Analysis | Decentralization as a path to peace in Mozambique

Mary Sturgis

A crowded city skyline with an industrial port in the foreground.
Mozambique’s capital, Maputo (Image: Julien Lagarde on Wikimedia)

What started as small village raids by disgruntled youth in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado region in October 2017 has quickly escalated into beheadings, murders, and kidnappings of citizens by well-organized insurgent groups. In March, the conflict received global attention after al-Shabaab, an Islamist militia with links to ISIS, beheaded a group of children. The ensuing battle, which occurred in the oil rich city of Palma, caused 70,000 to flee their homes according to the UN refugee agency’s most recent estimate. This brought the number of displaced people from the province to 800,000. On June 21, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that Mozambique’s conflict is “one of the world’s fastest-growing displacement crises.”

Sadly, Mozambique is no stranger to violent conflict: in addition to the al-Shabaab insurgency, the country has also experienced periodic recurrences of violence even after the 1992 Rome General Peace Accords (GPA) which ended the country’s 16-year long civil war. Hostilities restarted between the country’s two main opposing parties, the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO) and the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), when the latter killed 36 soldiers and police in 2013.

The insurgency lasted until 2019 when President Filipe Nyusi and RENAMO leader Ossufo Momade committed to elections in the Peace and National Reconciliation Agreement. Despite these negotiations, sporadic violence perpetrated by the RENAMO Military Junta (JMR) has continued through February of this year. Disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR) efforts designed to pacify the JMR combattants have been delayed past their August deadline and the potential for violent conflict persists.

Policymakers seeking to meaningfully address the drivers of Mozambique’s recent insurgency must first understand the shortcomings of the 1992 peace settlement, especially as it relates to the country’s highly centralized government.

The GPA proposed a system that would allow for rival combatant groups to participate equally in the political process. However, failures in the deal’s implementation, including a time-limited technical process and resource limitations, meant that little was done to address the drivers of conflict, including the persecution of political opponents by Mozambique’s dominant FRELIMO party; regional economic and social inequities; and ideological differences about the structure of the country’s economy.

An exemption to disarmament mandates allowed RENAMO’s leader to maintain an armed militia under the façade of a presidential guard, enabling politicians to settle disputes through violence rather than elections. While RENAMO made some electoral gains in central Mozambique, the ruling FRELIMO tried to contain its political rivals, resulting in a political structure that consolidated government authority in Maputo City, the country’s capital.

Decentralization, a political structure that empowers locally legitimate actors to make decisions at the community level, may be the best tool available to tackle the country’s economic and political equality. Accordingly, the Peace and National Reconciliation Agreement had included steps to accelerate efforts to decentralize government to regional centers.

Decentralization, defined by the United Nations as a process which “denote[s] the transfer of political, administrative, and financial powers to territorial units at the middle and/or lower level of state,” has proven to be a critical element to conflict transformation. For example, in Macedonia, the 2001 Ohrid Agreement protected the rights of major ethnic communities and encouraged ethnic self-determination in public services, urban and rural planning, economic development, culture, education, and environmental protection. This ensured that the peace deal empowered ethnic Albanians to make decisions and improve local governance structures according to their needs. Decentralization also helped to de-escalate political tensions between ex-combatants in the wake of the El Salvadoran Civil War by promoting local civic participation in decision-making and increasing the efficacy of municipal government responsiveness, particularly in rural areas. Similarly, in Cambodia, decentralization efforts created semi-autonomous elected governments designed to address the political and economic problems that fueled the country’s civil war from 1968 until 1975.

Decentralization in Mozambique may prove equally important in accommodating political rivalries in conflict prone-areas and addressing the drivers of conflict. By strengthening the connection between citizens and their government on a local level, elected officials can more adeptly respond to local grievances. If successful, ongoing efforts to expand financial powers to new provincial level governance structures, such as Political Assemblies, elected governors, and secretaries of state for each province, can reduce social and economic exclusion and empower locally legitimate actors to address provincial security needs. Furthermore, these efforts can reduce the “winner takes all” mentality surrounding elections, empowering officials in RENAMO- and FRELIMO-controlled territories to make decisions and respond to key citizen demands in their respective provinces.

The drivers of today’s al-Shabaab insurgency are similar to the grievances that fueled the country’s civil war, including high poverty levels and unequal access to land and jobs. A successful decentralization process over the coming years could be the key to stabilizing the conflict. It will depend on the political will of leaders from both the FRELIMO and RENAMO parties to study local political economies and implement necessary reforms. For FRELIMO, which has reaped the benefits of highly centralized power for more than twenty years, finding the political will to do so may prove challenging.

In this light, U.S. policymakers seeking to undermine extremism in Mozambique must support the country’s decentralization process. By collaborating with subnational governments, U.S. diplomats and those from other key donor countries can identify challenges to subnational governance and empower elected officials, civil society actors, and community stakeholders by funding interventions that fill critical gaps in local governance capacity.

As in other peace processes, decentralization may be the lynchpin for sustainable peace in Mozambique, and finally put an end to the violence that began in 1977. These reforms may also mitigate the threats posed by the al-Shabaab militia group and help to stabilize the country’s security crisis. Mozambique’s upcoming elections will be the country’s first attempt at decentralization, giving citizens hope that a reformed political system might shift the course of Mozambique’s most recent conflict. As such, U.S. policymakers and international election observers should not only evaluate whether these elections are free and fair, but also whether rival parties are respecting the political decentralization process. If both parties can maintain their commitment to the 2019 compromise, decentralization has the potential to build a lasting foundation for citizen-centered governance and stability, and once again place Mozambique on a trajectory towards consolidated democratic peace.

Mary Sturgis is a Master of Science in Foreign Service Candidate at Georgetown University with a concentration in Global Politics and Security. As a 2020 Boren Fellow to Mozambique, Mary conducted research virtually through the University of Eduardo Mondlane on diplomatic statecraft vis-a-vis non-state actors.

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The Diplomatic Pouch features insights and commentary on global challenges and the evolving demands of diplomatic statecraft. Views are those of the authors and not necessarily the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy or Georgetown University. Visit isd.georgetown.edu for more.

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