Civil War: Mozambique (1979-1992)

J Michael Quinn. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 2, ABC-CLIO, 2007.

Country Background

In the last half of the twentieth century, the Republic of Mozambique was among the most conflict-ridden and war-torn nations in the world. After nearly a decade (1964-1975) of violent nationalist rebellion against the Portuguese, the Frente de Libertacao de Mozambique (Frelimo), the anticolonialists who became the first governing party in independent Mozambique, began to combat a growing counterrevolutionary insurgency that called itself the Resistencia Nacional Mozambicana (Renamo). This conflict between the Frelimo government and Renamo rebels, which began only two years after independence, would lead the new country into one of the longest and bloodiest civil wars of the post-World War II era. Before an agreement would be reached in the early nineties to end the war, an estimated 1 million deaths would be attributed to the conflict, with an additional 4 million deslocados, or displaced persons (around a quarter of the entire population) living in refugee camps inside Mozambique or in neighboring Malawi, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, or South Africa (Vines 1991, 1).

It is difficult, however, to determine exactly how many people died as a result of the civil war in Mozambique. The typical distinction between military deaths and civilian deaths is frequently blurred. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa estimated in 1989 that 900,000 had died from the war. The Correlates of War civil war data file (Sarkees 2000) lists 200,550 state deaths and 1,200,550 total deaths. Sambanis (2000) lists 255,000 total battle deaths, 500,000 total deaths, and 3,500,000 refugees. More than likely, the actual number of deaths occurring from direct combat is much smaller. Throughout most of the conflict, the national military of Mozambique was estimated at approximately 30,000. At its peak, Renamo was even smaller, somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 men. If both sides had a turnover rate from battle deaths of 100 percent, meaning that every single person who was a soldier at the beginning of the war had been killed and replaced by the end of the war (a nearly impossible scenario), the number of battle deaths would be roughly 50,000 to 60,000. Clearly, the casualty estimates include all civilian deaths blamed on the war. In addition to those killed in military campaigns, the civil war destroyed the economy and prevented aid from reaching people in need during several natural disasters and famines that occurred during the course of the conflict.

A senior U.S. Department of State official referred to the Mozambican civil war in 1988 as “ … one of the most brutal holocausts against ordinary human beings since World War Two” (quoted in Finnegan 1992, 5). By the end of the 1980s, Mozambique was reportedly producing less than 10 percent of the food its people needed. When more than three decades of internal war ended in 1992, the life expectancy of the average Mozambican was thirty-seven years, and Mozambique was considered the poorest country in the world, with a gross domestic product per capita around 80 dollars, two-thirds of which consisted of foreign aid (Plank 1993).

Conflict Background

Following independence, conditions inside Mozambique resembled a common scenario in postcolonial states. Conflict began to emerge between societal groups as the new ruling party, dominated by members of the anticolonial opposition, formed what could be called a “backlash” regime (Clement and Springborg 2001, 16). Strong anticolonial and anticapitalist policies were initiated, which in turn helped to mobilize a counterrevolutionary opposition with ties to the former colonial state.

The new ruling party of Mozambique (Frelimo), calling itself Marxist, directed its foreign policy toward alignment with the Soviet Union and Cuba, nationalized industry, outlawed private property, and began the creation of state-run collective farms and communal villages. Frelimo President Samora Machel declared that Mozambique would be “Africa’s first Marxist state,” and his government’s initiatives were said to be strongly influenced by “ … the historical models for revolution offered by Cuba, Vietnam, the Soviet Union and China …” combined with Mozambique’s own “… long and terrible experience with Portuguese-style capitalism …” (Finnegan 1992, 110). As Frelimo’s Interior Minister Guebuza described, at independence the regime’s immediate goal was to eliminate “… the rotten values of the colonial bourgeoisie that had been assimilated by Mozambicans” (Cabrita 2000, 95).

Renamo’s makeup, at least initially, came from those with close ties to the former Portuguese security apparatus in Mozambique. This level of assimilation with the former colonial state explains much of the ideological distance between Frelimo and Renamo over what kind of country postindependent Mozambique should become. In 1981, Renamo released its first political manifesto. The rebel group defined itself as a military organization dedicated to ending Frelimo rule in favor of free-market economics and multiparty elections. Renamo’s background, as Portuguese-trained soldiers with a free-market political manifesto, provides a vivid example of colonial assimilados coming into conflict with a “backlash” regime.

The Insurgents

Although some debate exists in the literature over the primacy of internal versus external factors in explaining the success of Renamo as an insurgency in Mozambique, the group’s origins are generally well-known. Renamo was founded around 1976 by members of the Rhodesian Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) to act as a counterinsurgency force directed against the Zimbabwean National Liberation Army (Zanla), which had based itself in Mozambique after being banned from Rhodesia. Renamo would also retaliate against the Frelimo government for supporting Zanla activities within its territory and for closing Mozambique’s border with Rhodesia. According to the rebel group’s creator, a Rhodesian military intelligence chief named Ken Flower, Renamo was to be a pseudoterrorist organization (Flower 1987). Recruitment for Renamo came initially from “disgruntled Portuguese” (Vines 1991, 16), many of whom had been associated with the Portuguese General Security Directorate (DGS). Others came from the “crack anti-insurgency units” or “flechas” (Morgan 1990, 605), which were formed and trained by the Portuguese to combat the anticolonial uprising in Mozambique. To escape possible retribution by Frelimo after independence, many Mozambican members of the Portuguese colonial military fled to neighboring Rhodesia, where they were later recruited by the CIO.

