Mozambique: Independence and a Dirty War

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Mozambique: Independence and a Dirty War

The Conflict

Mozambique was a colony of Portugal for more than two hundred years. Following Mozambique's independence from Portugal in the early 1970s, the white minority governments of Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and South Africa, began to fund and direct a campaign to destabilize Mozambique. Brutal warfare and massive destruction of the infrastructure left Mozambique impoverished.


  • Rhodesia and South Africa did not want successful black governments in neighboring states, because it undermined their claim that Africans could not govern themselves.
  • FRELIMO turned to the Soviet Union for funding following independence, declaring itself to be a socialist organization.
  • Some Western nations, including the Untied States, provided funding for the South African-sponsored RENAMO, as a way of fighting the socialist FRELIMO.

Modern Mozambique has been shaped by many forces, chief among these being its thirty-year war. The war began in 1962 and ended in 1992. Aspects of the conflict continue to impact Mozambique. Throughout the country, more than ten million antipersonnel mines make it risky to farm the large, fertile tracts of land. The mines continue to kill and maim long after the battles of the Cold War have ended. In addition, man-made famine, resulting in thousands of deaths, is a very recent memory. The foreign-sponsored "civil war" is officially over, but its effects linger on the Mozambican people, who struggle to move beyond the violent past and carve out a future.

Historical Background

Colonial Rule

Portugal was Africa's longest-standing European colonial power. Prior to their arrival on the continent, Arab princes had established minor colonial empires along East Africa's coast stretching from Mogadishu in Somalia, down to Sofala in Mozambique. When Vasco da Gama circumnavigated Africa on his way to India (1497-98), he was surprised to discover well-ordered Swahili towns with merchants who regularly held fairs to secure gold and ivory from African kings in the interior. Chinese and Arab ships filled these ports, and merchants from India were common visitors. Portugal supplanted the Arabs and established its rule over this lucrative trade in order to use African gold and ivory to buy spices in Goa, India, which they then sold in Europe.

Muslims invaded Spain and Portugal in 700 a. d. They ruled these areas until the early 1400s, when Portugal attacked the Muslims both in Europe and in Africa to regain control of its territory. The Portuguese were aware of Christian African kingdoms known as the Lost Kingdom of Prestor John. They circumnavigated Africa to find these kingdoms, enlisting the support of African Christian allies and attacking the Muslims from the rear, as well as through frontal assaults in Europe. The conquest yielded an additional benefit of a shorter trade route to the spices of India and the Far East. Thus, Portugal replaced Mozambique's Arab and Swahili Muslim merchants as local powers.

Portugal established a base at the city of Sofala, Mozambique, as early as 1506. Portugal ruled Mozambique from its Indian Ocean stronghold in Goa, India, until 1752, when it finally set up a Mozambican administration. Portuguese adventurers known as sertanejos, or backwoodsmen, explored the African interior. The sertanejos made contact with the powerful African emperor known as Munhumutapa, who controlled the gold mines in the interior. They befriended him and helped him subdue his enemies. The king of Portugal was subsequently granted land by the Munhumutapa, which was leased to Portuguese settlers for three generations at a time. The leaseholder had rights over the labor of the Africans living on the land as well. The prazero, or leaseholder, was obligated to defend the king's land and to do so, he developed a slave army. Slave soldiers were known as chikunda. They protected mines and trade routes under the command of their Portuguese master.

The Africans produced the food that they consumed; the prazos only produced what was needed, while siphoning resources. No internal market for agriculture developed, since developing large agricultural plantations made no sense without lucrative markets. The prazeros made money by waging war against African chiefs. The prazos captured and sold so many Africans that, eventually, gold mines were forced to shut down for lack of labor. Even military functions were often contracted out to enterprising African chiefs.

The prazeros operated like African chiefs, often marrying local women and creating mestico, mulatto or mixed black and white, children, who inherited their leases. The king of Portugal tried to halt the Africanization of his subjects by decreeing that females of the family would inherit all property exclusively, on condition that they marry a white male. Few white Portuguese males took up the offers of these rich mestico donas, mistresses. Thus, most prazeros ignored the king and married into other prazero families or sought mates from Goa in India. The Europeans became Africanized, though the prazero was meant to introduce Portuguese blood, culture, and values into Mozambique's interior.

