Speaking recently of the leaders attending this year's Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth, one local radio commentator laughingly mentioned in passing the presence of "African despots, who we won't talk about…". Having spent much of the last decade studying some of these very despots, it occurs to me that if we won't talk about them when they are guests of honour in our own country then we never will, and that the silence (and often complicity) of Western nations is exactly what allows them to pillage their homelands with impunity.
While things might be said about any number of the leaders converging on Perth this October – such as how journalists and opposition leaders have been killed and imprisoned by Rwandan President Paul Kagame's government, or the allegations of war crimes against Tamils that still dog Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksamy – my own research has made me familiar with the lesser-known Mozambican president, Armando Guebuza. President Guebuza will be a guest speaker at CHOGM's 'Commonwealth Business Forum' (whose sponsors include many Australian banks, mining companies and universities) – and His Excellency is indeed a businessman.
While most of Mozambique's population of 22 million lives on less than $2 a day, the long-time ruling-party minister Guebuza became one of Mozambique's wealthiest and most successful businessmen during the nation's period of economic 'reform' in the 1990s. Even before his election as President, Mozambican journalists pointed to his business empire (assembled "almost entirely from privatisation and access to state contracts and licences"), with shares in assets such as Mozambican banks, breweries, ports, fisheries, construction, tourism, media, and publishing.
American diplomatic cables revealed by Wikileaks noted that Guebuza was tainted by, "rumors of corruption, both from shenanigans during the privatization of government companies as well as alleged involvement in other illicit activities". Those 'shenanigans' involved powerful Mozambicans stripping the nation's banks of more than $400 million, and the subsequent murders of a banker, an economist, and a journalist, who were investigating those crimes.
While a government minister, Guebuza's firms (such as the Mavimbe fishing company) were awarded preferential treatment by the government; and after his Presidential election in 2004, while Guebuza brought in new laws against corruption, the press helplessly pointed to the President's audacity in exempting himself from the rules regarding conflicts of interest and declaration of assets. Since his election, President Guebuza's financial power has only grown: the web of interests stretching through direct investments, front companies, family and friends leading US diplomats to comment in cables that, "Guebuza's business interests in Mozambique are Legion".
And the President has not been shy about wielding his political power to take a slice of Mozambique's growing economic pie, with insiders claiming that the sale of Mozambique's largest hydro-electric dam brought Guebuza a personal commission of "between $35 and $50 million". Sources claim that the President pressured judges on Mozambique's Constitutional Council to approve a new law liberalising gambling, despite their opposition, because of his personal investments in the industry. Guebuza is also known to use state regulations and influence to ensure that his elite business associates gain a share in any major investments made in the Mozambican economy.
While we may expect African Presidents to be corrupt, to manipulate the economy, to subvert the judiciary, and even to stuff ballot boxes (as the ruling Frelimo Party is accused of doing in the election that brought Guebuza to power), the President goes even further in his violation of international laws and norms. Mozambique is now estimated to be the second-largest drug transit country in Africa, facilitating the shipment of narcotics like cannabis, cocaine and heroin throughout Africa and to markets in Europe and the US. Guebuza is the friend, business partner and political sponsor of several powerful Mozambican entrepreneurs known to be the kingpins of Mozambican narco-trafficking, and who provide a constant stream of kickbacks to government officials.
Thanks to contacts within the government, up-to-and-including President Guebuza, trucks carrying narcotics are regularly waved through inspection points at Mozambique's ports, as their cargo continues its journey to the street gangs and back alleys of the West. While pressure from international diplomats has gradually led to some low-level arrests for drug trafficking in Mozambique, as "a high level law enforcement official" said in discussions with the US embassy, "some fish are too big to catch".
The arrival of foreign leaders in Perth for CHOGM is indeed an appropriate time to examine the records of those visitors, and to ask how the Commonwealth as an institution is working to improve the lives of Commonwealth citizens. Despite the international community claiming that Mozambique has been "an African success story", after two decades of structural adjustment and free trade Mozambique remains in the world's 10 least-developed countries on the UN Human Development Index – a full ten spots below Afghanistan. Hopefully, while President Guebuza addresses the Commonwealth Business Forum, and talks glowingly of the benefits of free trade to Mozambique, those listening will realise that the primary beneficiaries of the economic reforms enforced in Mozambique by the IMF were ruling-party politicians and their families. Perhaps a next step would then be to ask how this situation can be changed.