Local elections delayed
Cholera spreads to Quelimane
Foreign debt over $7 billion
Trade bill presented to Assembly
The Mozambican government on 16 March announced the delay of the country's first municipal elections by a month. Polling day will now be 30 June, rather than 29 May. The government took this decisions at an extraordinary cabinet meeting, following a request from the independent National Elections Commission (CNE), for a month's delay.
The delay seemed a foregone conclusion from the moment President Joaquim Chissano, at a press conference on 13 March, said that the government would look sympathetically on any request for a postponement from the CNE.
For an election on 29 May, the last possible date for the delivery of candidates' papers to the CNE was 16 March- a deadline that even Frelimo was having difficulty in meeting. The extra month means that candidates now have time to run the bureaucratic paper chase necessary (they have, for instance, to provide certificates stating that they have lived in the relevant municipality for at least six months, and a document containing their criminal record, if any).
The threat of a boycott by the largest opposition party, Renamo, still hangs over the local elections. But an extra month provides time for Renamo to back down with some dignity.
The CNE announced on 19 March that from 30 March to 13 April it will work to recover the data contained in lost or mutilated electoral registers, and that political parties will be fully involved in this work. Out of the tens of thousands of electoral registers used in the 1994 general elections, a couple of hundred have gone missing or been damaged due to poor storage conditions.
The CNE discovered this problem last September, as it prepared for the November-December updating of the electoral registers. The numbering system used in 1994 made it possible to identify how many registers were involved, and how many voters' names they included. According to the CNE's calculations, the problem affects just over four per cent of the municipal electorate - about 80,000 voters.
CNE chairman Leonardo Simbine announced that the CNE has instructed its executive body, the Electoral Administration Technical Secretariat (STAE), to recover the lost data. Teams will be formed and trained to go to the areas covered by the missing registers and reconstitute them. This will involve a publicity campaign to persuade citizens in those areas to present themselves at registration posts, with their 1994 voting cards, to ensure that their names are placed on the register.
The CNE, he said, "is prepared to facilitate political parties and other civil society organisations in following all phases of this operation from the training of voter education agents and the data restoration teams up to the implementation of the data recovery in the affected municipalities".
The CNE could not accommodate the demand by the Renamo that some of its members should be appointed to STAE. That was simply not within the CNE's powers, Simbine pointed out.
However, at a press conference on 17 March Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama moderated his demands: his concept of membership of STAE was no longer that of Renamo figures being appointed directors or some other category of paid official. Instead they could be "observers".
Asked whether what the CNE was proposing could be described as "observation", Simbine replied "It's much more than observing. It's monitoring and supervising. We envisage political parties being present at every stage, and raising protests if anything happens that is out of line".
As for demands that Renamo members should be present in the central STAE offices in Maputo, Simbine said this was not where the action happened. The restoration of the missing data, and the correction of errors that occurred in last year's updating of the registers "happens on the ground, in the municipalities".
Renamo reiterated on 13 March its intention to boycott the local elections in the province of Sofala.
The position was stated by the interim Renamo delegate in Sofala, Manuel Pereira. "We are going to make elections impossible in the Beira, Dondo and Marromeu municipalities (the three places in the province where local authorities are due to be elected)", he threatened.
Pereira denied that his party is boycotting the elections for lack of personnel and money. "Renamo is not afraid of going to the polls. We have money and we have staff to face this contest. But Frelimo is acting in bad faith and wants to run alone", he accused.
The Mozambican cholera epidemic has spread to the district of Mossurize, Manica province, on the border with Zimbabwe.
According to deputy health minister Abdul Razak Noormahomed, speaking on 20 March, twenty cases of cholera were diagnosed in Mossurize over the previous 24 hours.
The latest health ministry statistics show there have been 24,507 known cases of cholera and 584 deaths since the epidemic began in mid-August 1997.
Noormahomed said that the Ministry's main concern at the moment was with Quelimane, where there were 77 new cases in the previous 24 hours. Since the epidemic reached the city on 6 March, there have been 724 cases and four deaths.
"We are on a state of alert because the epidemiological and environmental conditions exist for the disease to spread to other Zambezia districts as yet untouched", said Noormahomed.
The health authorities are also on alert in the neighbouring province of Nampula in case the disease spreads there. Health workers from Nampula have travelled to Quelimane for experience in preventing and treating cholera. The Nampula water company plans to increase the amount of chlorine in the water supply, and the local authorities are waging campaigns for improved personal and collective hygiene.
The chief doctor and director of the provincial hospital in the western province of Tete, Francisco Xavier, has expressed serious concern over health conditions in the provincial jail, where four inmates died from various diseases, in the space of three days.
Xavier said that between 16 and 18 March four prisoners died from diseases such as malaria and diarrhoea, caused by the poor hygiene conditions in the jail.
He visited the prison recently and found very serious problems of lack of hygiene, caused by overcrowding.
