Mozambican Civil War

Mozambican Civil War
Part of the Cold War

Victim of land mines set up during the war.
Date30 May 1977 – 4 October 1992
(15 years, 4 months and 4 days)
LocationPeople's Republic of Mozambique

Mozambique FRELIMO
 Zimbabwe (from 1980)


Commanders and leaders
Mozambique Samora Machel 
Mozambique Joaquim Chissano
Zimbabwe Robert Mugabe
Tanzania Julius Nyerere
André Matsangaissa 
Afonso Dhlakama
Mozambique 80,000[3]
Zimbabwe 20,000[3]
Tanzania 6,000[4]
Casualties and losses
Mozambique Unknown
Zimbabwe 296 soldiers and 24 pilots killed (1984-1990)
Malawi 100+ killed[1]
Total killed: ~1,000,000 (including from famine)

The Mozambican Civil War began in 1977, two years after the end of the war of independence. It resembled the Angolan Civil War in that both were proxy wars of the Cold War that started soon after the countries gained independence from Portugal. The ruling party, Front for Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), and the national armed forces [5] (FAM), were violently opposed from 1977 by the Mozambique Resistance Movement (RENAMO) which received funding from white-ruled Rhodesia and (later) apartheid South Africa. About one million people died in fighting and from starvation; five million civilians were displaced,[6][7] and many were made amputees by landmines, a legacy from the war that plagued Mozambique for more than two decades afterward. Fighting ended in 1992 and the country's first multi-party elections were held in 1994. However, in 2013, after more than 20 years of peace, RENAMO insurgency resurged[8] and is ongoing,[9] resulting in dozens of deaths.



In the 1950s and 1960s Mozambican resistance to Portuguese colonial rule intensified, with gathering resentment of Portuguese authorities for centuries of exploitation, oppression and neglect. After a successful wave of independence movements in other African territories, Cold War powers and the international community started to urge Portugal to leave its territories in Africa. Sentiment for Mozambique's own national independence developed and on 25 June 1962 several Mozambican anti-Portuguese political groups formed the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania.

FRELIMO's first president was Eduardo Mondlane whose first objective was to forge a broad-based insurgent coalition that could effectively challenge the colonial regime. Anonymous private contributors, many of them friends of Mondlane, financed or secured money for FRELIMO's health, publicity, and educational projects, while military equipment and training came from Algeria, the Soviet Union and China.

On 25 September 1964, FRELIMO soldiers, with logistical assistance from the surrounding population, attacked the administrative post at Chai in the province of Cabo Delgado. This raid marked the beginning of the armed struggle against the Portuguese colonial government. FRELIMO militants were able to evade pursuit and surveillance by employing guerrilla tactics: ambushing patrols, sabotaging communication and railroad lines, and making hit-and-run attacks against colonial outposts before rapidly fading into accessible backwater areas. At the war's outset, FRELIMO had little hope for a military victory; its hope lay in a war of attrition to compel a negotiated independence from Lisbon. Portugal fought its own version of protracted warfare. Had the military succeeded with a minimum of expenditure and casualties, the war could have remained undecided for much longer. In the early 1970s, Operation Gordian Knot and the following Portuguese campaigns were militarily successful in destroying guerrilla forces and support bases in the territory. But the expense in blood and national wealth was more costly for Lisbon than military defeat; the Portuguese army was never destroyed on the battlefield, although amid plummeting morale some of its officers were converted to FRELIMO's communist ideology and hoped to bring it home to Portugal.

On 25 April 1974 the authoritarian regime of Estado Novo had been overthrown in Lisbon, a move that was supported by many Portuguese workers and peasants. The Armed Forces Movement (Movimento das Forças Armadas) in Portugal pledged a return to civil liberties and an end to the fighting in all colonies (or the "overseas provinces"). The rapid chain of events within Portugal caught FRELIMO, which had anticipated a protracted guerrilla campaign, by surprise. It responded quickly to the new situation, and on 7 September 1974 won an agreement from the Armed Forces Movement to transfer power to FRELIMO within a year. When this was made known to the public, several thousand Portuguese colonials fled the newly independent country. As a result of the exodus, the economy and social organization of Mozambique collapsed. On 25 June 1975 Mozambique gained independence from Portugal, with Samora Machel as the Head of State.

Geo-political situation

The geopolitical situation of Rhodesia in 1965. Rhodesia is coloured green and countries friendly to the government (South Africa and Portugal) are shown in purple.
The geopolitical situation of Rhodesia after the independence of Angola and Mozambique in 1975. Rhodesia itself is shown in green, nations friendly to the nationalist guerrillas are shown in orange, and South Africa and its dependency South-West Africa (now Namibia) are coloured purple.