Sources: Jaggers and Marshall 2000; Sarkees 2000; Sambanis 2000.
War: Mozambique (Frelimo) vs. Renamo
Dates: October 21, 1979-October4, 1992
Casualties: 1,200,550 (Sarkees)
Regime type prior to war: -8 Autocracy (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data—ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
Regime type after war: 6 Democracy (Polity 2 variable in Polity IV data—ranging from -10 [authoritarian] to 10 [democracy])
GDP per capita year war began: US$1,182
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $760
Insurgents: Resistencia Nacional Mozambicana (Renamo)
Issue: Ideological struggle for control of central government
Rebel funding: Aid from Rhodesia until 1980, then South Africa
Role of geography: Forested center regions were primary areas of rebel activity.
Role of resources: Limited role; not prominent
Immediate outcome: Negotiated settlement
Outcome after 5 years: Stable peace and elections
Role of UN: 7,500 peacekeepers on the ground after settlement
Role of regional organizations: Not prominent
Refugees: 3-4 million
Prospects for peace: Very favorable
Table 1: Civil War in Mozambique

Renamo also benefited from a significant splintering of Frelimo at independence between the moderate and democratic Mondlane wing and the more authoritarian pro-Marxist wing, which eventually took power after Eduardo Mondlane’s death. Much of Renamo’s early recruitment came from Frelimo splinter groups and political dissidents assigned to reeducation camps by the regime’s political police and later liberated from those camps by the rebels. Renamo reportedly raised between 1,000 and 2,000 men in the single year of 1979 through “raids on re-education camps” (Finnegan 1992, 32). One of those early recruits was Andre Matsangaissa, a former Frelimo military commander, who, after escaping from a reeducation camp, fled to Rhodesia and became the leader of the new rebel group.

Although initially a rather small unit operating closely under Rhodesian Special Forces units, Renamo’s activities expanded in 1978 owing to growing Zanla activity in Mozambique along the Rhodesian border. Counteroffensive bases were set up inside Mozambique to better combat Zanla infiltration routes into Rhodesia and to destabilize Frelimo leadership in Mozambique. Throughout the rest of the 1970s, Renamo did what it was created and trained to do: wreak general havoc in Mozambique in an effort to weaken Zanla and Frelimo in the name of Rhodesian national security. Despite the escalating levels of violence in the 1970s, Renamo expert Alex Vines characterizes Renamo activity at this time as “fairly limited” (1991, 17) compared to what the next decade would bring as Renamo sponsorship shifted from Rhodesia to South Africa.

Control and support for Renamo changed significantly in 1980, when multiracial elections ended white minority rule in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and, consequently, CIO support of Renamo. After 1980, Renamo became primarily funded and controlled by South African military intelligence forces to combat increasing activity by African National Congress (ANC) rebels inside Mozambique and to deter Frelimo assistance to the ANC, which reportedly included weapons shipped from the USSR to Mozambique’s capital of Maputo (Cabrita 2000, 181).

Although Renamo had new South African sponsors, the group’s directives in the coming decade would be very similar to what they had been under the sponsorship of Rhodesia: launch counteroffensives against the nationalist rebels, in this case the African National Congress, and weaken the Frelimo regime through the systematic destruction of social and economic infrastructure. With South African support, Renamo’s activities reportedly intensified substantially. From 1980 through 1988, Renamo destroyed approximately “1,800 schools, 720 health units, 900 shops, and 1,300 trucks and buses” (Vines 1991, 17). In the Beira corridor alone, an important economic zone stretching from the port at Beira across Mozambique, Renamo destroyed 1,415 pylons (power lines) with an estimated cost of repair of more than $76 million (Vines 1991, 28). In addition to infrastructure, the human loss in Mozambique was becoming monumental. UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, stated that 490,000 children in Mozambique died of starvation between 1980 and 1988. By 1989, the number of both internal and external refugees had “reached over 4.3 million,” providing a strong indicator at the time of how devastating the conflict had become (Vines 1991, 17).


The overall complexity of the Mozambican conflict was greatly facilitated, geographically, by the high number of land borders shared with neighboring countries of Malawi (1,569 kilometers), South Africa (491 kilometers), Swaziland (105 kilometers), Tanzania (756 kilometers), Zambia (419 kilometers), and Zimbabwe (1,231 kilometers). This contributed to interventionists tactics by several of these states and offered temporary safe havens for rebel activity. In addition to the high number of land borders Mozambique shares with neighboring states, the long, narrow shape of the country may have also contributed to the dynamics of the conflict by allowing the rebels to reach a border with limited effort.

