Mozambique after 40 years of independence — Part 1: The Path Towards Democracy

Mozambique FlagOn June 25 Mozambique has celebrated 40 years of independence. Since 1975, this Southern African country has been victim of a violent protracted conflict which took away the lives of one million people, has undergone a radical transition from a socialist and centralised system to a liberal-democratic one, has become a model of peacebuilding in the eyes of the international community, and has more recently become an example of how peace may become fragile as long as crucial socio-economic issues are not addressed and as long as democratic change is centred on formal institutional reforms that do not address power distribution more widely.

This and the next two posts briefly highlight three aspects that help understand Mozambique’s peace today. This post offers a brief historical context of independent Mozambique (which you may skip if you are familiar with this country’s history), and  discusses its path towards democracy. The second post will focus on economic and human development and the last one on peace and security.

Brief Historical Background

Soon after becoming independent from Portugal in 1975, Mozambique turned out to be an inspirational example of pots-colonial state. Differently from many new independent countries, Frelimo appeared as a united political force with no significant rivals to contest its national representativeness.[1] Also, the new government took important actions that immediately had a positive impact on health and education.[2] More generally, Frelimo’s vision was based on a revolutionary and emancipatory agenda, which had as central aim not only independence, but also the building of a new system that aimed to end ‘the exploitation of the masses’. The party’s efforts to get closer to the masses reflected this ideal.[3] In 1977 Frelimo openly embraced a Marxist-Leninist agenda. Unfortunately, as with many other examples of revolutions throughout history, this emancipatory goal ultimately converted into the fusion between state and party, consolidating an extremely centralised political system.

The radicalisation of the political agenda ultimately opened the door for a series of regional responses that in the long term compounded the brutal war that followed. In 1977/78 Mozambique suffered the first attacks from what would become Renamo. At the time, these were instigated by then Southern Rhodesia, as a form of retaliation following Mozambique’s implementation of UN sanctions against this country. By 1981/82, Renamo found a major sponsor in the apartheid government of South Africa, becoming a component of the strategy of regional destabilisation pursued by this country. In time, what started as a proxy war progressively gained internal contours. By the mid-1980s, the Mozambican success story had faded while Frelimo had to struggle with the war, natural calamities, and a huge international pressure from Western donors to give up socialism. Internally, the initial popular support for Frelimo also began to fade, not only due to the effects of the war, but also due to its radical stance against tradition and ‘obscurantism’,[4] as well as to the harsh measures taken in the name of economic development, leading often to forced relocation and, ultimately, undermining the needs of the rural population in the name of modernisation.[5]

In 1986 Mozambique finally abandoned socialism and joined the Bretton Woods institutions. The war, however, lasted for another six years. The peace achieved in 1992 was, ultimately, a reflection of the complete exhaustion of the parties’ abilities and resources to keep fighting, coupled with the good will of a series of skilled mediators and massive donors’ investment in the peace process.[6] What came after peace, however, was inevitably influenced by this turbulent attempt to consolidate a modern and functional state. Moreover, it reflected a complex process of social engineering carried by national and international actors and driven by the consolidation of the liberal peace where a strong and centralised system had existed for a long time.

Democracy in Mozambique

Democratisation has been at the centre of the reforms pushed by international actors in peacebuilding contexts. In Mozambique, multiparty democracy was officially established before the peace accords, when Frelimo promulgated a new constitution in 1990. After the peace accords, however, a series of measures were taken to further deepen democratization, as well as important constitutional amendments. I would like comment on three aspects linked to state reform and democratisation in Mozambique that capture important aspects of change and continuity at the same time.

