MAPUTO (Reuters) - Mozambique turned 40 on Thursday, mixing formal military parades with exuberant African dancing as it turned from a generation of civil war and poverty to look to a more prosperous future, powered, it hopes, by vast amounts of natural gas.
In contrast to the early years of independence from Portugal in 1975, when the challenge was navigating the choppy waters of the Cold War, the southern African nation’s leaders now face the burden of the growing expectations of its 26 million people.
Underpinning the national optimism in this $17 billion economy is the prospect of massive revenues from an estimated 180 trillion cubic feet of off-shore gas - enough to supply Germany, Britain, France and Italy for nearly two decades.
The deposits in the northern Rovuma Basin, near the border with Tanzania, may be a decade from production but the impact of foreign investment the IMF says could amount to $100 billion is already being felt.
“The future is in our hands,” President Felipe Nyusi said in an address at Maputo’s national stadium, after a fly-by from one of the military’s few air-worthy jets.
“Mozambique has all the conditions to emerge within the next decade as a united and economically strong country.”
The economy has posted 7 percent growth for the last five years, spurring a construction boom in a capital that is quickly shedding its reputation as a sleepy, beachside backwater.
Shiny new headquarters of foreign energy and engineering firms sit alongside mobile phone shops and high-end boutiques, jostling for space on bustling city-center streets with branches of European and South African banks.
But there are side-effects to the boom that may pose difficulties for the country and its guardians in the former Marxist Frelimo party.
Few jobs are being created beyond the narrow confines of hydrocarbon development, and the surge in the country’s metical currency resulting from its gas prospects is hobbling other more labor-intensive sectors such agriculture, manufacturing and tourism.
“PRESIDENT WITH A HEART”
With the post-independence civil war now a distant memory after a 1992 peace deal, ordinary Mozambicans - who earn on average just $650 a year - are hungry for change.
“The war is gone and we are feeling the benefits of peace. I believe there will be more changes in future, more schools, more hospitals and more jobs,” said 29-year-old Catija Mahomed, who ekes out a living selling car parts on a dusty Maputo roadside.
“I‘m not a mother yet but when I have a baby, I want him or her to go to school and to grow up to be someone. Who knows - perhaps even to be president?” she said.
Yet at Thursday’s independence celebrations, which made much of the need for national unity, officials from the opposition Renamo party were conspicuous by their absence.
The party that was Frelimo’s foe in the 15-year civil war accuses its ruling counterpart of autocracy and narrow self-interest and routinely boycotts parliament.
While a return to war is out of the question, Renamo has stirred up trouble over the last two years with sporadic guerrilla raids on roads and towns in its central heartlands that at one point effectively divided the country.
Against this backdrop Nyusi - the first northern president - has presented himself as a “leader with a heart.” It’s an image that is gaining traction given the marked change of approach from his predecessor Armando Guebuza, nicknamed “4x4” for his steamrolling style.
Nyusi has also pushed for more openness from a notoriously secretive administration. Just last week the finance minister admitted in parliament that much of an $850 million bond ear-marked for a state tuna-fishing fleet - Mozambique’s first foray into the international capital markets - had actually been spent on maritime defense.
But with their eyes on billions of dollars from gas sales by 2025, Mozambicans are going to be demanding much more than just transparency from Nyusi, who now carries all their hopes for a prosperous future.
The country’s leading independent daily newspaper Noticias described Nyusi in an editorial on Thursday as having “room for more than 20 million Mozambicans who are hopeful that their desires and concerns will be addressed.”
London-based Chatham House think-tank this week warned however that the discovery of rich resources in a country was a reason for caution.
“Despite the rhetoric, experience shows that – in general – good things happen slowly, while bad things can happen very fast,” it said.
Additional reporting by Manuel Macari; Editing by Sophie Walker