Mozambique, which is roughly twice the size of California, is a very narrow strip of mostly coastal lowlands running along 2,470 miles of the Indian Ocean. Aside from the northernmost regions above Nampula, the country never exceeds 300 miles in width at any one point, providing close proximity to a border at nearly any geographical point. In the Tete province, which served as a major area of rebel activity, the borders of Zimbabwe, Malawi, and Zambia are all within 150 miles and span three sides of the province. Presumably, rebel movement across these borders would go more easily unnoticed or ignored than that of the Mozambique national military. This offered the rebels a unique advantage.

Terrain was also a seen as an important factor in either aiding or limiting the ability of the rebels to expand their territory. The difficulty Renamo had in trying to penetrate the southern regions of Mozambique was, according to some Renamo officials, frequently blamed on the geography and logistics of the area. According to Manning (1998, 168), Renamo officials repeatedly argued that the “absence of dense forests, and the drier, flatter terrain in southern Mozambique provided inhospitable territory for guerrilla bases, in comparison to the geography of the central region.” Renamo’s most sophisticated base, located at Casa Banana in the Gorongosa mountains, is described as a “dispersed settlement of huts covering several kilometers, under the cover of trees” with only a few entrances through paths “that were closely guarded” (Vines 1991, 85).


Despite the transitional phases of Renamo—from a Rhodesian special operations unit, to a South African military proxy, to a self-sufficient domestic insurgency in the Mozambican countryside—its operational tactics remained fairly consistent over the duration of the conflict. Finnegan (1992, 237) describes Renamo’s tactics as involving primarily “low-intensity warfare” with an emphasis on the complete devastation of governmental, social, and economic infrastructure in designated “destruction areas.” These were zones considered important to the government or thought to be under Frelimo control. According to Alex Vines (1991, 87), the rebel group focused on the complete destruction of all property and facilities in a designated destruction area “so as to make government resettlement utterly unattractive, thereby, maintaining the vacated areas …” Visiting a village that was recently destroyed in a Renamo attack, Finnegan (1992, 12) noted the methodical nature of the destruction: “… each tile of a mosaic smashed, each pane of a glass block wall painstakingly shattered. It was systematic, psychologically meticulous destruction. The only building in town with its roof untouched was the church.” This focus on installations key to the regime also tended to force government resources into a defensive role in which protecting its property took precedence over conducting offensive strikes against rebel areas.

Despite the fact that Renamo tactics have led some scholars to characterize the group as merely “bent on mindless destruction and violence” (Manning 1998, 161), Renamo’s “grand” strategy was to force a war of attrition with the government. By engaging in the wholesale destruction of everything important or beneficial to the government and the economy, the Frelimo regime would be weakened to the point of collapse—or, at the very least, forced to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with the rebels. Finnegan describes Renamo’s tactics as a “maximalist strategy, and a pure equation: that whatever weakened Frelimo strengthened Renamo” (1992, 77). In 1988, Renamo President Dhlakama stated frankly in an interview, “Our aim is not to win the war militarily… but to force Frelimo to accept negotiations for a democratically elected government” (quoted in Finnegan 1992, 79). As Cabrita (2000, 205) argues, “It was clear from the pattern of Renamo operations that its primary goal was to isolate the government from the rural areas … stifling its economic power base …”

Renamo’s tactics in target selection, in addition to its effectiveness in weakening and limiting government capabilities, also benefited the rebel group through the creation of a pillage economy. Renamo reportedly took anything and everything of value in a raid before destroying an area and then sold the loot in the markets of neighboring states. Goods included everything from dismantled and later reassembled Land Rover automobiles to smuggled elephant ivory. Touring a communal village destroyed in a Renamo attack, Finnegan noted that “every window, every window frame, every door, every door frame, every piece of plumbing or wiring or flooring had been ripped out and carried away” (1992, 11). A common Renamo practice was to kidnap a large number of peasants during these raids and use them as “porters” to carry the looted items hundreds of miles through the African bush to market, mostly in Malawi. Other abductees were taken back to Renamo camps and used as forced labor. Reportedly, if Renamo planned to stay in an area for any length of time, it would reinstall the local regulos or muenes, the petty chiefs used by the Portuguese as tax collectors and village overseers, who had not been well treated by Frelimo after independence.

The terror of Renamo’s often theatrical and ritualized use of violence is itself another operational tactic used purposely to intimidate the civilian population upon which the rebels depended for material support and intelligence. Renamo used violence in ways that have repeatedly been referred to as “cultic” or “ritualized” in order to “ … instill a paralyzing and incapacitating fear …” in the civilian population and government troops through a “ … maniacal devotion to the infliction of suffering” (Wilson 1992, 531). Renamo’s tactics have been summarily characterized as a “grotesque campaign of terror” against mostly civilians, with a respective lack of any real “political program” (Manning 1998, 161). Such atrocities included the forced participation of relatives in the murder of their own family members, mass rape, and people being crushed in millet grinders or boiled alive. Other unimaginable acts of torture were used, such as facial and bodily mutilation which made the victim a lifelong advertisement for the consequences of resistance (see Wilson 1992).

