In a ceremony this week the Mozambique government is to hand over a payment of US$950-million to the government of Portugal. The payment is the price tag of an 82% share of the mammoth Cahora Bassa hydroelectric dam. Nothing unusual there you might think, what if I was to tell you that the dam is located in Mozambique, was built largely by indentured Mozambique labour and the initial loans for the project were borrowed by the Portuguese colonial government that ruled Mozambique up to 1975?
Should African countries be responsible for the debt entered into by “colonial powers” supposedly on their behalf?
The Cahora Bassa dam is the largest hydroelectric Dam in southern Africa. The Dam was conceived by the Portuguese colonial government of Mozambique in 1965 and completed nine years later in 1974. The purpose of the Dam’s construction was far from altruistic; indeed it was part of a strategic partnership between Apartheid South Africa and the then fascist government of Portugal.
The partnership had two main aims, to prop up white minority rule and its industrial military complex in South Africa through the provision of cheap electricity, and secondly to provide infrastructure in Mozambique to support the mass migration of over 80,000 Portuguese families who would provide the foot soldiers in Portugal’s war to deny independence to Mozambique.
The dam built across the Zambesi river never lived up to its aims, by its completion in 1974 Portugal was in the grip of the “Carnation revolution” which ended fascist rule in the country and allowed Portugal to accept that it did not have the military might to oppose independence in the parts of Africa it had colonized.
Mozambique’s subsequent independence in 1975 saw the nationalist movement FRELIMO take power and almost instantly was plunged into a war with RENAMO rebels who were backed by Apartheid South Africa, the then racist regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and remnants of the Portuguese colonialists. The civil war saw the dam suffer extensive attacks by the RENAMO rendering it non-operational between 1976 and 1992.
Following the fall of Ian Smith in Zimbabwe and the apartheid regime in South Africa, the Mozambican government was able to finally defeat RENAMO and bring peace to the country by the early 90’s. The new found Peace however found Mozambique with a huge swathe of devastated infrastructure including the Cahora Bassa dam, and an impatient Portugal knocking on the door for payment.
Mozambique today is a country with a income per capita of US$210 and a life expectancy of 42, there is a tremendous amount of development work that still needs to be done. Should Mozambique pay for a liability that was incurred by Portugal? Notwithstanding the legalities of the debt does Portugal not have moral obligation to write-off any debt it feels it is owed? What’s your say?