When the United Nations Operation in Mozambique (ONUMOZ) officially ended in 1994, it was widely considered a peacekeeping success story. After two years in operation, it had brought to an end a long-running and vicious civil war and guided Mozambique through its first democratic elections.

Over 20 years later, the country suffers from a low-grade version of that earlier conflict. A number of officials from the former rebel movement the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) have been assassinated, presumably by government agents. In response, RENAMO has carried out attacks on highways and rail lines that have caused multiple casualties. Major scandals involving corruption and drug smuggling implicate senior officials in a government that has been completely dominated by one political party, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), since independence was obtained in 1975. 

There is no shortage of individuals and institutions to blame for Mozambique’s situation, but one thing is clear: if it continues on its present course, the UN’s accomplishments will have bought only a temporary pause in a humanitarian disaster and the efficacy of peacekeeping itself will be once again questioned.


ONUMOZ was considered a success because it fulfilled its mandate in only two years and cost a mere half billion dollars (although billions more were spent on separate humanitarian assistance initiatives during its course). The operation had a complex mandate—namely, to monitor and verify the cease-fire and to oversee the separation and concentration of forces, their demobilization, and the collection, storage, and destruction of weapons. It provided security for transport corridors and other vital infrastructure as well as for the peacekeepers themselves. It managed the disbanding of irregular armed groups, provided technical assistance and monitoring for the country’s first democratic elections, and coordinated humanitarian assistance operations. Overall, ONUMOZ disarmed about 76,000 fighters, collected 155,000 weapons, and helped train 10,000 soldiers for the new, unified national army. It also helped some five million refugees and displaced persons return to their homes. Moreover, the departure of the peacekeepers did not signal an end to international assistance. Since the conclusion of ONUMOZ, the country has received an average of over $1.7 billion annual development aid.

Perhaps not surprising, in the early 1990s, Mozambique was looked on as peacekeeping success story, in contrast to the failures in Angola and Somalia. Economic growth, which averaged over seven percent during the last decade, has remained strong, and presidential elections have been held on time every five years since the first one in 1994.

Ironically, the peacekeeping efforts in Mozambique have been a victim of their own success. The wealth of positive indicators gave the international community incentive to ignore the underlying causes of the conflict—the centralization of economic and political power in the hands of one small group and the lack of true reconciliation between the former enemies. As a result, tensions between RENAMO and FRELIMO continued. Over the years, there have been a number of violent incidents. In recent months, the situation has grown much worse. Government forces have carried out attacks on civilians, according to one investigation. There have even been reports of mass graves. Some of those in RENAMO, in turn, have reverted to guerrilla tactics aimed at disrupting the economy in the central and northern parts of the country. Understanding the origins of the conflict requires examining the history of Mozambique’s decolonization and early independence. 


Historically, Portuguese colonies were among the countries in Africa least prepared for independence. Lisbon never saw it as necessary, or even desirable, to allow the local population access to education. After the 1974 coup against Portugal’s Estado Novo regime, one of the first steps of the military government was to grant independence to its colonies, which had only a handful of college graduates among their population. This resulted in institutional weaknesses that these countries have yet to overcome four decades later.

After decolonization, Mozambique’s government was taken over by FRELIMO, which up to that point had been a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla movement. Its heavy-handed rule gave birth to RENAMO, whose opposition was supported by the white-ruled regimes in Rhodesia and later South Africa. Cold War rivalries fueled the conflict as well. U.S. conservatives, including Republican Senator Jesse Helms, saw RENAMO as an anticommunist freedom force like the contras in Central America. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, provided aid to FRELIMO. The resulting war would cost the lives of tens of thousands of Mozambican civilians and force hundreds of thousands more to flee as refugees to neighboring countries or to become internally displaced.

By 1992, both sides had exhausted themselves and finally signed a peace treaty. But peace driven by military stalemate is not the same as true reconciliation. Unlike in South Africa, in Mozambique there was no truth commission, and the atrocities committed by both sides continued to fuel distrust and resentment between the parties. FRELIMO continued to dominate both the government and the media and allowed very little political space for any other party to occupy. Government control of the economy meant that there was also very little economic space available for those not well connected to FRELIMO. 

Peace driven by military stalemate is not the same as true reconciliation.

The only real foothold the opposition has in Mozambique’s government is in the legislative branch. Following the last elections in 2014, RENAMO held 89 of the 250 seats in parliament, FRELIMO kept a solid majority of 144, and a new political party, the Democratic Movement of Mozambique (MDM), captured the remaining 17. The parliament has strengthened its role over the years, but still not enough to act as a check and balance on the power of the president. Legislation is almost always drafted by the executive branch, and every vote’s outcome is along party lines. Legislators have few resources, particularly when it comes to the capacity for research and writing new proposals.

Parliamentarians are elected according to the percentage of votes their party receives in each of Mozambique’s ten provinces and the city of Maputo. Their first loyalty is therefore to their political party and not their constituents. The legislators are not even provided the funds to have an office in the provinces they supposedly represent, although they are required to have a home there.