These tactics led many to consider Renamo the “most brutal rebel army” of their time (Itano 2002, 8). As Vines (1991, 1), argues, “What makes Renamo so different from most successful rebel movements is that the equation between popular support and rebel strength does not generally apply.” Renamo’s use of violence against noncombatants and their apparent lack of any ideological “hearts-and-minds campaign” to win over peasant support led to a significantly negative international reputation around the mid-1980s, leading some scholars, such as Geffray (1990, 119), to characterize them as nothing more than a “parasite army” that was only interested in “ … manufacturing war to subsist by it ….” (1990, 120). Nevertheless, the use of widespread violence against civilians was a consistently used and apparently successful operational tactic for Renamo in waging “… brutal, but effective, psychological warfare …” (Vines 1991, 90).

Causes of the War

Although the rise of Renamo and the group’s early funding can be attributed to interventionist tactics by Rhodesia and South Africa, these external sources of support began to decline in the early 1980s. The Renamo sponsors in Zimbabwe were now out of power, and Frelimo president Samora Machel and South African President P. W. Botha signed the N’komati Agreement in March 1984, halting support to the ANC by one side and to Renamo by the other. It was alleged that South African Special Forces continued some covert support to Renamo after the agreement was signed, but according to postwar interviews with Renamo leaders and officials, the agreement served “as a catalyst to force Renamo to establish itself as an organization in its own right” (Manning 1998, 163) and led to the relocation of rebel headquarters from Phalaborwa (South Africa) to the Gorongosa mountains of Mozambique.

After sponsorship from South Africa had begun to wane, Renamo grew from an externally funded and controlled military surrogate to a pervasive domestic rebellion with support in recruitment, food, and shelter stemming largely from the Mozambique countryside. Alex Vines (1991, 2) notes that “while Renamo was initially trained by Rhodesia, and later by South Africa, it evolved its own style once it operated in the Mozambican bush.” Following the N’komati accords, Renamo sought to aggressively expand its operations outside of Sopala and Manica, their central regional heartland, into the northern and southern provinces, to become a self-sustaining force embedded in rural Mozambique. According to interviews with district-level Renamo officials, more than half said they were recruited between 1984 and 1986 to serve as political representatives “in the bush,” whereas most of the military leadership was recruited much earlier, in 1979 and 1980 (Manning 1998, 163). By the mid-1980s, Renamo was operating in all ten provinces in Mozambique and had an estimated 20,000 soldiers (Vines 1991, 1).

What accounts for Renamo’s success as a rebel group and the resulting protracted civil war against the government of Mozambique? Vines (1991, 74) notes a “paradigm shift” in the scholarly literature on the Mozambican crisis in the mid-1980s “away from the causality… being South African destabilization with the emphases being shifted to a focus on Frelimo’s agrarian polices …” By and large, Renamo’s expanding levels of support throughout the 1980s is attributed to several largely domestic sources: (a) policies of the Frelimo government, particularly toward traditional agriculture and religion; (b) regional and ethnic divisions within Frelimo and Mozambique; and (c) the attraction of young, impoverished Mozambican boys to the lifestyle of a Renamo rebel.

Renamo was especially apt at maneuvering to capitalize on collective discontent generated by Frelimo policies and orientations that were widely considered disruptive and nontraditional. Frelimo’s embrace of socialist projects after independence produced a general disregard for traditional authority figures, such as village chiefs. In an interview in 1988, Mozambique’s Minister of Culture Luis Honwana commented on the mistakes the Frelimo government made regarding the indigenous authority structure: “We didn’t realize how influential the traditional authorities were; even without formal power …. We will have to restore some of the traditional structures that at the beginning of our independence we simply smashed …” (quoted in Finnegan 1992, 125).

Postindependence Frelimo policies and orientations, especially with regard to agriculture and freedom of religion, brought sudden and radical changes to members of a traditionally bound society. Peasants were forced to abandon their private subsistence plots to work in state-run collective farms and villages. Overall, these collective projects, which were intended to enhance the ailing state sector, were hugely unsuccessful, “marred by misjudgment, misuse and squandering of the large amount of investment put into them.” Consequently, they were quite unpopular with the peasants involved (Vines 1991, 115). Renamo made no small effort to exploit these rural grievances by promoting and encouraging angry peasants to resist the state and return to their traditional ways. The governor of Manica province (an area that would later become a Renamo stronghold), commenting on his projects in 1981, stated in frustration that “ … peasants are individualistic … they think that all collective life must be bad. The resistance movement [Renamo] has built on this, encouraging people to live in the traditional way… many families have at least one member fighting for MNR” (quoted in Vines 1991, 117).

The government also attempted to widen the agricultural base and decrease urban unemployment in what amounted to a colossal policy mistake called Operation Production, under which approximately 50,000 unemployed city dwellers were forcefully transported to underdeveloped areas of the countryside, dropped off, and told to start farming. Cabrita (2000, 216) notes that five years after Operation Production, there were some people were still trying to locate relatives evacuated in the program. The project was later referred to by Frelimo officials as “a successful recruiting program for the bandits” (Finnegan 1992, 69).