Portuguese colonialism produced little economic development. Instead, great emphasis was placed on teaching Africans to speak Portuguese and on converting them to Catholicism. Many Mozambicans converted to Roman Catholicism during the colonial era, yet only thirty percent of Mozambique's population in the late 1990s were Christian; ten percent were Muslim, and sixty percent continued to follow indigenous religions. Portugal defended its colonial legacy by arguing that its policies toward Africans were liberal and enlightened. Portugal claimed that any African who learned its language, accepted its religion, and earned academic degrees would be accepted as an equal of the Portuguese. Africans who thought like, behaved like, talked like, and shared Portuguese values and beliefs were known as assimilados. Lack of money, however, often kept Africans from attending schools to learn how to assimilate. Most Africans considered the Portuguese policy a sham or a hoax.

Not surprisingly therefore, at the time of independence in 1975, ninety-five percent of Mozambique's African population was illiterate. There was one black doctor in the entire country, and in a nation that depended on agriculture—an estimated eighty-four percent of Mozambicans are farmers—there was only one black agronomist. More damaging to Portugal's colonial record of African uplift is the fact that out of four thousand university students only forty were African at independence. Most airports, telephone lines, roads, dams, ports, and power lines supported export-oriented industries that primarily profited the tiny Portuguese minority who ruled Mozambique. Not a single railroad or road linked north and south Mozambique. Roads ran east and west and took people and goods from the interior to the sea and then to Portugal or to formerly white-ruled South Africa. No effort was make to link the country internally and to foster national development.

Anti-Colonial Unrest

Anti-colonial unrest began in the 1950s with peaceful protest. After World War II Portugal became a staunch member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a mutual defense organization of Western European nations. Portugal gained membership in NATO despite its being ruled by a fascist government that brutally oppressed both the people of Portugal and the people in Portugal's colonies, including Mozambique. The country tried to hold on to its colonies throughout the 1960s, even after Britain and France granted independence to most of their former African colonies. Peaceful protests and petitions for independence were repeatedly ignored. Mozambique's African nationalists decided that they had to fight for freedom. Failure of peaceful challenge, not ideology, led patriots to launch guerrilla warfare in the 1960s.

Most of the leaders of the independence movement in Mozambique were assimilados. White liberals worked closely with both assimilados and many mestico Mozambicans who looked forward to independence. African resistance in Mozambique was unified, unlike in Angola where three African movements fought one another for control of the government. When unarmed farmers protested Portugal's African agricultural policies they were murdered in cold blood at Mueda in June 1960. Such atrocities were not reported in the international press, but they occurred with increasing frequency. This Portuguese "culture of violence" radicalized young Mozambican Africans. One member of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) was reported by Eduardo Mondlane in The Struggle for Mozambique as saying: "I saw how the colonialists massacred the people at Mueda. That was when I lost my uncle. Our people were unarmed when they began to shoot them. I was determined to never again be unarmed in the face of Portuguese violence."

Portugal's International and State Police (PIDE) infiltrated and destroyed all of the African independence organizations that formed inside of Mozambique between 1940 and 1960. As a result, most of the prominent leaders of Mozambique's independence movements lived outside of the country during the 1960s. Eduardo Mondlane lived in the United States and married an American wife before he and his wife moved to Tanzania. He headed FRELIMO from Tanzania's capital, Dar es Salaam, until a rival faction of FRELIMO killed him with a letter bomb supplied by PIDE. The current president of Mozambique, Joachim Chissano, worked and studied in the United States, as well as in eastern and western Europe. Likewise, Mozambique's first president after independence, Samora Machel, lived in colonial capitals and neighboring independent African nations while struggling to liberate his country.

The Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO)

Mozambique's African émigré population supported independence across Africa throughout the 1960s. Most of Mozambique's exiles were intellectuals who talked of an independent Mozambique. Julius Nyerere of Tanzania gave the émigrés money, housing, arms, training, intelligence support, and encouragement. Nyerere and Mondlane encouraged the three largest Mozambican independence movements to unite, forming FRELIMO in 1962. Within FRELIMO there was considerable debate about objectives and tactics. Mondlane fought to make the movement multiracial, while others wanted a purely African movement. The success with armed struggle in Guinea-Bissau led to a debate over armed struggle versus peaceful change, and incidents such as the massacre at Muede tipped the balance in favor of armed struggle. Some FRELIMO leaders wanted a capitalist independent nation, while others favored socialism. With Mondlane's assassination in 1969 and the rise of Samora Machel, FRELIMO committed itself to socialism.

On September 25, 1964, armed struggle exploded at Chai in northern Mozambique, when FRELIMO attacked an isolated Portuguese garrison. Portugal quickly rounded up and arrested over 1,500 FRELIMO insurgents in southern Mozambique, almost destroying the organization. At the same time, Portugal was fighting wars in Guinea-Bissau and Angola. FRELIMO took advantage of Portugal's thinly spread forces to launch attacks on Portuguese forces.

Portugal exploited the fact that most of FRELIMO's leadership was mestico originating in the south, turned the Makua and Makonde ethnic groups there against FRELIMO. Such divide-and-conquer tactics worked extremely well. A civil conflict, instigated by PIDE, broke out among Africans, and FRELIMO appeared weak in 1968 and 1970. To win over the African population, FRELIMO soft-peddled its socialist ideology and stopped criticizing African beliefs in witchcraft and other traditional practices; in the past these beliefs would have condemned Africans in FRELIMO-controlled zones to rigorous "re-education" programs. This new approach helped FRELIMO win over African peasants, many of whom FRELIMO's leaders considered to be superstitious and backward. FRELIMO even began to recruit witch-doctors as military commanders because many peasants had faith in the traditional healers and were willing to follow them.

Portugal responded by creating aldeamentos, or protected villages. Africans were rounded up and forced to move into fortified villages guarded by Portuguese soldiers. These villages were designed to stifle FRELIMO recruiting efforts, permit Portugal to provide social and other services to peasants inexpensively, and establish a defense perimeter around Portuguese-controlled areas. Portugal placed sixty thousand soldiers in the field to fight against ten thousand FRELIMO fighters. Of these soldiers, forty thousand were African troops under the command of white and assimilado officers. FRELIMO troops fought a hit-and-run war. They attacked Portuguese troops and African self-defense units. When large rockets, provided by the Soviet Union, were available FRELIMO used these to attack large Portuguese military bases and Portuguese-controlled towns.

FRELIMO pushed its troops further south, eventually threatening Vila Pery District and the white settlers south of the Zambezi. The war came close to Beira and major population centers. Portuguese troops were so thinly spread that they lost their effectiveness and FRELIMO stepped up attacks. They used sympathetic Africans to infiltrate farms, factories, and government installations. Portugal overreacted by destroying peasant villages and forcing people to move into aldeamentos. This led to a dramatic growth in FRELIMO membership in areas that previously had been indifferent.


The African guerrilla war put enough pressure on Portugal to contribute to the Carnation Revolution (1974-75). Many soldiers in the Portuguese army discovered that the African guerrillas were not demons, terrorists, or villains, but freedom-loving patriots and the Portuguese returned home and struggled against the rulers of Portugal, such as President António de Oliveira Salazar and his successor Marcello Caetano. The soldiers overthrew what they viewed as a common enemy and granted their African "fellow sufferers" their freedom. The guerrilla war was an important catalyst which made independence possible.

The European Community was another factor that contributed to Mozambique's independence. By 1970 Portugal had earned associate status membership in the European organization and was progressing toward full membership. Young Portuguese began directing their ambitions of economic development toward Europe. Youth began to view Portugal's colonies as failed enterprises that should be jettisoned. Moreover, full membership in the European Community demanded that Portugal divest itself of its colonies by granting them independence. High tariff barriers and protected colonial markets were not compatible with membership in the European Community. The vision of Portugal's leader, António de Oliveira Salazar, of an international Portuguese nation in which the colonies became states, died as Portugal integrated its economy with Western industrial nations.

