Mozambique Channel: Bold move or a wet dream?

In 2019, Egypt will host a party to mark 150 years since the Suez Canal was opened to shipping.

But while it cut 7000 kilometres off the journey from Europe to the Far East, the canal was not good news for the Cape Sea Route and one of the world’s great bottlenecks, a narrow stretch between Madagascar and the mainland.

Now Mozambique has announced plans to revamp the channel that bears its name. Oil and gas in the north near the border with Tanzania, and a new fleet of fishing boats and patrol craft have given hope to one of the poorest nations, though critics say progress has been marred by inaction.

An almost continuous state of war from 1962 until yet another ceasefire last month has kept investors away.

And according to the state-owned Noticias newspaper in Maputo, the government’s sea and river transport company, Transmaritania, is “almost dying”. Technical and financial problems have reduced it to a few small boats carrying goods and passengers.

But in August, transport minister Carlos Mesquita announced a tender for a private firm to take over the shipper, “in order to reduce congestion on the country’s roads.”

Not so much “congestion” as cars and trucks being ambushed by Renamo guerrillas waging war against the ruling Frelimo party, with demands for greater autonomy in the north.

Before independence in 1975, Portuguese vessels carried cargo and passengers from Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in the south, to Beira a string of ports along a 2400 kilometre coast.

Late last year, government announced plans to resurrect the traffic.

Dredging has made Beira more accessible, and a new set of buoys and lights allow the docks to work at night. Historically, this was Harare’s link to the sea, but a collapse of the economy in Zimbabwe has cut traffic to the port.

While there has only been one recorded attack in the channel by Somali pirates, security remains a problem. Foreign trawlers, many of them illegal, work offshore, netting, hooking and scooping tons of fish, prawns, even sharks and dolphins for sale in Asia.

mozambique channel

Poaching has grown so bad that a French report warned the waters could, “become like a swimming pool: clear, blue and devoid of life”.

Neither Mozambique nor Madagascar conduct aerial surveillance of the channel.

There is a rich history. The Phoenicians are said to have sailed here in 4000BC. And it was from Beira that the first European, Gonçalo da Silveira, reached Zimbabwe on Boxing Day 1560 where he baptised a Karanga chief before being murdered three months later when Arab traders found his Catholic faith a threat to their own.

Before Suez, the Royal Navy plied the Channel looking for slave ships. American whalers came in search of prey and the route between Beira and Goa, the former Portuguese settlement on the west coast of India, was one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

In WWll, Portugal was neutral, so Hitler, Musolini, Churchill and the US maintained consuls in Mozambique, spying on each other and on navies rounding the Cape. The late British journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, worked under cover in Lourenço Marques for Britain’s foreign intelligence service, MI6.

In 1966, the Royal Navy tried to blockade waters off Beira in an effort to stop oil reaching Rhodesia where Ian Smith had declared independence from London. But with Prime Minister Harold Wilson having slashed the defence budget, it was no easy task and Downing Street learned that 800 000 litres of crude a day was getting through.

Firing on foreign vessels could be seen as an act of war, the French who had a larger navy in the region refused to help and Lisbon wouldn’t let the British ships dock for fuel or supplies.

But to save political face and against the advice of its own defence chiefs, London spent millions of pounds keeping what ships it could on patrol until the government called it off in 1975.

Now Mozambique has taken delivery of its own fishing boats and a fleet of patrol craft in a deal that angered the World Bank and other donors, with reports of illicit loans and money gone missing.

The financial rift appears to have been mended, but while the French-built vessels comply with EU standards and have been certified by the government in Maputo as fit for purpose, there is a new row over how many are on active service.

With a majority of the population living near the coast, Mozambicans are dependent on the sea for food, but as foreign trawlers have multiplied, those fishing from the beach say their catch has fallen.

Poverty and hunger have been key in support for Renamo rebels, and President Nyusi has pledged to improve living conditions in the north and centre of the country where an estimated 80 per cent get by on less than $2 a day.

Oil and gas have drawn investors from India, China and the USA, but locals have yet to see the benefit, or the much-publicised boats chasing poachers from their channel.

CIA reports describe northerners as living in “marginalised Muslim communities” and there is concern in Washington that the south-east coast of Africa could become a recruiting ground for terror.

UN reports put Mozambique’s loss of fish to poachers at well over $60m per year, while war and the collapse of coastal shipping has made it difficult to move produce down a long, thin country to markets in the south.

Deployment of its own boats could supply fish to towns along the coast, with the rest sold to boost foreign earnings in a country where, at just $12bn, GDP is smaller than one of the richer suburbs in Johannesburg.

But the “interceptors” or patrol craft will be need to establish sovereignty.

Will the channel regain its crown from the days before Suez? Unlikely. But peace and a resurrection of coastal shipping along with Mozambique’s new-found capacity to guard and fish its waters could be a sea change.

Add the energy finds and a rising oil price and it’s a long time since the future looked this good.

Source: The Zimbabwean