The prison director, Marcos Cumbane, lamented the situation but argued that there is nothing he can do to change it. But he also claimed that the sick prisoners are transferred in that state from the maximum security prison, where conditions are worse than in his institution.
"There is nothing the prison directorate can do to invert the situation because the current number of people concentrated there exceeds the installed capacity of the prison facilities", he said. There are currently 571 prisoners, compared with the institution's capacity of 90.
The Mozambican government has adopted a new set of regulations on fisheries inspection and quality control that seek to ensure that procedures are in line with those demanded internationally.
Deputy Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Isidora Faztudo, denied that the new regulations have been passed because of European pressure. She said the government had been discussing quality control with the major fishing companies since 1994.
Nonetheless, she admitted that the measures aim to ensure that fisheries produce can meet the stringent demands of the European market. Faztudo said that in 1997 Mozambique exported $85 million worth of fisheries produce, of which $61 million was sold to Europe.
The government was helping the fishing industry to comply with the new rules by offering inspection services free of charge, said Faztudo. To date, the boats inspected, and which the government believes meet European standards, can export $41 million worth of produce a year.
This does not necessarily mean a shortfall of 20 million dollars when compared with last year, since not all the vessels were ready for inspection. The fishing season began on 1 March, but there are vessels that will not put out to sea until April.
Faztudo stressed that it is the Europeans who will have the final word. "We issue health certificates here", she said, "but in Europe all imports are submitted to micro-biological inspection".
The government's concern was not only with hygiene on board ship, but also with the state of the on-shore infrastructures. Faztudo stressed that the authorities are implementing a hygiene plan to ensure that there is no contamination of produce on these premises from cholera.
The European Union has already banned imports of fresh fish from Mozambique and several other east African countries for fear of cholera contamination. Faztudo pointed out that this ban does not affect deep frozen fish (which means that Mozambique's main export, prawns, escapes the ban).
She added that the fishing companies have found alternative markets for their fresh fish, mainly in South Africa.
Mozambique expects to harvest 1.6 million tonnes of grain this year, an increase on last year's figure of about 1.4 million tonnes, according to the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries, Carlos Agostinho do Rosario.
Rosario described the 1997-98 agricultural campaign as very good, particularly in terms of maize. "We have had surplus production of about 100,000 tones", he said, describing this as exemplary.
Rosario lamented, however, that production of other grains, such as rice and wheat, is not as good as that of maize, and there is still a deficit in these areas.
He expressed concern over certain regions, particularly in the Zambezi valley, and in the province of Zambezia, which have suffered from torrential rains and flooding that destroyed large areas of crops.
"There is no doubt that a great deal of rice has been lost", said Rosario. Important areas were still under water, notably in Maganja da Costa district, and the water might still take weeks to subside.
To overcome the situation, Rosario said that his ministry is planning to encourage the production of rice in safer areas, where the possibility of floods is minimal.
He mentioned areas such as Chokwe, in the southern province of Gaza, and Chinde, in Zambezia, as areas of good rice potential. Chokwe was once described as the country's granary because of its capacity to produce rice. However, chronic problems in managing the Limpopo irrigation system means that Chokwe has consistently fallen short of its potential.
A group of about 40 armed men, believed to members of Renamo, are reported to have caused disturbances in the town of Inhaminga, in the central Mozambican province of Sofala.
According to the Beira daily paper "Diario de Mocambique", the men claim to be protecting a residence of Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama against a unit of the Mozambican riot police stationed in Inhaminga.
The group say they were warned by Dhlakama himself to take positions to defend the residence, that was allegedly under threat of attack by the riot police.
Commenting on the situation, Sofala governor Felisberto Tomas described it as calm, and he criticised the attitude of Dhlakama's guards saying they are hindering the development of the district.
Mozambique and Japan on 12 March signed four cooperation agreements for socio-economic development, worth 1.897 billion yen (about $15 million).
Two projects concern maritime activities. One, estimated to cost 27 million yen (about $216,000), is for dredging equipment for the port of Beira, in the province of Sofala, and the other, estimated at 770 million yen (about $6 million), is to improve facilities for boat building and repair and the rehabilitation of the dry dock in Quelimane, in the province of Zambezia.
The other agreements concern food production and supply. Under the first of these, budgeted at 500 million yen (about $4 million), Japan commits itself to supply rice to to help solve the problem of food shortages caused by recent floods in the centre of the country.
The other agreement, for 600 million yen (about $4.8 million) is to finance a programme to improve food production capacity. This agreement includes the supply of fertilisers, chemical products, machinery, and agricultural equipment.
President Joaquim Chissano has appointed Jose Pacheco as governor of the northern province of Cabo Delgado.
For the past six months Pacheco had been holding this post together with that of Deputy Agriculture and Fisheries Minister. He had been working as interim Cabo Delgado governor since September 1997, replacing Jorge Muanahumo, who was sacked by President Chissano.