Frist, to which extent have elections contributed to democracy in Mozambique? Current peacebuilding practices focus a lot on elections as, arguably, they represent the means through which people will have their voices heard and different parties will be able to compete on a fair basis. Since 1992 there have been five national elections in Mozambique, and in all of them Frelimo won the presidency and the vast majority of seats in Parliament. ‘What does this state of affairs represent?’ however is a tricky question. First, all elections have been characterised by some kind of irregularities (in different degrees), which have, nonetheless, not changed the results.[7] Second, elections alone say nothing about other important aspects of the political system and how they, in turn, affect the actual spaces for fair competition. In Mozambique, in particular, the party’s ability to mobilise resources is extremely asymmetrical, not least because of the still complex status of the party-state connection that still pervades political setting.[8] In this regard, elections in Mozambique have constituted a double paradox. On the one hand, they have legitimated (at least internationally) a democracy that sustains one only party in power. On the other hand, it has also become a ‘piece of peace’ that has more recently actually fed conflict further undermining the democratic process.

Second, since the Peace Accords Mozambique has also embraced the path towards decentralisation, perceived as an important tool to enhance democracy, precisely because it pushes for power redistribution across different national administrative layers. Formally Mozambique has embraced this agenda, however, in practice, very little power has been distributed and, some would argue, to a certain extent existing reforms have actually led to ‘re-centralisation’.[9] The crucial aspect of such reforms is the ‘gradual approach’ adopted by the government, which translates into the emphasis in the process of administrative deconcentration to most state sub-units (the province and the districts) while slowly increasing the number of municipalities (with devolved political power). The problems of this system have been widely discussed.[10] For one, often districts and municipalities share territories, which makes local administration confusing. Moreover, municipalities, while politically autonomous (there are mayors and municipal assemblies elected regularly), are still subject to the provinces, which have their governor indicated by the central government (i.e., by Frelimo). At the moment, there exist 53 municipalities in Mozambique (the last 10 were created in 2013, when the last municipal elections took place), in contrast to 150 districts (of which, remarkably, 13 were also created in 2013). In summary, while technically spaces have been created that allow opposition parties to rule (and indeed this has happened in the municipal elections), this transition has been designed in such way as to retain political power still very much concentrated, undermining the very purpose of what decentralisations is to bring about. Ultimately this situation has contributed to the renewed clashes between Frelimo and Renamo, as it represented a ‘change that did not significantly change power’.

A third important aspect to assess Mozambique’s democratic condition is related to the role of civil society. There is no doubt that 40 years after independence Mozambicans are much more free to express their voices without fear of punishment or  repression. It is also the case that people feel freer than in the past to belong to any political party they wish.[11] Notably, the number of registered civil society organisations has hugely increased sine 1992[12] and since the institution of the Development Observatories, there has been an important formal channel of communication between the national and provincial governments and civil society. Despite this, it also the case that many informal constraints still exist that are largely related to the dynamics of the dominant party system that still prevails in Mozambique and which make many individuals still think twice before expressing their thoughts or taking a specific course of action.[13] At the same time, while the channel of communication is open, the extent to which civil society influences policy outcome is still disappointing.[14] This ‘consultative’ status attributed to civil society, which is furthermore reproduced in the local councils — created to be a species of ‘local’ civil society in the districts — is ultimately another way to ‘promote change without changing power distribution’.[15]

Truth is, power distribution is not a problem of post-war countries. And to be fair, it took the welfare states much longer than 40 years to reach a place where democracy is a (relatively) stable condition. What Mozambique has achieved in this short time span, and considering the legacy of colonialism, is indeed remarkable. But observing these changes critically is crucial to avoid history repeating itself.

In the next post, I will discuss how these aspects that hinder democracy are strongly linked to the economic and development path pursued in Mozambique.

[1] Although, in fact, there were important manifestations asking for elections to take place — they were nevertheless immediately suppressed. See, e.g., Hall, M. and Young, T. (1997) Confronting Leviathan. Mozambique since Independence. London: Hurst and Company; Manning, C. (2002) The Politics of Peace in Mozambique. Post-Conflict Democratization, 1992–2000. Westport, London, Connecticut: Praeger.

[2] See Hanlon, J. [1984] (1990) Mozambique. The Revolution Under Fire. Fourth impression. London, New Jersey: Zed Books.

[3] One of the main instruments to get closer to the population was the creation of the mass organizations, such as the OMM (Organisation of the Mozambican Woman) and the OJM (Mozambique Youth Movement). See, e.g., Isaacman, A. and Isaacman, B. (1983) Mozambique: from Colonialism to Revolution, 1900-1982. Boulder: Westview, Aldershot, G. Gower; Egerö, B. (1992) Moçambique: os Primeiros Dez Anos da Construção da Democracia. Maputo: Arquivo Histórico de Moçambique.

