Conflict and decentralization in Mozambique: The challenges of implementation

By Karl Kössler , 20 December 2018
President Nyusi and the late Dhlakama meet in Gorongosa Mountains in Aug 2017 (photo credit: Club of Mozambique)
President Nyusi and the late Dhlakama meet in Gorongosa Mountains in Aug 2017 (photo credit: Club of Mozambique)

With a view to address an intractable conflict and respond to regionalized political preferences, in May 2018, Mozambique adopted constitutional reforms towards decentralization. While elected bodies will be in place at the level of the provinces, districts and municipalities, the actual scope of autonomy of these bodies must be clarified through implementing legislation. Timely adoption of such legislation and changing the deeply rooted centralist mindset will be key to making decentralization a lived reality – writes Dr Kössler.

On 10 November 2018, Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, both commemorated its elevation to city status more than a century ago and witnessed the inauguration of the Maputo-Katembe bridge, the longest suspension bridge on the African continent. The bridge has quickly become a politicized issue. For some, it is a new symbol of national pride. Others contrast the huge project in Mozambique’s political and economic center (which is geographically located at its very southern end) with the perceived neglect of basic infrastructure in the central and northern parts of the country.

This is where the strengthening of decentralization, approved through amendments to the 2004 Constitution in May 2018, comes into play. The transfer of power (and financial resources) from the central government to subnational authorities would enable local residents to control the selection of their leaders and could lead to the adjustment of policies to local preferences and needs. Moreover, decentralization is increasingly popular as an instrument of accommodating claims of rival factions in conflict-affected settings.

Decentralization as both conflict trigger and solution for a post-conflict scenario?

For a proper understanding of the current decentralization process, it is crucial to understand that the history of Mozambique has since the struggle for independence been marked by the confrontation between two opposing political forces, both at war and at the ballot boxes. One of these is the Frelimo (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique), the victorious anti-colonialist movement that took over power from the Portuguese in 1974 and one year later approved the first independence constitution by acclamation rather than in an inclusive process. The other one is Renamo (Resistência Nacional de Moçambique) which started to challenge in 1975, sponsored initially by the then white minority governments of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa, Frelimo’s dominance. Renamo fiercely opposed the governing party both for its alignment with the Soviet Union and for its centralism that it regarded as being at odds with claims and traditions of regional, local and tribal self-rule.

Under the 1990 constitution, the provinces remained outposts of the central government.

From 1977 to 1992, Frelimo and Renamo were engaged in a devastating civil war that was fueled, in addition to domestic issues, by the typical dynamics of proxy battles during the Cold War. Eventually, the collapse of the Soviet Union and pressure from the International Monetary Fund led to Frelimo’s unilateral enactment of a new Constitution in 1990 and subsequently a peace accord. This constitution introduced multiparty politics in which the office of the President of Mozambique would not anymore accrue ex officio to the leader of Frelimo but to a directly elected candidate. The provinces, however, remained outposts of the central government, with their governors serving as mere administrators under central direction and control.

The first significant push towards autonomy (for local governments, not for the provinces) followed only after Renamo won almost half of the vote in the 1994 parliamentary election, with its electoral support being concentrated in the central and northern parts of the country. This resulted in the adoption of a constitutional amendment in 1996 and a series of implementing laws the following year. The reforms introduced what has been termed ‘gradual decentralization’ to ensure the constitutional imperative that ‘participation and decisions by citizens in matters of interest to their respective communities’ shall be guaranteed at all levels of government. Thus, the Assembly of the Republic, Mozambique’s unicameral parliament, has been authorized since 1997 to create and abolish local authorities (autarquias locais) with elected assemblies. These authorities have some financial autonomy, as well as regulatory powers within the limits of administrative supervision. Through the gradualist approach, 53 cities and municipalities have been transformed into local authorities with limited autonomy over the last two decades, whereas the remaining 352 basic local government units do not have such status.

Renamo considers the system of gradual decentralization, implemented since 1997, as inadequate.

