Minority Rights Group International (MRG) Deputy Director, Claire Thomas, writes this opinion piece for the Thomson Reuters News Foundation.+ LEARN MORE
Main languages: Emakhuwa (29.5 per cent), Portuguese (official, 18.7 per cent), Xichangana/Xitsonga (9.7 per cent), Cisena (8 per cent), Elomwe (8 per cent), Echuwabo (5.3 per cent), Cindau/Shona (4.2 per cent), Xitswa (0.4 per cent) (Instituto Nacional de Estatística, 2017), Ronga, Marendje, Nianja, Swahili
Main religions: indigenous beliefs, Catholic (27.2 per cent), Islam (18.9 per cent), Zionist Christians (15.6 per cent), Evangelical/Pentecostal (15.3 per cent) (Instituto Nacional de Estatística, 2017).
Minority groups include Macua, Lómuè, Sena, Chuabo, Marendje, Nyanja and Ndau
Macua are the largest ethnic group in the north, Sena and Shona (Ndau) in the populous north-central province of Zambezia, and the Tsonga (Shangaan) in the south. Mozambique had a sizeable Portuguese population of around 250,000 in colonial times, but with independence in 1975, most Portuguese left the country following a government order. Small populations of South Asians, Arabs and Chinese remain.
Minority issues are not sharply drawn in the usual sense in Mozambique. However, the effects of uneven colonial development and post-colonial policies led many northerners to resent a southern-dominated political class. About two-thirds of Mozambique’s population inhabits the seven provinces north of the River Save. The country’s largest ethno-linguistic clusters are here: Macua and related Lómuè (the foremost group in the northern provinces of Nampula, Zambezia, Cabo Delgado and Niassa), Sena (foremost in Sofala province), Chuabo and Marendje (important in Zambezia), Nyanja (foremost in Tete), and the Shona-speaking Ndau people (dominant in Manica and important in Sofala).
Portuguese colonial rulers paid little attention to ethnicity apart from limited categorization of some groups as ‘loyal’ and others as ‘warriors’. Rather, the accent rested on ethno-cultural hierarchy, with whites on top, mestiços (people of mixed race) and assimilados (Africans certified as Westernized) in subordinate positions, and the undifferentiated mass of the indígenas at the bottom – a system formally rejected by the post-colonial FRELIMO government.
Updated July 2020
Mozambique continues to feel the legacy of the protracted civil war waged between the Marxist Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) and the Resistencia Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO). FRELIMO, an anti-colonial movement with Soviet support that after independence in 1975 established a one-party Marxist state, was subsequently challenged by the emergence of RENAMO’s violent insurgency, assisted by the apartheid regimes of neighbouring Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and South Africa. The ensuing conflict, lasting until 1992, killed one in 15 Mozambicans and displaced a third of the population. While there has been some important progress since the peace accord in 1992, tensions persist and have periodically flared, particularly in the wake of elections. FRELIMO has maintained its hold on power since the end of the conflict and has been accused by opposition supporters of vote rigging during elections.
Regional differences have continued to be sharp and divisive. In 2013 the UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights reported concern that ‘striking disparities remain in the country, with children in rural areas and the central and northern provinces faring worse than their urban counterparts’. The perception of marginalization amongst northern groups predates the civil war and contributed to the tensions underlying it. This strong sense of grievance in the north and centre of the country, which RENAMO drew heavily on during the civil conflict, is still evident to this day.
Having repeatedly failed to win power through the polls, in October 2013 RENAMO renounced the 1992 peace deal after government forces attacked one of its bases. A ceasefire was agreed in 2014 but a planned demobilization of RENAMO fighters and their integration into the state armed forces did not happen, and tensions continued. The RENAMO opposition rejected the result of the 2014 elections – won by FRELIMO’s Filipe Nyusi – and accused FRELIMO of stealing provincial races in central and northern provinces. RENAMO demands included decentralization and a degree of autonomy in the central and northern states where it had received its greatest support at the polls.