Stemming from its self-perception as a modernizing, leftist regime, the Frelimo government also engaged in considerable repression of religious activity, whereas the majority of the Mozambican population believed in some form of traditional religion. Due to perceived associations with colonialism and indigenous authority structures, the government considered religion a disruptive influence. Party members were not allowed to belong to a church, and traditional spiritual healers were not allowed party membership. According to Finnegan, like the petty chiefs, religious authority figures “… were merely pushed aside by the new government” (1992, 64). Cabrita (2000, 121) reports that an estimated 7,000 practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses in Mozambique were arrested and sent to reeducation camps for “serving the imperialist powers” with their missionary work.

Renamo, on the other hand, used traditional religious figures extensively in its organization, both to win the support of the peasantry and for protection through spiritual power. The role of spiritual beliefs has been repeatedly emphasized in the literature for its influential role in the Mozambican conflict, particularly in Renamo’s identity construction and the belief it was fighting a “war of spirits” against Frelimo (Lauriciano 1990, 9). Much of Renamo’s perceived success among the peasantry is said to be rooted in the group’s spiritual powers, especially among the ethnic N’dau, who are considered one of the most feared and spiritually powerful tribes in Mozambique. Renamo’s embrace of religion also had a very practical side, giving it a psychological advantage in warfare and in attracting support from religious groups. As one local Mozambican preacher stated, “… at least Renamo does not stop us from worshipping God ….” (quoted in Vines 1991, 102). Frelimo’s lack of respect for religious belief and lack of support for small farmers generated significant anti-regime sentiment and resulted in an increased presence of Renamo in rural areas.

Much of the sympathy for Renamo is also said to be rooted in “regional/ethnic tensions and imbalances” within Mozambique, dating back to independence and the belief that Frelimo was not truly representative of Mozambican society and that its policies were “ethnically biased as a result” (Morgan 1990, 614). The belief that Frelimo was dominated by Shangaan-speaking southerners of disproportionately mestizo background, combined with Frelimo’s tendency to move southerners into positions of authority outside the south, created resentment among many in the northern and central regions of Mozambique.

Ethnic division did exist between the largely southern, Shangaan-speaking Frelimo and the centrally based, Shona-speaking N’dau rebels, but the ethnic divide was largely a by-product of Renamo’s founding around the ancestral homeland of the N’dau peoples. Vines (1991, 84) notes that “Rhodesian recruitment of the N’dau, was not, as some commentators have speculated, calculated planning but due to the geographical location of the N’dau along the Rhodesian border.” Moreover, several popular data sets used in the study of civil war agree that the Mozambican case was not based primarily on ethnic conflict. Licklider (1995) considers the Mozambican civil war primarily to have been fought over “political/economic” rather than “identity” issues. Similarly, Sambanis (2000) also considers the war as one fought over largely political identities. As in many African conflicts, ethnic politics in Mozambique often reinforced the conflict, although it was not the master or primary cleavage between the rebels and the government.

Last, and perhaps the least studied dynamic explaining Renamo’s success, was the attraction of the rebel lifestyle for young, impoverished Mozambican boys. Research discussed by Manning (1998) on Renamo recruitment suggests that the majority of the rank and file who stayed with Renamo throughout most of the war were highly disproportionately poor, uneducated country boys. Those villagers who were economically better off would have been better able to use their resources either to avoid the rebels or to negotiate. For many recruits, the benefits of being Renamo warriors greatly exceeded anything they could have hoped to achieve as peasant farmers in perhaps the poorest country in the world. At the very least they were better fed. Geffray (1990) argues that Renamo made the boys peers and equals in an autonomous, independent social group that provided freedom, fraternity, and social advancement. This lifestyle stood in stark contrast to the dull servitude and domination by tribal elders and petty government officials that characterized life in their former villages. As Finnegan notes, there clearly was talk of the “dirty little secret” that being a Renamo warrior might be fun. Finnegan (1992, 71) describes the account of a kidnapped Angolan mechanic who, after his escape, referred to the rebels he lived with as “having themselves a hell of a time.” According to the interviewee, the rebel boys in his camp got high on marijuana, got drunk on beer, and spent most of their days racing stolen motorcycles on homemade racetracks through the African bush.


Conflict Status

On October 4, 1992, Frelimo president and Renamo leaders signed the General Peace Agreement (GPA), which effectively ended the civil war in Mozambique. Although 1992 was described as a year of intense fighting, very little violence was reported after the settlement and the start of the UN demobilization and reintegration programs in the same year. Very few cases of general violence have been reported since 1993, giving a strong confirmation of the success of the agreement.

The success of the 1992 accords was perhaps surprising in that the conflict represented, in many respects, an unlikely case for settlement. The two sides had antagonistic roots, reinforced by regional and ethnic hostilities, that went back to colonial rule, and they were engaged in one of the longest, deadliest civil wars of the modern era. There were indicators, however, that motivation and resources were running low in both camps. As early as 1988, officials from the Catholic Church who met privately with Renamo leaders under the auspices of the Peace and Reconciliation Commission thought that Renamo was “serious about wanting to end the war” (Vines 1991, 122). Similarly, Vines argues that, as early as 1983, the Frelimo government had stated in session that it could not defeat the rebels militarily and were going to have to negotiate to end the war and attempted to do just that in the 1984 Pretoria talks. The Frelimo government had nearly abandoned its Marxist ideology by the end of the 1980s and announced in 1990 plans for a liberal democratic constitution that included nearly everything Renamo had supposedly been fighting for: multiparty elections, freedom of religion and association, and an elected executive. Chan and Venancio (1998) attribute the timing of the agreement to southern Africa’s worst drought in three decades, which seriously affected rebel stronghold areas in central Mozambique. Therefore, as resources for both groups began to dry up, so did the ideological basis of the war.