Mozambique was granted independence on June 25, 1975, and Samora Moises Machel became its first president. Machel established a single party state ruled by FRELIMO. Machel was a pragmatist: He adopted socialism to please his patron, Julius Nyerere, of Tanzania. Nyerere had armed, trained, and supported Mozambique's fighters when few had faith in their ability to win their freedom. Machel's socialism also symbolized opposition to the continuation of colonial policy. In addition, Machel believed that to build and maintain modern institutions, such as schools, hospitals, banks, and corporations, that were needed to improve the lives of Mozambique's majority, the government needed to adopt socialism. The reality was that Machel needed money and the West would not fund Mozambique's development. By claiming to be a socialist he hoped to secure this money from the Eastern Bloc. The Eastern Bloc was the group of communist countries allied with the Soviet Union at that time. The Eastern Bloc's military support and the armaments it supplied delighted Machel, but he was disappointed that so little was offered for economic development.

Machel once observed that Britain sent members of its upper and middle classes to settle in and improve many of its colonies and thus British colonies thrived and flourished. These colonists were generally well educated, enterprising, and understood how to build successful businesses. By contrast, Portugal sent its lowest classes to Africa. These Europeans often could not read and write themselves, so they did not see why Africans needed education. Moreover, they took not only top jobs, but also semi-skilled and even unskilled jobs, leaving only the lowest types of work for Africans. They were ignorant, wasteful, and often corrupt. Failing to understand or appreciate notions such as efficiency and forward planning, they left a terrible legacy for Mozambique's African majority. Mozambicans were bitter and discontent for good reason. Portugal offered them little beyond back-breaking, underpaid, under-appreciated work that resembled slavery. The African tradition of cadonga, or buying and selling on the thriving black market, was, and remains, a means of creating a second economy that met their needs and allowed them to express their entrepreneurial skills, despite being denied opportunities to become capitalists in the official economy.

Civil War (1972-92)

The second war was a Mozambican version of the Cold War, when the ideological conflict between Western nations and the Soviet Union led to conflict throughout the world. In Africa the Cold War was costly and deadly, as millions died in defense of ideologies that few truly understood. What Mozambicans really wanted was the right to determine their own futures and free themselves from the worst forms of exploitation. Instead, they found themselves ensnared in armies, fighting deadly, dirty "proxy wars." In the United States, Europe, and the former Soviet Union confrontation led to blustering and threats. In Africa and elsewhere, confrontation led to death, destruction of vital infrastructure, and suffering.

Apartheid—legalized racial segregation and separation—was the policy used by an Afrikaner white minority to dominate both the South African English and the African majority. The apartheid regime of South Africa clung to power. It feared that allowing an African regime to thrive next door in Mozambique would undermine its argument that Africans were incapable of self-rule. The Afrikaners therefore attempted to thwart African independence along their borders. When they failed to stop Mozambique's majority from gaining independence, they resorted to a deliberate policy of destabilization to discredit the regime. The main instrument of destabilization was the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO).

RENAMO was first created by Ian Smith's white minority rulers in Southern Rhodesia. Robert Mugabe and African freedom fighters used liberated areas within Mozambique as staging grounds for attacks against Ian Smith's white minority regime. Southern Rhodesia's army believed that its best defense was to divide Africans, create internal disputes, suspicion and doubt, destroy their confidence and African unity, and create a civil war that would turn Africans against each other. The Africans overwhelming numerical majority would thus be neutralized and cease to be a threat to continued minority rule in Rhodesia and South Africa. The key to this "dirty little war" was to turn the African peasants against the freedom fighters. After all, it was the peasants who made guerrilla warfare successful by feeding, housing, hiding, and sympathizing with freedom fighters.