Violence escalated, and in October 2015 the military began an operation against RENAMO, leading some 11,500 people to flee to Malawi by the end of the first quarter of 2016. The worst violence hit the central Tete province on the Malawi border. This period also saw a spate of apparently politically motivated killings on both sides, with both accused of breaching human rights norms. In April 2016, the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights raised the alarm about reported summary executions and other human rights violations by the Mozambican army, as well as abuses by RENAMO fighters. A peace agreement was signed in August 2019, with the remaining RENAMO fighters formally demobilized and new elections announced for 15 October 2019. Analysts expressed concerns that in the absence of adequate safeguards to prevent irregularities, the elections could deepen the feeling of disenfranchisement in RENAMO-supporting areas of the country and lead to renewed violence.
Nevertheless, the elections went ahead. According to the official results, President Nyusi was reelected, having won 73 per cent of the vote. FRELIMO won 184 seats, while RENAMO got 60 seats and the much smaller MDM party secured six seats in the National Assembly. RENAMO questioned the outcome, accusing FRELIMO of corruption and voter intimidation. Two weeks after the election the opposition party filed an appeal with Mozambique’s highest court, the Constitutional Council, calling for it to annul the election results. However, the appeal was dismissed by the Constitutional Council, which found that the evidence of election-tampering had been insufficient. Sadly, the elections did not appear to mark an end to the violence, despite the recent peace agreement. An estimated 44 people were killed in election-related violence, including election monitor and human rights activist Anastácio Matavel who was murdered a week before the election. A RENAMO faction launched an attack on government forces in December 2019, killing 10 people.
Amidst these ongoing tensions, Mozambique is also contending with the emergence of a violent Islamist insurgency in the northern province of Cabo Delgado that since 2017 has launched a series of violent attacks on civilians, including beheadings, arson and forcible displacement. The movement is known both as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a and Al-Shabab, although Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS or IS) has recently begun claiming a presence and responsibility for attacks. Security forces have in turn been accused of committing human rights violations in their response to the insurgency. While at least 100,000 people have been displaced by early 2020, the motives behind the violence remain unclear. It appears as if the causes are multi-layered, with any radicalisation being mixed with local issues such as poverty, corruption and criminality – including gangs involved in heroin-trafficking.
Mozambique has also struggled with a series of natural disasters such cyclones, cyclical droughts and flooding, particularly in the south of the country, in the process devastating livelihoods and exacerbating existing vulnerabilities linked to poverty. The situation is especially acute for women and girls, increasing the incidence of coping mechanisms such as child marriages and transactional sex. Rates of chronic malnutrition among children are among the highest in the world, with 43 per cent of under-five-year-olds reportedly affected. Following cyclones in 2019, the World Food Programme has predicted that close to 2 million people could be facing severe food shortages by the end of 2019.
Updated July 2020
Mozambique lies along a vast stretch of the Indian Ocean in south-eastern Africa. It shares borders in the north with Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia, and in the west and south with Zimbabwe and South Africa. Much of the country, especially southern and coastal areas, lies at low altitude and is susceptible to severe flooding, as happened with devastating effect in 2000 and again in 2019. Droughts also periodically threaten food security. The country does not have significant mineral resources.
Ngoni Bantu peoples displaced the original Khoisan hunter-gatherer population in today’s Mozambique, and as early as the tenth century engaged with Arabs in trade of gold and slaves from the interior. Cultural exchanges and intermarriage between Ngoni peoples and Arabs led to the emergence of a distinct Swahili culture throughout the port cities of East Africa. Portuguese explorers arrived in 1498 and, exploiting the slave and gold trade, soon initiated nearly five centuries of colonial rule.