The independence of Mozambique and Angola in 1975 challenged white minority rule in southern Africa. First, the independence wars in Angola and Mozambique demonstrated that even with great military resources it was virtually impossible for a small white minority to guarantee the safety of its members, let alone to exert control over a hostile black population outside of major power centres. The downfall of Portuguese rule gave hope to black resistance in South Africa and Rhodesia. Second, in both countries revolutionary socialist movements gained power. These movements had been cooperating with the black resistance movements in South Africa and Rhodesia, and now openly supported them, as well as offering them a safe haven from where they could coordinate their operations and train new forces. As President Machel put it in a speech in 1975: "The struggle in Zimbabwe is our struggle".[10]

This was especially devastating for white-ruled Rhodesia, whose armed forces lacked the manpower to effectively protect its 800-mile border with Mozambique against entering insurgents. At the same time, the apartheid government and the Smith regime lost Portugal as an ally and with it the tens of thousands of soldiers that had been deployed in the Portuguese colonial wars. Thus South Africa's and Rhodesia's white minorities' position were severely weakened by the events of 1974/75. Subsequently, undermining the newly independent countries' capacity to support their neighboring brothers in arms became South Africa's and Rhodesia's main strategy to counter this new threat. This manifested itself in the Rhodesia-sponsored foundation of RENAMO in 1975 and in South Africa's adoption of the "Total National Strategy".

Internal Mozambican tensions

FRELIMO dissidents

Soon after independence, FRELIMO announced Mozambique's transformation into a socialist one-party-state. This was accompanied by crackdowns on dissidents and the nationalization of important branches.[10] The leaders of the PCN, a new party in favour of multi-party-governance founded by prominent FRELIMO dissidents, were arrested and convicted in show trials. They were later extrajudicially executed.

Furthermore, nationalization of many Portuguese-owned enterprises, fear of retaliation among Whites, and an ultimatum to either choose Mozambican citizenship or leave the country within 90 days, drove the majority of the 370,000 White Portuguese Mozambicans out of the country. This resulted in economic collapse and chaos, as only few Africans had received higher education or even primary education under Portuguese rule.[10]

Overturning of traditional hierarchies and re-education camps

As a revolutionary Marxist party, FRELIMO embarked on overturning traditional governance structures in order to gain full control over every aspect of society. Therefore, local chiefs were ousted and thousands of dissidents were imprisoned in so called re-education camps.[11] Another source of conflict was the continuation of the aldeamento system that the Portuguese had introduced as a means of exerting control and inhibiting contact between the population and the rebels. It forced the rural populace to move into central communal villages, the aldeamentos. FRELIMO hoped that this system would enable the fulfillment of its agricultural development goals, but its implementation alienated the rural population. This was especially the case in central and northern Mozambique, where households are traditionally separated by considerable distances.[12]

Course of the war


From 1976 to 1977, Rhodesian troops repeatedly entered Mozambique in order to carry out operations against ZANLA (Zimbabwe African National Liberation Army) bases tolerated on Mozambican territory by the FRELIMO government.[13] During one such raid, Rhodesian forces freed FRELIMO ex-official André Matsangaissa from a reeducation camp. He was given military training and installed as leader of RENAMO, which had been founded by the Rhodesian secret service shortly before. It was created in Salisbury, Rhodesia under the auspices of Ken Flower, head of the Rhodesian CIO, and Orlando Christina, an ex Portuguese Secret Police operative with long experience in Africa.[3] RENAMO subsequently started operating in the Gorongosa area in order to fight FRELIMO and ZANLA. However, in 1979 Matsangaissa died in RENAMO's unsuccessful first attack on a regional centre (Villa Paiva) and RENAMO was ousted from the area. Subsequently, Afonso Dhlakama became the new leader of RENAMO and formed it into an effective guerilla army.[14]

RENAMO strategies and operations

Having fought the Portuguese using guerrilla strategies, FRELIMO was now forced to defend itself against the very same methods. It had to defend vast areas and hundreds of locations, while RENAMO operated out of a few remote areas, carrying out raids against towns and important infrastructure. Furthermore, RENAMO systematically forced civilians into its employment. This was done by mass abduction, especially of children in order to use them as soldiers. It is estimated that one third of RENAMO forces were child soldiers.[15] But abducted people also had to serve RENAMO in administrative or public service functions in the areas it controlled. Another way of using civilians for military purposes was the so-called system of "Gandira". This system especially affected the rural population in areas controlled by RENAMO, forcing them to fulfill three main tasks: 1) produce food for RENAMO, 2) transport goods and ammunition, 3) in the case of women, serve as sex slaves.[16]

Both sides heavily relied on the use of land mines; FRELIMO as a means to defend important infrastructure, RENAMO in order to terrify the populace, stall the economy and destroy the civil services, mining roads, schools and health centres.