In Mozambique, white Rhodesian army intelligence officers—like the Portuguese before them—discovered that FRELIMO sought to modernize agriculture in liberated zones. FRELIMO attacked selected aspects of traditional African culture that they felt kept Africans from advancing. They labeled traditional healers witch-doctors and ridiculed their practices. Many healers were so shamed that they went into hiding for long periods. Anthropologist Christian Gefray argued that FRELIMO alienated other peasants by forcing them to abandon traditional family homesteads and move miles away to live and work on state-owned collective farms. As the war became more violent these state farms were targeted and, therefore, often unsafe. RENAMO recruited among such disaffected peasants. As the civil war grew worse peasant living standards fell and RENAMO's recruitment rose.

The Rhodesian army recruited and trained this discontented, but influential, element. Rhodesia's chief intelligence officer, Ken Flower, claims that he created RENAMO to punish Mozambique for supporting Zimbabwean liberation forces. Zimbabwe was the name given to Southern Rhodesia after its independence. Flower hoped that RENAMO would force FRELIMO to cut off support for Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe. The preferred technique was sabotage. Flower's goal, stated in Martin and Johnson's Destructive Engagement: Southern Africa at War, was,

to disrupt the population and disrupt the economy which really comes under sabotage, to come back with decent recruits at that stage and hit FRELIMO bases they came across. And if they came across ZANLA [Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army] they were to take them on.

From the beginning RENAMO was thus a creation of white and black mercenaries. It was not a movement indigenous to Mozambique, and it lacked an ideology or purpose other than to frustrate the legitimate aspirations of black Africans. The leader of RENAMO, Afonso Dhlakama, sanctioned atrocities as a way of undermining the community. RENAMO would sweep through villages, killing the mature men and women and capturing young boys and girls. The children were forced to kill or they would face beatings, starvation, or even execution—they fought to stay alive. These child soldiers became tools of Dhlakama. Drugs were freely distributed to the child troops. Boy soldiers as young as twelve were recruited by force, then made to commit atrocities against their own families. Young girls were sexually exploited. RENAMO leaders used misleading information and outright disinformation to manipulate the children.

RENAMO decimated the country and its people by burning cooperative farms, destroying bridges and railway lines, killing educated doctors and teachers who worked with FRELIMO, and destroying schools, hospitals, and any institution that would advance Mozambicans. Factories were burned to the ground. No attempt was made by RENAMO to build a single bridge, school, hospital, or factory. Its Rhodesian and South African masters wanted to show Mozambican peasants that FRELIMO could neither protect them nor provide needed services. When Robert Mugabe won the war against Ian Smith for Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) independence, white Rhodesian intelligence officers turned RENAMO over to BOSS, South Africa's intelligence service; the South African Defense Force and its Military Intelligence Department (MID) took over arms supplies and training for RENAMO in 1980. Right-wing elements in the United States and the United Kingdom also provided funding for RENAMO because they did not like FRELIMO's socialist stance and the fact that the Soviet Union financed FRELIMO.

Emboldened by Ronald Reagan's election to president in the United States, RENAMO attacked Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) offices in Mozambique. Such raids failed to weaken support for FRELIMO or the ANC. With South African and U.S. support, RENAMO's fighting forces grew from one thousand to eight thousand. Since FRELIMO needed railroads to export products and earn money from trade, RENAMO destroyed them. RENAMO destroyed eighteen hundred schools, preventing more than three hundred thousand children from receiving a basic education. RENAMO destroyed one out of every four hospitals and clinics. It looted and vandalized, and forcibly recruited Africans to serve as porters to carry their loot to safe havens in Malawi.

Dhlakama is from the Ndau ethnic group, near Zimbabwe's border. In this area of Mozambique RENAMO was strong and set up "areas of control" where peasants were forcibly resettled to safe areas around RENAMO military bases. Peasants farmed their traditional family homesteads, but they were expected to feed RENAMO troops without compensation. Though Ndau was the language used widely by all tribes in this zone and many of RENAMO's most loyal foot soldiers were Ndau, RENAMO was not a tribal organization. Its leaders came from many different Mozambican ethnic groups. RENAMO did not make appeals to new recruits based on ethnic loyalty or identification, rather it offered new recruits opportunities to rob, loot, and make themselves wealthy.