Walter (1999) argues that the negotiations in the early 1990s not only satisfied the major grievances of both parties but also produced some security guarantees that had not been attainable in prior negotiations. Because Renamo leaders did not trust government officials or view their promises as credible, they wanted such credible guarantees as third-party mediation and dual administrative control of the military to protect themselves during and after the negotiation process. In August 1991, after an initial rejection of outside intervention (particularly United Nations involvement) by the Frelimo government, negotiations resumed in November of the same year, when the government finally agreed to third-party involvement and a new dual national military comprising 15,000 Renamo troops and 15,000 Frelimo troops.

Although the next two rounds of elections from 1992 to 1999, which produced a Frelimo president and parliamentary majority, were considered fraudulent by Renamo, there was no resumption of civil war in Mozambique. As of 2005, thirteen years since the 1992 negotiated settlement laid the structural groundwork for ending the civil war and starting a new multiparty democracy in Mozambique, the prospect for sustained peace remains generally high. Writing on Mozambique’s experience with democratic transition, Lala and Ostheimer report that “[t]he outbreak of large-scale violent conflict in Mozambique seems rather unlikely…. the ability to mobilize people on a large scale appears to be limited nowadays. Mozambicans are more interested in securing their daily economic survival….” (2003, 65).

Duration Tactics

The civil war between the Frelimo government and Renamo rebels in Mozambique was a particularly long one relative to most civil wars. Worldwide, only a handful of civil wars have lasted longer than the sixteen-year Mozambican conflict. Why did the civil war in Mozambique last so long? Much of the answer has to do with (a) the ability of Renamo to meet its material needs through control of the local peasantry and the creation of a pillage economy, and (b) the inability of the Frelimo state and Mozambican military to penetrate the countryside and effectively target Renamo strongholds.

Renamo is frequently referred to or characterized as a “captive army,” made up of a significant number of recruits who were coerced into service after being taken prisoner in civilian raids. This dynamic has been difficult for scholars of revolution and rebellion to understand. How can an effective rebel army be constructed from involuntary members, prisoners, or captives? The literature on Renamo suggests several possible answers to this question. First, Vines (1991) notes that many of Renamo’s “coerced combatants” were afraid to escape and go home, for fear of retribution for their participation in the kind of atrocities for which Renamo was famous. Second, it was common for Renamo to relocate coerced recruits away from their homeland in areas of different linguistic dialects; this presumably would make it more difficult to escape. Third, several scholars (see Geffray 1990; Manning 1998; Vines 1991) note that, after their initial involuntary introduction, many recruits—even forced ones—realized that the lifestyle of a Renamo warrior was an improvement over what they had before. Forced recruits, especially children, having little to no education or work experience and thus lacking social networks in civilian life to return to, more than likely served Renamo until the war ended.

There is also the hypothesis that much of Renamo’s membership was actually voluntary, rooted in anti-Frelimo activism or selective incentives, and that the high degree of coercion associated with Renamo recruitment may be an exaggeration that explains Renamo’s success without attributing it to widespread discontent with the government. Presumably, it would be easier and also perhaps safer for a rebel seeking amnesty and trying to return to a normal civilian life to say, when being interviewed, that he was a forced recruit. One can understand how a reasonable interviewee would expect differential treatment from either the government or society, depending on whether he is viewed as a victim of civil war or a perpetrator of it. That is not to say that Renamo’s practice of taking civilian captives was not a regular phenomenon, but that the prominence of forced recruitment absolves both the individual rebel and the government of responsibility for Renamo’s success. This theory also goes a long way in explaining how an army of “forced recruits” emerged as a dominant political party after the settlement in 1992, losing the presidency by a small margin and winning 112 parliamentary seats (compared to Frelimo’s 129 seats). Obviously, a substantial segment of the population supported the rebels.

The other side of Renamo’s prolonged success in rural Mozambique is rooted in the weakness of the Frelimo regime and the inability of its national military to penetrate and control peripheral areas beyond the close reach of the capital. Not coincidently, Renamo made those regions its primary areas of activity. Administratively, the Frelimo government tended to “operate sporadically” outside of major cities, with a limited presence in the countryside (Morgan 1990, 615). More important are the consequences of Mozambique’s weak state syndrome for the ability of its national military to deal effectively with the rebel threat. Those efforts have been characterized as seriously lacking in expertise, material support, and troop morale. The national military was described during the conflict as an “undertrained, underequipped, underpaid, and underfed” group of soldiers engaging in irregular seasonal offensives against Renamo areas where the rebels would largely just flee the area (Finnegan 1992, 56).

