To be sure, if wrongdoing occurred in Mozambique, it should be punished. But is that a reason to avoid the bigger and more imperative for Mozambique to stand strong on its own?
The international media have missed the boat when it comes to the story of the so-called “hidden debt scandal” in the southern African nation of Mozambique. With U.S. indictments filed in New York late last year and national elections in Mozambique this October, nearly three years of news coverage has focused on how the emerging African country financed the purchase of commercial and security ships in 2013 and how it all unraveled. Unfortunately, that has overshadowed the bigger news surrounding Mozambique: The long-time recipient of foreign aid is now poised to become an African success story in its own right – if it can just manage its coastal assets.
In a thought-provoking essay, “How to Write About Africa,” the late Senegalese author Binyavanga Wainaina called out the international community for its insistence on depicting Africans as victims. The coverage of the debt scandal has followed in this vein, painting poor Mozambique as victimized by foreign actors. It’s more a mindless reflex of fly-through journalists than it is an effort to understand what really happened. In the case of Mozambique and its boats, facts matter.
Six years ago, Mozambique’s government guaranteed $2 billion in loans to three state-run companies to purchase tuna-fishing vessels, advanced coastal patrol boats, and the infrastructure to support their respective operations. The vendor was Privinvest, a globally respected supplier of vessels to more than 40 governments’ navies. The U.S. indictments allege that the sale was aided by bribes and corrupt bankers. Not only are the accusations denied, but a growing number of critics say the prosecutorial overreach and Byzantine attempts to justify U.S. jurisdiction are laughable.
The larger point is that, by 2016, the boats and systems were delivered by Privinvest. But due to accusations about their financing and government inattention, they sit in dry-dock. It’s a shame. The patrol ships could clear the way for the tuna boats to strengthen domestic fisheries and prevent illegal fishing by foreign fleets – mostly China’s – that rob Mozambicans of their birthright. The tools for success have been delivered, and now just need to be deployed.
The real story here is about a country poised to fully exploit its globally-admired coast, reaping billions in natural-gas revenues from offshore fields and from fishing its abundant waters, which teem with tuna and other marketable catch.
It’s not surprising that the international media would miss the real story in Mozambique. One doesn’t have to look too far to find examples of African success stories that have been overlooked. When you think of Somalia, images of gaunt, gun-waving pirates or malicious warlords likely leap to mind. In all likelihood, the semi-autonomous region of Puntland doesn’t.
But it should. Around the same time Mozambique decided to buy the vessels that still wait to be put into service, authorities in the Somali region of Puntland – the Horn of Africa – were successfully fighting pirates with a force trained by a private military contractor. Both pirate bosses and the Islamic group Al-Shabaab were using Puntland as a staging ground for acts of crime and terror until authorities started pushing back. With financial backing from the United Arab Emirates, local forces were trained and equipped to help the government prevail. That is actually happening.
Mozambique similarly has the tools on hand to take charge of its fate. According to the U.S. Navy, maritime situational awareness and maritime domain awareness are the underpinnings of a coastal nation’s ability to secure its shores and maintain stability. In other words, without patrol boats, radar or satellite capacity, Mozambique could not achieve meaningful security. But it has them. Now it needs to use them.
The hope is that this fall’s presidential election will refresh Mozambique’s political landscape and refocus its leaders on the assets it has at the ready to help realize the nation’s major maritime promise.
Handwringing is all too common when the world looks at Africa. To be sure, if wrongdoing occurred in Mozambique, it should be punished. But is that a reason to avoid the bigger and more imperative for Mozambique to stand strong on its own? The real story about this African nation moving beyond typical obstacles to find prosperity is one that has yet to be written.