Recent History and the Future

President Samora Machel and FRELIMO launched a diplomatic initiative. Machel visited British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, and Thatcher introduced Machel to U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Reagan was impressed with Machel and subsequently ordered the United States to oppose right-wing efforts within South Africa to overthrow the Mozambican leader. Mozambique, therefore, became an exception to Reagan's "constructive engagement" policy that normally supported the white minority apartheid regime then in power in South Africa and its efforts to influence politics in its surrounding area. Machel and South Africa signed the Nkomati Accord in 1984. Machel pledged to oust ANC militants from Mozambique, and South Africa promised to stop arming, training, and funding RENAMO and destabilizing Mozambique.

Right-wing South African soldiers, however, never intended to honor this agreement. They disagreed with the soft line taken by moderate South African diplomats. Documents uncovered in a raid on Casa Banana revealed what P.W. van der West-huizen, head of MID for the South African military, was reported by James Ciment in Angola and Mozambique: Postcononial Wars in Southern Africa to have told Dhlakama, "We, the military, will continue to give them [RENAMO] support without the consent of our politicians in a massive way so they can win the war." Machel was hoodwinked and humiliated. Nyerere of Tanzania and other African presidents were angry and significantly increased military aid and training to FRELIMO.

Thousands of Tanzanian troops appeared in Mozambique to defend transportation corridors and support FRELIMO. The United States dropped its ban on bilateral aid to helped Machel, who was able to reschedule Mozambique's debt. The United States and the International Monetary Fund made Mozambique adhere to strict regulations. Its currency was devalued and efforts to make consumer goods available in the countryside were curtailed. Peasants wanted more consumer goods in return for producing more crops for consumption and export. As production rose, FRELIMO collected more taxes, which it used to step up military efforts against RENAMO. By 1990 Mozambique was the world's poorest country with a per capita income of only US$80. In comparison, Somalia's per capita income was nearly twice as much. Aid programs that flooded Mozambique with free food undermined peasant farmers and reduced the country's sovereignty by making it dependent on foreign aid. In the midst of the chaos, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), especially aid organizations, moved into Mozambique to help. The NGOs hired the best and brightest people away from FRELIMO by offering higher salaries. Some analysts claimed that Western NGOs were "re-colonizing" Mozambique.

President Machel was killed in a mysterious plane crash in 1986. Joachim Chissano became president and he adhered closely to World Bank and IMF guidelines for Mozambique, resulting in Mozambique achieving the world's highest economic growth rate. On October 4, 1992, President Chissano, the head of FRELIMO, and Afonso Dhlakama, leader of RENAMO, signed a peace accord in Rome, Italy. The treaty was enforced by more than twenty thousand U.N. troops, who insured that all weapons were surrendered to the United Nations, and all armed groups were disbanded within six months. United Nations troops left Mozambique in January of 1995. The country became a model economic state until devastating floods in the late 1990s destroyed years of progress.


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Dallas L.Browne


700 a. d. Muslims invade and colonize Portugal and Spain.

1400s Portugal attacks and gains independence from its Muslim rulers, and it supplants them in Mozambique.

1506 Portugal establishes a city at Sofala, Mozambique.

1962 The Mozambique Liberation Front, FRELIMO, is formed in support of Mozambican independence.

1962 FRELIMO attacks a Portuguese garrison at Chai.

1974-75 The Carnation Revolution in Portugal leads Mozambique to independence.

1975 Mozambique is granted independence and Samoa Moises Machel becomes president.

1962-92 Warfare erupts between FRELIMO and the Rhodesian and South African-sponsored Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO).

1984 Mozambique and South Africa sign the Nkomati Accord. Machel agrees to oust African National Congress militants from Mozambique, and South Africa agrees to stop arming and funding RENAMO and destabilizing Mozambique. The South African military, however, continues to support RENAMO.

1986 Machel dies in an airplane crash. Joachim Chissano becomes president.

1992 Chissano and Afonso Dhlakama sign a peace accord.

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Mozambique: Independence and a Dirty War

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