According to Morgan (1990, 616), the weakness of the military stemmed from its conventional military approach to the war and from “ … problems existing at the level of morale and logistics.” An aid worker interviewed by Finnegan summarized the situation well: “ … [I]t’s physically impossible for the army to guard this country … they say it takes twelve soldiers to guard one kilometer of infrastructure, on average …. that would require over a million men just for defense, and that’s not to mention going out and fighting” (1992, 95). Touring the Manhica province with a Frelimo official, Finnegan recalled, “It occurred to me that if the entire army were brought to the Manhica district—which constituted less than 1 percent of Mozambique’s area—its 30,000 soldiers might have a chance of actually securing the district, of making it safe for the people who lived there” (1992, 211). The Mozambique Armed Forces (FAM), despite significant foreign intervention and assistance, were never able to contain Renamo within a particular geographic area or even to keep the group inside Mozambique. This made it very difficult to separate Renamo from the civilian population that nearly always surrounded them. In order to use heavy artillery against Renamo, the national military would attempt to separate the rebels from civilian areas and drive them into evacuated territory. This usually produced poor results and heavy civilian casualties. In short, FAM was unable to sustain a level of combat that could defeat the rebels.

External Military Intervention

A significant degree of external intervention by neighboring states took place in the course of the Mozambican civil war. Although Rhodesia was responsible for Renamo’s initial creation, after 1980 the same country, now Zimbabwe, provided the Frelimo government quite a bit of military help in combating the rebel group. In 1982, Zimbabwe assisted Mozambique with the deployment of around 1,000 troops to help the Frelimo regime protect vital government installations and infrastructure along the Beira corridor, an economic zone of roads, rail lines, and pipelines connecting Zimbabwe to the port at Beira. The corridor was critical to the Zimbabwean economy. As Renamo activities increasingly focused on the destruction of Beira facilities, Zimbabwe increased its troop levels in Mozambique to around 3,000. In 1985, Zimbabwean National Army (ZNA) paratroopers (commanded by former Rhodesian CIO officials) led an assault that captured Renamo’s main base in Gorongosa. Throughout 1987 and 1988, Zimbabwean troops gave considerable support to FAM counteroffensive efforts to regain ground in central Mozambique. In 1991, an estimated 10,000 Zimbabwean troops operated on Mozambican soil (Vines 1991, 61).

According to Cabrita (2000, 235), direct intervention by Zimbabwe and Tanzania was “ … decisive in containing, and in some instances reversing, the Renamo threat, notably in central and northern Mozambique.” The most damaging ZNA tactic was the use of “pseudo guerrillas,” who traveled through areas of known Renamo activity locating camps and reporting their locations for air strikes and mortar attacks. According to Cabrita (2000), however, the biggest threat to Renamo from ZNA tactics was the resulting displacement of the villagers living around the Renamo camps, which consequently destroyed the support base the rebels had created among the civilian population.

Several other states either provided military advisors or assisted the Mozambican military in training counterinsurgency units. The Soviets had an estimated 1,000 military advisors in Mozambique as of 1989 and, according to Cabrita (2000, 206), provided most of the planning, ammunitions, and logistical support for FAM counteroffensives in the mid-1980s. Britain’s Military Advisory and Training Team (BMATT), also provided military advisorship and helped train at least two Mozambican counterinsurgency battalions from bases in Zimbabwe between 1986 and 1990 (Vines 1991, 51). Although Cuba is mentioned as providing military advisors, Cabrita (2000, 172) reports some combat assistance resulting in the deaths of several Cuban soldiers in June 1980. The Frelimo government also sought considerable assistance from the United States, especially under President Chissano. Despite the Reagan Doctrine, by which the United States would lend support to resistance movements against pro-Soviet, Communist regimes, the Frelimo government and Mozambique were the largest recipients of U.S. economic aid in all of sub-Saharan Africa under both the Reagan and Bush administrations (Cabrita 2000, 250).

Although Renamo received no external assistance on the battlefield, the rebels did have a highly extensive and diversified “external wing” that engaged in international fund-raising. Renamo’s external wing was also responsible for the dissemination of propaganda designed to improve the group’s image and to advertise their struggle to potential supporters and financial backers around the world. As Finnegan reports (1992, 33), “Pretoria was not Renamo’s only source of external support. Portuguese ex-colonials living in South Africa, Portugal, Malawi, and Brazil, including wealthy businessmen who had lost property when independence came to Mozambique, contributed heavily.” Renamo leaders visited Europe extensively to meet with right-wing groups in Portugal, West Germany, and France, seeking their support in fighting the Communist threat. By the late 1980s, however, Renamo tactics, made known in the State Department’s Gersony Report and in media accounts of such atrocities as the Homoine massacre in July 1987, in which 424 civilians were killed, led to a significant decline in international support. By 1987, Renamo had essentially “lost the propaganda war” (Finnegan 1992, 35).

