An African War Ensnarls the U.S. Ultra-Right

Allen Isaacman is professor of African history at the University of Minnesota.

In the lush green hills of Zimbabwe's Eastern Highlands, British army instructors are putting young Mozambican officers through a rigorous four-month crash training course.

Inside Mozambique itself about 15,000 troops from Malawi, Tanzania and Zimbabwe are fighting alongside the Mozambican army against what are officially described here as the "armed bandits" and who are known outside this region as the Mozambique National Resistence (MNR), or Renamo. At the same time former British Special Air Service officers are training Mozambican Special Forces to protect the northern railroad line.

Despite Mozambique's socialist orientation, aid is pouring in from every Western European country and from Canada, Japan and Brazil. Even poorer nations--Botswana, India, Nigeria--contribute.

Yet, despite all this aid for Mozambique's government from the United States' closest allies, there is a movement in the U.S. Senate to switch American assistance to the South Africa-backed MNR. To add leverage to its position, a group of senators led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) has blocked the appointment of a new U.S. ambassador, Melissa Wells, to Mozambique.

While there are also military advisers in Mozambique from East Germany and the Soviet Union, and while the Soviets, because they provide such favorable terms of credit, remain the major supplier of weapons, the substantial amount of military assistance and economic aid from Britain and many other countries proves convincingly that Mozambique is not anyone's proxy, as the simplistic ultra-right argument would have it.

What must be analyzed is why Helms acts the way he does and why the United States' closest ally, Britain, takes the opposite position. In Helms' case the answer is easy. He is an unapologetic supporter of South Africa and apartheid. The answer for others in Helms' corner, including undeclared GOP presidential contender Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, perhaps has to do with domestic politics.

The answer in Thatcher's case is in part her gratitude to the late president of Mozambique, Samora M. Machel, who played a vital role in ending the Rhodesian impasse at a London conference in 1979 that led to the former colony's independence as Zimbabwe. But it is more complicated than that, because Thatcher, unlike Helms, understands the reality of Mozambique--a reality brought home to me during six weeks of travel here.

The history of the Mozambique National Resistance is not in dispute. It was formed in 1976 by the Rhodesian intelligence agency. In March, 1980, after Robert Mugabe's party won Zimbabwe's pre-independence election, the MNR was transferred to South Africa's Department of Military Intelligence. It has no nationalist credentials.

Successive British ambassadors to Mozambique have publicly referred to the MNR as the government does--"armed bandits." And a former U.S. ambassador, Willard De Pree, described them as "a disparate group of gunslingers, thugs, white Portuguese opportunists and other anti-Frelimo (a Portuguese acronym for the ruling party, the Mozambique Liberation Front) types who lack any vision or program for the future."

The rebels have made no serious effort to mobilize peasant support or to provide minimal social services in the areas they control. Instead, the MNR has destroyed hospitals, burned schools and committed widespread atrocities against the rural population. I heard first-hand accounts from peasants in Tete and Nampula provinces, where the MNR has been extremely active. At a high school in Tete, three students who survived MNR attacks tearfully described how the "bandidos armados" had killed their parents, kidnaped their brothers and sisters and destroyed their villages.

International relief workers who had been in Caia, Sena and Inhambane, in central Mozambique, reported similar atrocities. They also disputed MNR claims that it had established health posts, schools and flourishing farms in this region. Indeed, the relief workers reported that the 60,000 peasants living in the area were close to starvation.

On a national scale, the social costs of the South African-backed attacks have been devastating. Consider the following: By 1985 more than 1,800 schools had been destroyed, affecting 313,000 students. Today the figure is probably more than 500,000. A recent UNICEF study, "Children on the Front Line," estimates that 25% of the health clinics in Mozambique have been destroyed and that 325,000 children have died as a result of the war. The report attributes the sharp rise in the infant mortality rate, estimated at between 325 and 375 per 1,000, to "the war and economic destabilization." A United Nations study completed earlier this year estimated that about 3.5 million, or 25%, of the total population of this nation, have been adversely affected or displaced.

MNR brutality, along with lack of a political program and dynamic leadership, precludes widespread rural support. Almost all its backing seems to come from the Shona-speaking Ndau, a small ethnic group in central Mozambique that makes up less than 2% of the country's population but holds an estimated 70% of the MNR leadership.

Despite the fact that armed bands operate in all 10 provinces, a claim used by Helms and his allies to justify American support for the MNR, their presence in most areas in tenuous. Western officials in Maputo note that the rebels are only well entrenched in northeastern Tete and northern Zambesia provinces, areas adjacent to Malawi. And even in these zones their long-term position is in jeopardy as a result of a Mozambican-Malawian security agreement signed in December, 1986, calling for coordinated action and giving Mozambique the right of hot pursuit.

South Africa's undeclared economic, political, and psychological war against Mozambique and its allies has enabled it to maintain a dominant regional position. Over the past decade much of the Mozambican infrastructure has been destroyed and its economy brought almost to a halt. The destruction and loss of income is estimated by the Mozambican government at between $5.5 billion and $6.5 billion. Between 1982 and 1986, for example, more than $50-million worth of electrical power lines and substations were destroyed, sugar and tea factories valued at $20 million and $32 million respectively were burned and $82 million worth of railways and bridges were sabotaged. The Zimbabwe-Maputo railroad has been out of action for three years. There have been sporadic attacks on the Beira Corridor, Zimbabwe's link with the sea, and on the Malawi-Nacala railroad in an effort to block traffic and force the landlocked countries of the region to send their commodities through South African ports. Today, the majority of Zimbabwean trade goes via South Africa, and Mozambique is more dependent than ever on its powerful neighbor to the south.

President Reagan recently reaffirmed his Administration's support for the government of Mozambique, so Helms' scenario may be defeated. The Mozambican government has refused to enter into political negotiations with the MNR. President Joaquim Chissano remains firm on the issue--when I raised it with him in a recent interview, he responded, "Why negotiate with the puppet when the puppeteer's objectives are so clear?"

On the other hand, Chissano indicated that his government is willing to reintegrate into Mozambican society supporters of the MNR who lay down their arms as well as dissidents in exile. He has guaranteed clemency and even the right of opponents to run for election in regional and national assemblies.

Chissano also emphasized that he, like his predecessor Machel, killed in a plane crash last October, is firmly committed to a nonaligned policy. Mozambique's unwillingness to support the Soviet Union in the U.N. vote on Afghanistan, its refusal to provide Moscow with naval bases, its increasing military and economic relations with Great Britain and its serious implementation of International Monetary Fund economic proposals reveal how extensively the ideological blinders worn by Helms have distorted his sense of reality.

The message is clear. Mozambique is interested in expanding mutually beneficial relations with the United States. Toward this end the Mozambican government has continued its economic liberalization and will shortly announce major land reforms to stimulate the private sector. Despite these signals, the right continues to redefine events in Southern Africa through a Cold War prism. Such an approach is in the interests of neither the United States nor Mozambique.

It is disturbing when practical and usually sensible senators such as Dole cave in to domestic political pressures from ultraconservatives on the issue of Mozambique. American foreign policy should not be held hostage to such considerations. Senate confirmation of Wells, the President's ambassadorial nominee, and rejection of efforts to support the MNR are essential both for the integrity of U.S. foreign policy and as a signal to encourage Mozambique to continue its nonaligned agenda.

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