential for infighting to cost it at the polls. The internal squabbles over leadership and other issues preceded the death of long-time leader Afonso Dhlakama but have escalated dramatically since his demise, even resulting in a breakaway by some Renamo fighters who rejected the leadership of Ossufo Momade and the recently signed peace deal with the Frelimo government.

While the renegade bandits are not regarded as a serious threat, they remain capable of disruption. A more serious threat comes from a larger body of discontent in Renamo over the same leadership and policy issues as well as electoral disagreements. All this plays into Frelimo’s hands.

Recent announcements by Exxon Mobil highlighting plans to invest more than $500m in the initial construction phase of its liquefied natural gas (LNG) project has provided a welcome boost for Mr Nyusi and Frelimo, with the project expected to pump much-needed cash into the economy.

Media reports this week stated that the US oil company’s $30bn Rovuma LNG project, jointly operated with Italy’s Eni, has a capacity of more than 15 million tonnes a year (mtpa). The Exxon project, along with Total’s $20bn 13 mtpa facility and Eni’s $8bn 3.4 mtpa floating plant, means Mozambique will have the ability to export 31 mtpa of natural gas – about 10% of today’s global market, Reuters reports.

The massive investments into northern Mozambique will fundamentally alter the socio-economic and political environment of the often-troubled northern provinces, but at the same time provide an incentive to grapple for a slice of the pie. Violence by Islamic extremists in the northern province of Cabo Delgado has resulted in some 200 deaths over the past two years, prompting Maputo to enlist the assistance of Russian para-military to help quell the problem.

These issues – along with the renegade Renamo bandits, the alarming killing of an electoral official (allegedly by members of a police unit in the Frelimo-stronghold Gaza province), and the spread of allegations of voter numbers being inflated – are creating tensions and concern over conflict before and after the polls. We expect at least some measure of conflict over the next few days and weeks, mainly because the environment is once again being primed for such conflict from several quarters – including media.

Once again, Mozambique goes to the polls next week amid the same concerns, allegations, expectations, and predictions that have accompanied the polls for the past two decades. We expect nothing different this time. Frelimo and Mr Nyusi are expected to retain power, with a worst-case scenario for the president of a run-off. If the run-off is avoided, then whatever sporadic and limited conflict that may get sparked should die down.

Frelimo has not always covered itself in glory, but the massive investment and opportunity for growth and development now afforded in the north must not be squandered, and this election could be a new beginning.

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