There has been some power sharing at the local level, with the MDM and RENAMO holding seats in provincial assemblies and a small number of mayoral offices. These local government representatives have no real resources at their disposal, however. The provincial governors do, but thus far FRELIMO has refused to relinquish the power of the president to name all of those officials and allow instead their popular election.That is because in the last election, RENAMO received the most votes in six of the provinces. 

An abandoned headquarters of Mozambican opposition party RENAMO is pictured in the port city of Beira, November 2013.
Grant Neuenburg / REUTERS

An international mediation effort is currently under way led by a representative of the European Union, Mario Raffaelli. His main goal is to formulate a proposal for decentralization acceptable to both RENAMO and FRELIMO that spells out how provincial governors should be elected or appointed. How he will be able to bridge the gap between the two methods—and indeed whether any change is acceptable to FRELIMO—remains to be seen.

Meanwhile, the situation has continued to deteriorate. Gilles Cistac, a prominent law professor who had been criticized by government-controlled media for supporting the effort at decentralization, was murdered while jogging in central Maputo last year. The killers of Cistac have not been caught, giving the impression that the police and the greater judicial system are largely incapable of delivering justice. And no journalist has forgotten the assassination in 2000 of the Carlos Cardoso in broad daylight in the center of Maputo. Cardoso had dared to engage in investigative reporting of the privatization of the country’s largest bank and money laundering. During their trial, two of those involved in the murder asserted that it had been ordered by the son of the president, Joaquim Chissano. The son died in 2007 while the investigation into his alleged participation was still under way.

In a sense, each of these issues reflects the greatest problem hindering peace in Mozambique: the failure of its political elites to cultivate democracy.


In 1990, as the Cold War was coming to an end, it became clear that more economic assistance to Mozambique would be coming from the West than from the former Soviet Union. At that point, FRELIMO dropped its official embrace of communism and changed the name of the country from the People’s Republic of Mozambique to simply the Republic of Mozambique. As one diplomat put it, however, while FRELIMO’s software may have changed, its hard-wiring had not. It continued to operate as if it were a one-party state and took its election victories as evidence that it did not have to ease or share its political and economic control, a view that continues to this day.

Consider as well that the leadership of FRELIMO (and therefore of Mozambique’s government) is mired in corruption. Armando Guebuza, Mozambique’s president from 2005 to 2015, took a particularly hard line against political opponents and was notoriously corrupt. Among other things, his regime reportedly protected drug barons. Today, the country has become the second-largest narcotics transit point in Africa, after Guinea-Bissau. A leaked cable from the American embassy detailed a prominent businessman who asserted that FRELIMO leaders worked through criminal networks to control licit as well as illegal economic activity. Such actions were restricting the growth of the private sector because of demands for a cut of all substantial business transactions.

Guebuza also left his handpicked successor to deal with the fallout of a major scandal that was revealed to the International Monetary Fund and the donor community only earlier this year. A series of loans amounting to over $2 billion were taken out by the government in secret from European banks supposedly to finance fishing boats and patrol vessels. The loans increased the country’s debt burden by 20 percent, and where the money went remains a mystery. Guebuza was recently called before a parliamentary commission of inquiry to explain the affair, but he left after an hour without speaking to the press and it is unclear where the investigation will go from here. The commission consists of 11 members, ten of whom are from FRELIMO.

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, New York, September 2016.
Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi speaks at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, New York, September 2016. 
Carlo Allegri / REUTERS

In the wake of the loan scandal, the donor community has suspended assistance and has demanded an independent audit of the loan deals. Blatant as the scandal is, however, the level of corruption is not news to the donors. For too long, they have looked the other way. Entities such as the World Bank and the Millennium Challenge Corporation were more interested in shoveling money out the door than in its actual effect. The MCC was intent on ignoring the corruption and signing a second compact with the government but was reportedly dissuaded by the U.S. State Department. The World Bank sees itself as apolitical and has never gotten serious about dealing with what it euphemistically calls “governance” issues, preferring not to offend government officials even when corruption is known to be a serious problem. Other countries justified their continued assistance as a desire to avoid negatively affecting the people in a country where half the population lives below the poverty line.

For its part, RENAMO has also failed to become a democratic political party. It has had only one leader, Afonso Dhlakama, who has kept his control of the party by thwarting any potential rivals. Dhlakama has also refused to stand for a seat in parliament and thus to fully convert himself from a military leader to a political one. Citing fears for his safety, he has insisted on keeping an armed contingent around him for personal protection, which causes periodic clashes with government forces.


It remains to be seen whether Mozambique can avoid slipping further back into a state of war. The political elites seem mainly interested in fighting over the economic spoils of the country’s vast hydrocarbon deposits. Those resources should be used to fuel continued economic growth, but they are more likely to give the political elites additional reasons for the conflict to go on as they try to maximize their share. The failure and corruption of the leaders of both parties will be major obstacles to efforts to move the country ahead.

And the donor community, which provides hundreds of millions of dollars to the government’s budget each year, may well lack the unity and will to push hard enough for those problems to be overcome. Economic aid should be accompanied by an insistence on political reform. If not, Mozambique will continue to be rewarded for its past success even when doing so means ensuring its future failure.

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