Thus, despite its far superior numbers, FRELIMO was unable to adequately defend any but the most important cities. By the mid-1980s, FRELIMO had lost control of much of the countryside. RENAMO was able to carry out raids virtually anywhere in the country except for the major cities. Transportation had become a perilous business. Even armed convoys were not safe from RENAMO attacks.[17]

FRELIMO strategies and operations

FRELIMO reacted by reusing a system first introduced by the Portuguese: the creation of fortified communal villages called aldeamentos where much of the rural population was relocated. Furthermore, in order to keep a minimum level of infrastructure working, three heavily guarded and mined corridors were established consisting of roads, railways and power lines: the Beira, the Tete (also called the Tete Run which speaks for itself regarding its safety) and the Limpopo Corridors.[18]

Foreign support and intervention

FRELIMO initially received substantial military and development aid from the Soviet Union and later additionally from France, the UK and the US In the US, conservative circles lobbied for the support of RENAMO but were opposed by the state department which finally gained the upper hand following reports which documented RENAMO's brutality. RENAMO received military support from Rhodesia, South Africa, and Kenya as well as organisational support from Western Germany.[3] Hastings Banda, the president of Malawi, backed both FRELIMO and RENAMO. He used the Malawi Young Pioneers to back RENAMO whilst his country's armed forces backed the FRELIMO government in order to defend Malawian interests in Mozambique.[1]

In 1982, landlocked Zimbabwe directly intervened in the civil war in order to secure its transport ways, stop cross-border RENAMO raids and help its old ally FRELIMO. Zimbabwe's help was crucial to the defense of the corridors. Later Zimbabwe became engaged further, carrying out several joint operations with FRELIMO against RENAMO strongholds.[18] Thus RENAMO had to give up its base camps in the Gorongosa area. Tanzania also sent troops to back FRELIMO.

After the fall of the Ian Smith government in Rhodesia, South Africa became RENAMO's main supporter. Malawi was used as a conduit for South African aid to reach RENAMO. The FRELIMO administration, led by President Machel, was economically ruined by the civil war. The military and diplomatic entente with the Soviet Union could not alleviate the nation's economic misery and famine. As a result, a reluctant Machel signed a non-aggression pact with South Africa, known as the Nkomati Accord. In return, Pretoria promised to sever economic assistance in exchange for FRELIMO's commitment to prevent the ANC from using Mozambique as a sanctuary to pursue its campaign to overthrow white minority rule in South Africa. Following a May 1983 car bombing in Pretoria, South African troops attacked suspected ANC bases in Maputo. In October, they raided the capital a second time, attacking an office building said to have been used by the organization. With the economy in shambles, Machel was forced to scale back some socialist policies; in a visit to Western Europe that same month agreed to military and economic pacts with Portugal, France, and the UK. He also abandoned the idea of collectivized agriculture, a result of which the Soviet Union terminated all aid to Mozambique. The volume of direct South African government support for RENAMO diminished after the Nkomati Accord, but documents discovered during the capture of RENAMO headquarters at Gorongosa in central Mozambique in August 1985 revealed continuing South African communications and military support for RENAMO. FRELIMO, meanwhile, only partially honored commitments to expel various ANC members from its territory.

Military stalemate

By the end of the 1980s neither side was able to win the war by military means. The military pressure on RENAMO had not resulted in its defeat. While being incapable of capturing any large cities, it was still able to terrorize the rural areas. FRELIMO controlled the urban areas and the corridors, but was unable to protect the countryside from RENAMO squadrons. FRELIMO was also unable to pin down RENAMO and force it into a direct full-scale confrontation.

On 19 October 1986, President Machel died when his presidential aircraft crashed near South Africa's border. An international investigation determined that the crash was caused by errors made by the flight crew, a conclusion that is not universally accepted. Machel's successor was Joaquim Alberto Chissano, who had served as foreign minister from 1975 until Machel's death. Chissano continued Machel's policies of expanding Mozambique's international ties, particularly the country's links with the West, and pursuing internal reforms.