[4] Geffray, C. (1991) A Causa das Armas. Antropologia da Guerra Contemporânea em Moçambique. Translated by Adelaide Odete Ferreira. Porto: Edições Afrontamento; Cahen, M. (1987) La Revolution Implosée. Études sue 12 ans d’ Indépendence (1975-1987) Paris: L’Harmattan, pp. 137-167.

[5] See, e.g., Chingono, M. F. (1996) The State, Violence and Development: the Political Economy of War in Mozambique, 1975-1992. Aldershot, Brookfield: Ashgate; Geffray, 1991

[6] See, for instance, Hume, C. (1994) Ending Mozambique’s War. The Role of Mediation and Good Offices. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace Press; Alden, C. (2001) Mozambique and the Construction of the New African State. From Negotiations to Nation Building. London, New York: Palgrave.

[7] The most complex elections were the ones in 1999, when Frelimo’s candidate, then President, Joaquim Chissano, won with a margin of only 200 thousand votes, a number by far inferior to the total of invalid votes (500 thousand).

[8] See, e.g., discussion in Weimer, B. (2012) Para Uma Estratégia de Descentralização em Moçambique: ‘Mantendo a Falta de Clareza?’: Conjunturas, Críticas, Caminhos, Resultados. In: Weimer, B. (org.) Moçambique: Descentralizar o Centralismo. Economia Política, Recursos e Resultados. Maputo: IESE, pp. 76-102.

[9] See, for example, Weimer, ibid.; Orre, A. J. (2010) Entrenching the Party-state in the Multiparty Era. Opposition Parties, Traditional Authorities and New Councils of Local Representatives in Angola and Mozambique. Dissertation for the degree of philosophiae doctor (PhD), University of Bergen, Norway, pp. 217-340; Forquilha, S C. (2010) Reformas de Descentralização e Redução da Pobreza num Contexto de Estado Neo-Patrimonial. Um Olhar a Partir dos Conselhos Locais e o OIIL Em Moçambique. In: de Brito, L., Castel-Branco, C. N., Chichava, S. and Francisco, A. (eds.) Pobreza, Desigualdade e Vulnerabilidade em Moçambique. Maputo: IESE, pp. 19-48.

[10] Reaud, B. A. and Weimer, B. (2010) USAID Mozambique Decentralization Assessment. Report prepared for the United States Agency for International Development; Weimer (ed.), ibid; Meneses, M. P. and Santos, B. de S. (2009) Mozambique: the Rise of a Micro Dual State. Africa Development, XXXIV(3-4), pp. 129-166; Orre, ibid.

[11] See periodical surveys conduected by the Afrobarometer Project ( See also Maschietto, Roberta H. (2015 forthcoming). What Has Changed with Peace? Local Perceptions of Empowerment in Mozambique, Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, DOI: 10.1080/15423166.2015.1050797.

[12] Francisco, A. (2009) Sociedade Civil em Moçambique. Expectativas e Desafios. In: de Brito, L., Castel-Branco, C. N., Chichava, S., Francisco, A. (org.) Desafios para Moçambique 2010. Maputo: IESE, pp. 51-105.

[13] Francisco, A. and Matter, K. (2007) Poverty Observatory in Mozambique – Final Report. Maputo: Commissioned Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) Available at: (Accessed: 7 January 2014); Maschietto, ibid.

[14] Francisco & Matter, ibid.; Maschietto, ibid.; Adalima, J. and Nuvunga, A. (2012) Participação da Sociedade Civil na Elaboração do Plano de Ação para a Redução da Pobreza. PARP (2010-2014). Estudo Realizado para o Grupo Informal de Governação. Available at: (Accessed: 3 April 2014).

[15] Maschietto, Roberta H. (2015). Decentralisation and local governance in Mozambique: the challenges of promoting bottom-up dynamics from the top-down. (Article submitted for publication).


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