Overall, the gradual decentralization has received praise from both scholars and international organizations, notably for the firm legal entrenchment of the principle of local self-government. While the current 2004 Constitution characterizes Mozambique as a unitary state, it also emphasizes that the state ‘respects the principles of autonomy of local authorities in its organization’. Moreover, local autonomy is listed among the most fundamental constitutional principles that may not be amended, except through approval in a mandatory referendum. From the perspective of Renamo, however, there is a gap between the constitutional guarantees and political practice and the policy of gradual decentralization has not gone far enough. Even though a 1997 law lays down a set of criteria for granting local government units the status of an autonomous local authority, the opposition party claims that the decision about such status is essentially political and dependent on whether there is a Frelimo majority or not. Renamo’s discontent with its alleged marginalization regarding the local authorities eventually contributed to a resurfacing of tensions.

The 2018 constitutional amendment: A first step or more?

After more than two decades of peace, bitterness at what Renamo regarded as stolen local elections in 2008 and disagreement over local electoral laws resulted in the retreat of the party from its central office in Maputo to its previous war headquarters in the inaccessible Gorongoza mountains. Renamo then boycotted the 2013 local elections and resumed its guerrilla campaign. What Renamo demanded was autonomy for six (out of eleven, including Maputo city) provinces of Mozambique, where Frelimo was not the predominant political force, while the status of the remaining five provinces would be left unchanged. Decentralization was therefore once again the crucial issue when talks started between the Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi, elected in 2015, and Afonso Dhlakama, the long-standing leader of Renamo since 1979. But what was now on the table went beyond ‘gradualism’ and local authorities. Instead, discussion also extended to the question of autonomy of provincial governments.

Under the reforms, subnational levels of government will enjoy better political autonomy, but the scope of their powers is unclear.

After three years of negotiation and failed attempts by Renamo to table legislation on decentralization, a tentative agreement between President Nyusi and Dhlakama was reached. The negotiations were largely conducted outside the halls of parliament and focused in a very personalized manner on the two leaders mostly talking on the phone, with little apparent public participation or input. Therefore, the agreement seemed to be in doubt in early May 2018 when Dhlakama died from a heart attack in the Gorongoza mountains after nearly four decades in power and without an obvious successor in sight. Nyusi’s eulogy at his opponent’s funeral reiterated, however, the continued commitment to bringing the peace process to an end and facilitated a swift move towards the adoption of a decentralization reform in parliament less than three weeks later. Crucially, as constitutional amendments must be approved by two-thirds of the members of parliament, neither Frelimo nor Renamo could make changes unilaterally. Indeed, the reform was eventually adopted unanimously.

The 14-page constitutional amendment modified 13 articles and introduced 22 new provisions with its core element being a fundamental change in the system of government at the level of the provinces, districts and municipalities. Prior to the amendments, the Mozambican President has had the authority to appoint and dismiss provincial governors, while the Minister of State Administration exercised similar powers vis-à-vis district administrators. Only the mayors of the 53 local authorities have so far been directly elected (alongside the likewise directly elected local assembly). The reform foresees that whoever headed the winning party list for the provincial, district and municipal assembly would automatically become the provincial governor, district administrator and mayor, respectively, whether or not the winning party secures a 50%+1 majority vote. This deviates from the initial Nyusi-Dhlakama agreement according to which the party winning the assembly elections would have appointed any of its members to these top executive posts. Protests of civil society and legal experts sparked this modification, which shifted the ultimate decision-making power over these positions from the parties to the electorate.

The reforms do not provide for mechanisms of representation of the provinces in central decision-making procedures and intergovernmental coordination.