Mozambique’s land and labour remained at the disposal of outsiders, and in 1951 Mozambique became a formal province of Portugal. Through uneven processes of underdevelopment, northerners suffered greater disadvantage. More schools were established in the south, and systems of waged labour developed there from an earlier date. Nationalist leadership emerged in the 1950s in the south, mainly from Xichangana-speaking (Tsonga-speaking) areas in Gaza province, as well as from urban mestiço and Asian (Goan) communities. New social strata developed and technological change spread faster and wider in the south than in central and northern Mozambique, where health and nutrition indices and public infrastructure remained poorer. Northerners thus emerged as a numerical majority with the effective status of a marginalised minority.
Portugal maintained control of Mozambique until 1975, following the fall of the fascist government in Lisbon. Independent Mozambique’s first interior minister (and later President) Armando Guebuza ordered the immediate expulsion of all Portuguese citizens.
Prior to independence, beginning in 1962, anti-colonial activists called the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) took up arms against their oppressors, and received backing from the Soviet Union and China. At independence, FRELIMO established a one-party state, and its Soviet backing raised the ire of the United States. FRELIMO’s support to liberation movements struggling against white supremacy in neighbouring Southern Rhodesia (later Zimbabwe) and South Africa, led those racist regimes to support the formation of the Resistencia Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO), which had its stronghold in the country’s north. Beyond ongoing support to RENAMO throughout the war, South African and Rhodesian forces launched occasional attacks on black liberation guerrilla camps in Mozambique.
From 1975 FRELIMO set about building, from the top down, a Marxist, secular nation, attempting to promote national consciousness through such slogans as ‘Only One People, Only One Nation’. Already saddled by limited human and physical resources, the new regime also faced military aggression sponsored by the United States, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. But the new government made things worse through state policies that disadvantaged most rural people – in a country of predominantly rural people – and through its blindness towards local cultures. More perhaps through inadvertence than design, national policies and programmes had little regard for minority community interests. Despite a Constitution attaching importance to local cultures, the post-colonial leadership in practice suppressed cultural difference in the name of modernization. Portuguese, for example, was the official language of instruction at all levels of schooling, although after the mass exodus of most Portuguese at independence, it was the first language of less than two per cent of the population and remained unknown to most Mozambicans.
Over fifteen years, fighting between FRELIMO and RENAMO, fuelled by the Cold War, killed one in fifteen and displaced one in three Mozambicans. It left the countryside littered with landmines, and rendered many Mozambicans amputees. In a cumulative spiral of violence and impoverishment, it also teased out and inflamed regional and ethnic antagonisms.
Northern peoples had long been subject to coercion by powerful outsiders, though not without resistance. The mid-nineteenth-century history of violent conquest (by Ngoni armies based in southern Gaza) served to intensify northern resentment towards the southern elites, especially in the central provinces of present-day Manica and Sofala. Assessing any post-independence governmental bias against northerners was made more difficult by wider biases against small rural producers and ‘traditionalists’ in all parts of the country. Moreover, the economic geography of much of the south provided alternative sources of livelihood; the more purely agrarian economy of the north did not. Thus the impact of those biases, and the manner of state intervention (villagization at the point of a gun) was harsher in the north, and the compensatory benefits fewer. Moreover the war cut off the government and the private sector from large parts of central and northern regions. The armed opposition was thus able to gain adherents by playing on anti-southern and anti-state resentment. Ethnic antagonism, if not the foremost factor, played a part in the RENAMO army campaign against the southern-dominated state class of FRELIMO. Both factions committed horrific atrocities.
In 1986 the first FRELIMO President, Samora Machel, died in an airplane crash and was succeeded by Joaquim Chissano. With the expiration of the Cold War, President Chissano accelerated talks with RENAMO. He steered Mozambique toward economic reform and entered into a peace agreement with RENAMO to end the war in 1992. Chissano ushered in a new Constitution in 1990 that set the framework for a truly multi-party system in which human rights would be respected.