Conflict Management Efforts

Following the settlement of the war, the bulk of conflict management efforts fell under the jurisdiction of the United Nations. The General Peace Agreement signed by both parties called for a UN supervised cease-fire, election monitoring, demobilization of soldiers, and general humanitarian assistance. In one of his first tasks, Aldo Ajello, the UN’s special representative for postwar Mozambique, formed the Supervision and Control Commission (CSC). It was composed of Ajello as chair, along with representatives from Renamo, Frelimo, Italy, Portugal, France, Britain and the United States. The CSC became the central governing body overseeing the implementation of the entire peace agreement. On November 4, 1992, the CSC created several specialized subsidiary groups, including the Cease-Fire Commission, the Commission for the Reintegration of Demobilizing Military Personnel, and the Joint Commission of the Mozambican Defense Force, which would form the core of ONUMOZ (the United Nations Operation in Mozambique; Alden 1995).

In the year following the agreement, Mozambique received more than $1 billion in international aid and more than $700 million from related UN agencies. ONUMOZ consisted of 6,000 military troops from twenty-two countries. Nearly 1,000 official observers governed forty-nine military demobilization sites supervising the transition and conversion of the former combatants into political participants (Msabaha 1995, 224). International observers from many countries helped to monitor the country’s first round of elections, which were deemed relatively free and fair. Eighty-five percent of Mozambicans voted in the election, and Frelimo President Chissano beat Renamo’s presidential candidate Dhlakama by a close margin. Despite significant delays by some of the subsidiary commissions in fulfilling their tasks and the myriad problems to be expected with such an immense project, the postsettlement management of the Mozambican civil war has since been referred to as the United Nations’ “only post conflict success story in Africa” (Manning 2002, 4).


The civil war in Mozambique is an extremely rich case in terms of the unique challenges facing postcolonial societies, the political processes leading to postcolonial civil wars, and the self-perpetuating etiology of structure and agency in lengthy, protracted conflicts. As in most of sub-Sahara Africa, the postcolonial state in Mozambique contained many seeds of internal conflict rooted primarily in postcolonial power struggles and the inability of a new state to control and administer its territory or to consolidate a monopoly on the use of military violence. Once organized by the destabilization efforts of neighboring states, anti-Frelimo opposition in Mozambique, led by Renamo, was sustained and fed by new conflicts and incompatibilities created by a weak state attempting to impose itself on a strong and resisting society. State-society relations under Frelimo reflected nearly mutually exclusive interests (subsistence agriculture versus centralized economic planning; indigenous authority structure versus state power and bureaucracy; traditional religious beliefs versus party ideology), and these cleavages generated significant antistate sentiment, particularly in the countryside.

Renamo’s beginnings and growth as a rebel insurgency in Mozambique is an excellent example of the interaction of state behavior and rebel group success. In Mozambique, anti-Frelimo opposition was created when, after independence, significant numbers of Mozambicans became political enemies of the state, based largely on former colonial ties. At the most abstract level, the civil war in Mozambique was caused by a system of dual sovereignty and mutual excludability generated by decolonization and subsequent power struggles, one of the primary causes of civil wars in Africa, according to Zartman (1995). This raises important theoretical implications regarding the extent to which governments create their own resistance movements through policies of political exclusion and repression. Being anti-Frelimo was not only an ideology to be adopted by disgruntled or disillusioned Mozambicans; it was imposed by the Frelimo regime on certain groups or segments of society, many with former military training. Had the Frelimo government, after independence, exonerated those Mozambicans that helped defend the colonial system, presumably there would not have been a mass exodus from Mozambique of those best trained and ideologically predisposed to become Renamo. Probably the largest mistake made by the regime was not allowing those Mozambicans who fought for the Portuguese to join the new (Frelimo) national army after independence.

Cabrita (2000) has suggested that, given the totalitarian nature of the Frelimo regime and its choice to challenge Rhodesia and South Africa by supporting and providing sanctuary to the guerrilla movements that sought to overthrow them, the creation and growth of anti-Frelimo opposition was inevitable. By engaging in mass political exclusion and repression of large segments of its population and by assisting insurgency movements that threatened the national security of neighboring states, the Frelimo government provoked interventionist tactics by neighboring states geared toward the destruction of the regime—goals that happened to mirror those of thousands of Mozambicans who wanted to win back a previous way of life.

The Mozambican case also stands out as a source of optimism and a model for scholars and policy makers interested both in how to achieve an unlikely peace with settlements based on democratization and security guarantees and in how to sustain that peace in the postconflict environment. As a case study, Mozambique is not only one of the few cases in which democratization has been the backbone of a general peace agreement and postwar peace process, it is also one of the few successful ones. Although the initial postwar environment was described as a very “delicate peace” (Alden and Simpson 1993, 1) in perhaps the poorest, least-developed nation in the world, within ten years of the settlement, Mozambique was described as having a “booming” economy with respect to southern Africa. Its postwar rehabilitation effort has been held up as a “model for Afghanistan” and other war-torn states (Itano 2002, 1). In the last decade, Renamo has successfully become a mainstream political party, receiving more than 40 percent of the popular vote in two rounds of general elections and retaining a “high level of popularity, especially among the more isolated rural populations of the north and centre, which feel marginalized by Frelimo policies” (EIU Views Wire 2003, 1).