Equally important is the provision that governors, administrators and mayors can only be removed from office by the relevant assembly (provincial, district or municipal). The grounds for such dismissal were, however, not explicitly spelled out in the amendments, but deferred to future legislation, which could open possibilities of disagreement and abuse. Similar uncertainty concerns the actual degree of autonomy of the elected bodies at the provincial, district and municipal level. The constitutional amendment promises administrative and financial autonomy, but these bodies are also obliged to respect the unitary state structure, as well as ‘the prevalence of the national interest, subsidiarity and gradualism’. Such a vague phrase requires clarification either through implementing legislation or the Constitutional Court, with the latter being, however, not recognized by the opposition as a truly impartial umpire. In any case, two things are clear from the amendment. First, the central government made sure that autonomy cannot extend to certain significant subject matters over which it explicitly retained full authority, i.e. public order, external relations, currency, energy and, importantly, natural resources. Secondly, central government representatives, such as a Provincial Secretary of State nominated by the President of the Republic, will ensure the exercise of these functions in the autonomous territories and coordinate them with the functions of the autonomous bodies, which still need to be further determined through implementing legislation. Whether the relationship between central and autonomous institutions will be one that is more or less on an equal footing remains to be seen.

The reforms do not anticipate mechanisms of representation of the provinces in central decision-making procedures as well as intergovernmental coordination, which may be essential for the smooth functioning of decentralized systems.

Implementation as crucial challenge and long-term process

As in so many other cases, the constitutional amendment per se is merely a first step towards decentralization and requires constitutional implementation in order to be put into practice and take root. This often neglected follow-up process has only recently started to attract scholarly attention and includes, in particular, the adoption of implementing legislation, the repeal of laws that are inconsistent with the amendment and the establishment of new institutions. In any case, constitutional implementation requires (sometimes scarce) capacities including financial means, technical competence and human resources, as well as further preconditions such as a sense of local ownership.

Disputes over natural resources and a political culture of centralization may exacerbate implementation challenges arising from the lack of clarity on important details.

In the case of Mozambique, giving effect to the country’s decentralization reform needs to overcome certain additional specific challenges. First, there is the issue of natural resources with the commencement of major coal mining in Tete province in central Mozambique and the recent discovery of huge natural gas reserves in Cabo Delgado province in the north. Concerns within the Frelimo government about secession were fuelled when flags of a ‘Northern Republic’ were found in an overrun Renamo camp a few years ago. Accordingly, natural resources are likely to remain a key issue. Moreover, the gas-rich Cabo Delgado province has recently witnessed terrorist attacks by an Islamist militant group formed in 2015, which further complicates decentralization in this peripheral territory at the border with Tanzania.

Secondly, Frelimo needs to reconcile decentralization with the party’s traditional penchant for centralism, which has both ideological and historical roots. There is the Leninist legacy of democratic centralism, which also other African countries with a history of communism such as Ethiopia are struggling with, and Frelimo’s history as a party formed in the 1960s by a merger of different liberation movements with own ethnic and regional bases of support. Centralism and national unity thus came to be seen as necessary means to avoid ‘Bantustanization’ (or, in European terminology, ‘Balkanization’). Indeed, one of Frelimo’s most famous slogans of the 1970s was ‘to kill the tribe to build the nation’. The fear of tribalism is still epitomized by the fact that Portuguese has been retained until today as the only official language, in spite of Mozambique’s more than 40 indigenous languages. Switching from a deeply rooted centralist mindset to one that is favorable to decentralization will be key for a proper implementation of the constitutional reforms.

Thirdly, several parts of the constitutional reforms are characterized by ‘constructive’ ambiguity and a conscious deferral of critical matters for future resolution through implementing legislation. Examples of such matters are the grounds for the dismissal of the executive by the respective provincial, district or municipal assembly, the specification of the powers of these assemblies and the concrete meaning of the prevalence of the national interest, which they need to respect. While ‘deciding not to decide’ (with regard to some issues) certainly facilitated the compromise between Frelimo and Renamo, this strategy might create problems in the long run because it puts a greater burden on the constitutional implementation process that follows the amendment. Mutual trust and continued negotiations in good faith between government and opposition groups will therefore be essential in the years to come, well beyond the critical presidential, parliamentary and provincial elections in October 2019.

Karl Kössler is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Comparative Federalism of Eurac Research, Bolzano/Bozen, Italy. In December 2018, he was holding seminars with senior officials from various ministries on the topic of decentralization.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in Voices from the Field contributions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect International IDEA’s positions.


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