A child clasps a Mozambique flag in a suburb on the outskirts of the capital Maputo.

Mozambique evidently enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only country to display a modern gun on its national symbol, says Peter Fabricius.

Pretoria - Mikhail Kalashnikov died in Russia on December 23, aged 94. On the same day, several thousand kilometres away about a dozen men armed with machetes and guns attacked tourists while they slept, at the Casa Lisa resort, about 50km north of Maputo, raping at least one woman and robbing and terrorising many others.

The link between these otherwise unconnected events is the famous/infamous AK-47 – Avtomat Kalashnikova – assault rifle. Mikhail Kalashnikov, a former Soviet tank gunner, invented it just after World War II as the new infantry weapon of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries. It has since become one of the most widely used and best-known weapons of its type in history, because of its durability, low production cost, availability and ease of use.

The Soviet military first fired it in anger, apparently, in its brutal suppression of the 1956 Hungarian uprising. Time magazine quotes CJ Chivers, author of a history of the gun, describing it as “repression’s chosen weapon, the rifle of the occupier and police state”.

But of course here in Africa we know it rather as what it later became, the weapon of choice of those resisting occupation and police states, of revolutionaries and liberation fighters. By reputation, if not in fact, the AK-47 could be buried for months then unearthed and fired again immediately, such is the simplicity of its design.

And so the first connection between those two events described above is that the AK-47 – with bayonet fixed – appears on the Mozambique flag. Mozambique evidently enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only country to display a modern gun on its national symbol in this way.

The other link is that the thugs who attacked the Casa Lisa resort were armed with AK-47s, according to news reports. This has reinforced some suspicion that they might have been members of the security forces who are issued with these weapons.

But of course that is not necessarily so as the AK-47 has also become a common weapon of criminals in this part of the world, stolen, bought or otherwise acquired from liberation movements or national armouries. It is probably true that the AK-47 has killed more people than any other weapon, certainly of its type.

Mikhail Kalashnikov should, presumably, not be blamed for what all that his invention has become. One does not really want to quote the National Rifle Association, but its kneejerk response whenever there has been yet another gun atrocity in the US probably does apply here: “Guns don’t shoot people. People shoot people.”

But one can question the wisdom of keeping the AK-47 on your national flag. Moves have been made in Mozambique, especially by the political opposition, to remove it. Competitions have been held to design a new flag.

Yet the ruling Frelimo party has consistently defeated these efforts. One can see why; the AK-47 is a symbol of the liberation struggle against Portuguese colonialism which Frelimo, of course, led.

So it also symbolises the liberation dividend that Frelimo, like other liberation movements, continues to invoke at election time to drum up voter support.

But it can also be seen, from outside, as a symbol of a liberation movement’s failure to transform itself into a normal political party. And that has been a major problem in Africa and elsewhere.

In Mozambique itself we are seeing a resurgence of the civil war between Frelimo and Renamo, no doubt stoked largely by the perennial malcontent Afonso Dhlakama. But also, to a degree, by the fact that Frelimo still behaves a bit like a liberation movement, hoarding power to itself.

One can also see the problem playing out in South Sudan now where Vice-President Riek Machar – in some ways a Dhlakama – has revolted against the government of President Salva Kiir. But Kiir is also partly to blame, for failing to transform his Sudanese Peoples Liberation Army into a normal political party.

If national symbols have any power, which presumably they do, they should symbolise what is useful and constructive to a country, today.

* Peter Fabricius is Independent Newspapers’ foreign editor.