UN peacekeepers deployed to Mozambique and the subsequent peace process between the government and former rebels has come to be widely regarded by conflict experts as a model of success in disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. Within the next three years, over one and a half million Mozambican refugees and four million internally displaced persons whom the war had dispersed throughout Mozambique and southern Africa, flooded back to their homes. The influx created new challenges for the post-war government, including adequate education for much greater numbers of schoolchildren.
RENAMO gained substantial majorities in all but two of the northern provinces in the October 1994 elections. In the south RENAMO won hardly any seats, ending with 45 per cent of the overall national vote. The results revealed considerable alienation from the country’s ruling party in the north and centre of Mozambique. Notably, former RENAMO rebels accepted their new role as a loyal political opposition.
Chissano stepped down in 2004 and fellow FRELIMO party member Armando Guebuza won elections in December of that year. RENAMO complained that the vote was rigged, including through use of state resources for the FRELIMO campaign. International observers agreed that the elections were flawed, but not to an extent that likely changed the outcome.
While Mozambique successfully avoided further conflict in the ensuing years, it has continued to struggle with deep-seated poverty, inequality and corruption. In April 2016 news emerged of a financial scandal dating from 2013 under President Guebuza. He had taken out massive loans amounting to US$2 billion or one third of the national budget, in order to build a tuna-fishing fleet and obtain maritime patrol boats. The loans breached agreements with international financial institutions and were taken without parliamentary knowledge or consent, leading to the suspension of international funding and a sharp economic downturn across the country. The scandal also led to harsh repercussions for critics belonging to Mozambiquan civil society; for instance, the prominent journalist and human rights defender Ericino de Salema was abducted and brutally assaulted in March 2018.
In the mid-1990s Mozambicans were attempting to reconstruct a country ravaged by civil war. The new Constitution in 1990 had paved the way for a market-based economic system, and donors provided further impetus through structural adjustment policies. One goal of the reforms was redress of rural–urban imbalances in favour of the smallholder heartlands in the north and centre. But this approach brought with it a shift in assets – especially land – into the hands of private individuals and companies, which aggravated some old disparities and created some new inequalities. Nevertheless, more northerners were in positions of influence than before and the succeeding years saw consistently high growth rates in GDP and the taming of inflation rates. Such exports as aluminium, cash crops, and seafood increased along with food production for the local market.
Many challenges remained, however, with the country’s agricultural sector still characterized by weak infrastructure. Mozambique’s marked economic growth – partly due to the expansion of extractive industries including mining, frequently with negative impacts on local communities – has not been inclusive and poverty levels across the country remain high. Corruption and poor governance have also persisted.
Mozambique’s Constitution prohibits discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnic origin and criminalizes ‘all acts intended to undermine national unity, to disturb social harmony or to create divisions or situations of privilege or discrimination based on colour, race, sex, ethnic origin, place of birth, religion, level of education, social position, physical or mental ability, the marital status of one’s parents, profession or political preference.’
Updated July 2020
Minority based and advocacy organisations
Associacao Dos Direitos Humanos e Desenvolvimento (DHD)
Conselho Cristao de Mocambique (CCM)
Tel: +258-72-21-733, 72 20-818
Liga Moçambicana dos Direitos Humanos
Network of Activists and Researchers on Integrated Human Rights in Africa (NARIHRA)
Sources and further reading
Finnegan, W., A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1992.
Geffray, C., La cause des armes: anthropologie de la guerre contemporaine au Mozambique, Paris, Karthala, 1990.
Hanlon, J., Mozambique: Who Calls the Shots?, London, James Currey, 1991. Hanlon, J., Peace without Profit, Oxford, James Currey, 1996.
Minter, W., Apartheid’s Contras: An Inquiry into the Roots of War in Angola and Mozambique, London, Zed Press, 1994.
Trindade, Joas Carlos and Meneses, Maria Paula (eds.), Law and Justice in a Multicultural Society: The Case of Mozambique, Council for the Development of Social Science Research, 2006.