During the war, hundreds of thousands of people died from famine.[19][20][21] The famine was attributable to both the policies of RENAMO and FRELIMO.[19][20]

War crimes and crimes against humanity


RENAMO systematically committed war crimes and crimes against humanity as part of its destabilization strategy. These include mass killing, rape and mutilation of non-combatants during terroristic raids on villages and towns, the use of child soldiers and the employment of the Gandira system, based upon forced labour and sexual violence. Often women would be apprehended while out in the fields, then raped as a means to boost troop morale. Gandira caused widespread starvation among the rural population due to the little time left to produce food for themselves. This caused more and more persons to be physically unable to endure the long transportation marches demanded from them. Refusing to participate in Gandira or falling behind on the marches resulted in severe beating and often execution.[22] Flight attempts were also punished harshly. One particularly gruesome practice was the mutilation and killing of children left behind by escaped parents.[23][24]

RENAMO crimes gained worldwide public attention when RENAMO soldiers butchered 424 civilians, including the patients of a hospital, with guns and machetes during a raid on the rural town of Homoine.[25] This incident prompted an investigation into RENAMO methods by US-State Department consultant Robert Gersony, which finally put an end to conservative ambitions for US-government support for RENAMO.[26] The report concluded that RENAMO's actions in Homoine did not significantly differ from the tactics it normally employed in such raids. These methods are described in the report in the following way:

The attack stage was sometimes reported to begin with what appeared to the inhabitants to be the indiscriminate firing of automatic weapons by a substantial force of attacking RENAMO combatants. […] Reportedly the Government soldiers aim their defensive fire at the attackers, while the RENAMO forces shoot indiscriminately into the village. In some cases refugees perceived that the attacking force had divided into three detachments: one conducts the military attack; another enters houses and removes valuables, mainly clothing, radios, food, pots and other possessions; a third moves through the looted houses with pieces of burning thatch setting fire to the houses in the village. There were several reports that schools and health clinics are typical targets for destruction. The destruction of the village as a viable entity appears to be the main objective of such attacks. This type of attack causes several types of civilian casualties. As is normal in guerrilla warfare, some civilians are killed in crossfire between the two opposing forces, although this tends in the view of the refugees to account for only a minority of the deaths. A larger number of civilians in these attacks and other contexts were reported to be victims of purposeful shooting deaths and executions, of axing, knifing, bayoneting, burning to death, forced drowning and asphyxiation, and other forms of murder where no meaningful resistance or defense is present. Eyewitness accounts indicate that when civilians are killed in these indiscriminate attacks, whether against defended or undefended villages, children, often together with mothers and elderly people, are also killed. Varying numbers of civilian victims in each attack were reported to be rounded up and abducted [...].[27]

Thus it appears the only difference between the Homoine massacre and RENAMO's usual methods was the size of the operation. Normally RENAMO would choose smaller, easier targets instead of attacking a town defended by some 90 government soldiers.[28]

According to the Gersony Report, RENAMO's transgressions were far more systematic, widespread and grave than FRELIMO's: the refugees interviewed for the Gersony Report attributed 94% of the murders, 94% of the abductions and 93% of the lootings to RENAMO.[29] However, this conclusion has been disputed by the French Marxist scholar Michel Cahen, who states that both sides were equally to blame:

There can be no doubt that the war was largely one fought against civilians... I am also convinced that the war was equally savage on both sides, even if the total domination of the media by FRELIMO for the 15 years of the war has led even those most desirous of remaining objective to attribute the majority of the atrocities to RENAMO. The people themselves were not duped: they attributed various acts of banditry and certain massacres to "RENAMO 1," but others to "RENAMO 2" – the euphemistic term for FRELIMO soldiers and militiamen acting on their own.[30]

Rudolph Rummel estimated the democide of the RENAMO rebels between 1975 and 1987 to be at least 125,000 killed.[31]


FRELIMO soldiers also committed serious war crimes during the civil war.[32] Much like RENAMO, FRELIMO forced people into its employment. Living in the communal villages was mandatory. However, in some areas cultural norms require households to live at some distance from each other. Therefore, many people preferred living in the countryside despite the risk of RENAMO assaults.[33] Thus people would often be forced into the communal villages at gunpoint by FAM-soldiers or their Zimbabwean allies. As a local recalls:

I never wanted to leave my old residence and come to the communal village. Even with the war, I wanted to stay where I had my land and granaries. Ever since a long time ago, we never lived with so many people together in the same place. Everyone must live in his own yard. The Komeredes [Zimbabwean soldiers] came to my house and said that I should leave my house and go to the communal village where there were a lot of people. I tried to refuse and then they set fire to my house, my granaries, and my fields. They threatened me with death and they told me and my family to go forward. Inside the communal village we lived like pigs. It was like a yard for pigs. We were so many people living close to each other. If someone slept with his wife everyone could listen to what they were doing. When we went to the fields or to the cemeteries to bury the dead, the soldiers had to come behind and in front of us. When the women went to the river to wash themselves, the soldiers had to go too and they usually saw our women naked. Everything was a complete shame inside that corral. Usually to eat, we had to depend on humanitarian aid, but we never knew when it would arrive. It was terrible; that is why many people used to run away from the communal village to their old residences where RENAMO soldiers were, although it was also terrible there.[33]

Rape was also a widespread practice among FRELIMO soldiers. However, it was far less frequent and lacked the institutionalised quality of sexual violence carried out by RENAMO.[34]

Despite the massive scale and organized manner in which war crimes and crimes against humanity had been committed during the Mozambican civil war, so far not one RENAMO or FRELIMO commander has appeared before a war crimes tribunal of any sort. This is due to the unconditional general amnesty law for the period from 1976-1992 passed by the parliament (then still composed entirely of FRELIMO members) in 1992. Instead of receiving justice, victims were urged to forget.[35]

As part of the repressive measures following independence, FRELIMO introduced "reeducation centers" in which petty criminals, political opponents, and alleged anti-social elements such as prostitutes were imprisoned, often without trial. These were later described by foreign observers as "infamous centers of torture and death."[36] It is estimated that 30,000 inmates died in these camps.[37] The central government also executed tens of thousands of people while trying to extend its control throughout the country.[38][39][40] Rudolph Rummel estimated the democide of the FRELIMO government between 1975 and 1987 to lie between 83,000 and 250,000 dead, with a mid-level estimate of 118,000.[40]


Transition to peace

In 1990, with the end of the Cold War, apartheid crumbling in South Africa, and support for RENAMO drying up in South Africa, the first direct talks between the FRELIMO government and RENAMO were held. FRELIMO's draft constitution in July 1989 paved the way for a multiparty system, and a new constitution was adopted in November 1990. Mozambique was now a multiparty state, with periodic elections, and guaranteed democratic rights.

On 4 October 1992, the Rome General Peace Accords, negotiated by the Community of Sant'Egidio with the support of the United Nations, were signed in Rome between President Chissano and RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama, which formally took effect on 15 October 1992. A UN peacekeeping force (ONUMOZ) of 7,500 arrived in Mozambique and oversaw a two-year transition to democracy. 2,400 international observers also entered the country to supervise the elections held on 27–28 October 1994. The last ONUMOZ contingents departed in early 1995. By then, the Mozambican civil war had caused about one million deaths and displaced over five million refugees out of a total population of ca. 13-15 million at the time.[6][7]


HALO Trust, a de-mining group funded by the US and UK, began operating in Mozambique in 1993, recruiting local workers to remove land mines scattered throughout the country. Four HALO workers were killed in the subsequent effort to rid Mozambique of land mines, which continued to cause as many as several hundred civilian injuries and fatalities annually for years after the war. In September 2015, the country was finally declared to be free of land mines, with the last known device intentionally detonated as part of a ceremony.[41]

Resurgence of violence since 2013

In mid-2013, after more than twenty years of peace, RENAMO insurgency was renewed, mainly in the central and northern regions of the country. On September 5, 2014, former president Armando Guebuza and the leader of RENAMO Afonso Dhlakama signed the Accord on Cessation of Hostilities, which brought the military hostilities to a halt and allowed both parties to concentrate on the general elections to be held in October 2014. Yet, following the general elections, a new political crisis emerged and the country appears to be once again on the brink of violent conflict. RENAMO does not recognise the validity of the election results, and demands the control of six provinces – Nampula, Niassa,Tete, Zambezia, Sofala, and Manica – where they claim to have won a majority.[8]


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  3. 1 2 3 4 5 "Our work | Conciliation Resources". Retrieved 4 March 2012.
  4. Bulletin of Tanzanian Affairs No 30, May 1988, pp 14
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  11. The cultural dimension of war traumas in central Mozambique: The case of Gorongosa.
  12. Lohman&MacPherson 1983, Chapter 4.
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  14. ^
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  16. ^
  17. 1 2 "Defence Digest - Working Paper 3". Retrieved 4 March 2012.
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  20. THE FACTS ON FILE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF THE 20TH CENTURY. New York: Facts on File, 1991. p. 91, 640
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  35. Peter Worthington, "Machel Through Rose-Tinted Specs," Financial Post (Canada), November 1, 1986
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