Pacheco has proved a dynamic and popular governor, and sectors of Cabo Delgado civil society had called on the President to confirm him in the post. Pacheco has been relieved of his duties in the Agriculture Ministry.
The new Deputy Agriculture Ministry will be Helder Muteia, who is currently the head of the Commission on Agriculture, Regional Development and Public Administration, of the Assembly of the Republic.
Prime Minister Pascoal Mocumbi on 20 March confirmed that police investigations into the case of Robert McBride, the head of the Asia desk in the South African Foreign Ministry, are continuing.
McBride was detained in Mozambique on 9 March, on suspicions of gun running. Two other suspected arms traffickers, one Mozambican and the other South African, were picked up at the same time.
Mocumbi told a press briefing that the government had been informed by the South African authorities that McBride was not carrying out any mission for the South African state. McBride has claimed he was investigating the networks used to smuggle guns to South African gangs responsible for a series of spectacular highway robberies.
Asked whether the South African police would participate in the investigations, Mocumbi pointed out that there is a general agreement between the Mozambican and South African police under which the two forces cooperate to fight cross border crime, particularly trafficking in firearms and drugs.
Deputy Planning and Finance Minister, Luisa Diogo, on 13 March confirmed that the country's foreign debt now stands at over $7 billion.
The previous estimate, published last year, was $5.7 billion. But Diogo said that did not include the debt to the former Soviet Union, since discussions to establish the precise size of this debt were still under way with the Russian authorities.
The size of the debt was in doubt because of such matters as the rouble exchange rate. In January, Mozambican and Russian technical teams, meeting in Moscow, agreed that the debt was $2.5 billion. The Russian side said that it would go along with the decision of the Club of Paris, the grouping of major creditor nations, to write off 80 per cent of this.
Diogo said that discussions with Russia were far from over. They now centred on how much debt was "pre cut-off date" and "post cut-off date". (The cut-off date established by the Paris Club is 1984).
Asked whether this was purely a technical matter of checking documentation, Diogo admitted that "discussions on debt are never purely technical. There's always a political component".
Final discussions are now under way in Washington for Mozambique's formal entry into the HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) debt relief initiative, designed by the IMF and the World Bank. The boards of these two institutions agreed in principle that Mozambique was eligible for HIPC treatment in September.
But the debt reconciliation exercise necessary for the formal "decision point" on Mozambican entry into HIPC has taken much longer than expected (partly due to negotiations with Russia). Diogo said that her ministry is "in constant contact" with Washington, making final adjustments to the numbers in the HIPC document.
The Bretton Woods institutions impose a "performance period" of 18 months between the "decision point" and the "completion point", when HIPC debt relief actually takes effect, and during this period Mozambique is obliged to maintain strict adherence to targets agreed in negotiations with the World Bank and the IMF.
This means that the earliest Mozambique will obtain HIPC relief is late 1999, and not mid or late 1998 as the government had initially hoped. Indeed, Diogo warned that the debt relief might not become available until the year 2000.
Mozambique's aim, she said, was that the HIPC write-offs should bring the ratio between the debt stock and exports of goods and services down to 200 per cent. That was "the sustainable level of debt", she said.
Assuming an export figure of $400 million, this would mean a debt stock of $800 million: or a write-off of over $6.5 billion, which is considerably more than the 80 per cent figure mentioned by the Club of Paris.
Minister of Industry, Trade and Tourism, Oldemiro Baloi, on 18 March introduced into the Assembly of the Republic a government bill on trade, which seeks to simplify procedures and eliminate unnecessary red tape.
The bill seeks to revoke a 1979 law on private trade, dating from the era of the planned economy, which was out of line with the current market economy, said Baloi.
Among other things, the 1979 law demanded prior authorisation before setting up commercial companies, and even required state authorisation for such matters as reducing or increasing such companies' share capital.
The government's concern in drafting the new bill was "to simplify the procedures for access to commercial activity", said Baloi. Nonetheless, the bill still envisages a system of authorisations, licences and inspections - albeit one that is not as clumsy as in the past.
The Assembly's Legal Affairs Commission, however, suggested that the only thing needed was to revoke the 1979 law, and restore the status quo ante - that is, the parts of the colonial Commercial Code that the 1979 law had scrapped.
The commission chairman, Ali Dauto, argued that there was no point in altering the Commercial Code through the new bill at a time when the Ministry of Justice was working on completely reformulating this ancient code, which dates from 1888.
The Commission therefore suggested "reducing the bill to its essence - which is the revoking of the 1979 law and the regulations on its implementation, and replacing the previous legal norms".
Articles in the bill concerning decentralising authorisations over trading matters, and speeding up procedures, were better dealt with through government decrees rather than Assembly laws, said Dauto.
This proposal was immediately accepted by Baloi, as well as by the opposition benches.
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