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Debts bring a tide of misery

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Issue 1686

Southern Africa swept by floods

Debts bring a tide of misery

MILLIONS OF people in southern Africa who are suffering from a terrible flood have been abandoned to their fate by Western governments. They have refused to give aid which could have saved thousands of lives. Over 150 people are confirmed dead and 800,000 have been left homeless in Mozambique, the worst affected country. Many other bodies will be found when the floods recede. Just five South African military helicopters were available last weekend to save people from the deluge.

Tens of thousands survived the first flood last week and climbed up trees or on to roofs. Many have now been swept away after days waiting for rescue. One helicopter pilot described his desperation at being able to save just a few people: “We can’t get to them all in time. We see people stuck and when we fly back they’ve gone,” he said.

There are thousands of military helicopters across the world which should have been rushed to Mozambique as soon as the emergency was recognised. During the Gulf War of 1990-1, and the war in Serbia and Kosovo last year, the sky was black with US and British helicopters ferrying troops and military supplies. Why aren’t those helicopters saving people in southern Africa? The Western governments are refusing the most basic reform that would help shattered Mozambique-cancelling its debts.

Mozambique will pay out over 1 million in debt repayments this week while hundreds of thousands of people are crying out for basic care. Every two weeks Mozambique pays out more in debt than the total the British government has pledged in aid for the flood region. As Ann Pettifor of the anti-debt coalition Jubilee 2000 says, “For how much longer do creditors want to spin out the pain in Mozambique? They need to urgently stop this poor country transferring funds to the West in the form of debt repayments. Taking money from Mozambique before this disaster was economically irresponsible. Taking it now is utterly indefensible.”

International Monetary Fund figures show Mozambique’s debt payments were eight times the amount spent on education and 16 times the amount spent on health in 1998. Mozambique owes over 5 billion in debt. These debts are not the result of “corruption” or lavish spending. They reflect the costs of a 16 year civil war. That caused 11 billion of damage-twice as much as the debt-according to a United Nations agency.

That war was fought from 1976 to 1992 between the government and the vicious right wing movement RENAMO. RENAMO was kept going by support from apartheid South Africa and right wing forces in the US. It was a war for Western power-and now the flood victims and the starving must continue to pay the costs back to the West. Mozambique is so poor that it was granted special debt relief at the Cologne summit of the world’s richest countries last year. Not a penny of that relief has yet been released.

When the floods subside in Mozambique there will still be utter devastation and economic collapse. Cholera will claim thousands of victims.

Centuries of plunder by Great Powers

PORTUGUESE slave traders and merchants came to what is now Mozambique in the 16th century. They did not try to conquer the local Gaza Nguni people at first. But Portuguese rulers chose Mozambique as prime territory for seizure when the European powers later carved Africa up. Portuguese troops with machine guns and artillery massacred thousands of Mozambicans armed only with spears at two key battles in 1895.

The Portuguese general then burnt the most important Gaza Nguni settlement to the ground. The Gaza Nguni king was put in chains and taken back to Lisbon, the capital of Portugal, where he was dragged through the streets. Portugal ruled over a territory as large as Turkey. The most minor attempts at resistance or rebellion to Portuguese rule were punished with torture and death.

For decades local people tried to negotiate the Portuguese away. The Portuguese authorities attacked a peaceful pro- independence demonstration in Mueda in 1960. Over 500 people were slaughtered. The various independence groups now broke with peaceful methods and formed an armed group, FRELIMO. The resistance against Portuguese colonialism in Africa was a major factor in the outbreak of revolution in Portugal itself in 1974.

Colonial rule in Mozambique collapsed. As the Portuguese left they plundered the country. They wrecked the mines, factories and power plants. There was not a single qualified teacher or trained engineer left in the country because so few Mozambicans had been given the chance of an education.

Still paying for West’s filthy war

THE WAR between the right wing RENAMO force and the Mozambican government claimed over one million lives during the 1980s alone. This terrible toll includes 200,000 directly murdered by RENAMO. Almost 500,000 children died because of the destabilisation it caused. RENAMO troops would often hack off a leg or an arm, or someone’s nose and ears, because this would prove more terrifying and expensive to the population than simply killing.

Around one million people in Mozambique are disabled through war injuries. RENAMO sowed hundreds of thousands of mines. Many have been dislodged by the floods, adding to the dangers. All of this terror was a right wing response to a government which had brought some changes in the interests of ordinary people. When FRELIMO came to power in 1974 it used left wing rhetoric and talked about socialism.

It made some reforms and tried to improve health and education. Infant mortality rates fell sharply because of a successful vaccination programme. These policies enraged the US and apartheid South Africa. South Africa gave funds and military supplies to RENAMO. The US government was not confident enough to send open aid but allowed right wingers in the country to do so.

CIA spy chiefs helped RENAMO even when in public the US was calling for an end to the war. The death toll was so dreadful that the Mozambican government surrendered to the West. It shed all its Marxist rhetoric and made a deal with South Africa. It pledged to do whatever the US wanted. But even then RENAMO still got support, and the cost of US aid was a fearsome structural adjustment programme which enforced privatisation, an end to many food subsidies, and cuts in social spending.

Health spending per person fell by 75 percent after the economic policies of the IMF and the World Bank were implemented.

Half hearted British relief

THE BRITISH government response is too little too late. It has suspended collecting debt from Mozambique, but it refuses to write off other countries’ debts. It also refuses adequate aid to Mozambique.

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