The 1992 peace accords ending a 16-year civil war, followed by the 1994 democratic elections, promised a brighter political and economic future for Mozambique. Despite the adoption of multiparty politics and robust economic growth since the 1990s, however, Mozambique today faces seemingly intractable challenges. Amid increasing allegations of electoral fraud, Frelimo continues to be the country’s ruling party, a position it assumed after independence in 1975. Political insiders control most of the country’s considerable economic assets, including vast natural gas deposits in the north. A violent jihadi insurgency, which began in the northern province of Cabo Delgado in 2017 and tapped into local grievances, has so far resisted the combined efforts of the national military, regional security forces, and a contingent of troops from Rwanda to eliminate it. With spaces for peaceful civic participation and action shrinking, the glimmer of hope for democracy, security, and well-being in Mozambique is fading.

An integral element of the 1992 peace accords that ended a 16-year armed conflict between Mozambique’s ruling party, Frelimo, and the rebel movement, Renamo, was an agreement to hold regular, multiparty elections. But over the 30 years since that agreement took effect, Frelimo has misused its access to state power to guarantee its repeated electoral victories and to undermine popular support for the opposition. The party’s conduct calls into question whether liberal democracy will ever have a chance in Mozambique.

Peace and prosperity have proved just as elusive. Because it has been unable to make political gains electorally or legislatively, Renamo has periodically relied on violent attacks to exact concessions from Frelimo, which has responded with similar tactics to retain power. An insurgent movement with ties to Islamic extremists has plagued the north of the country since 2017.

Things are not much better on the economic front. The costs of corruption, illicit financial flows, and a $2 billion loan scam have fallen most heavily on the poor. Mozambique’s debt now amounts to $15 billion, for a whopping debt-to-GDP ratio of 100 percent.

Analysts often explain democratic weakness, resurgent conflict, and corruption in Africa by pointing to endemic ethnic strife, “big man” politics, or the resource curse. These characteristics are present in Mozambique, too, but they do not sufficiently capture the dynamics of its political economy since 1992. Better explanations for the country’s current crisis include the monopolization of political institutions by a disciplined and hierarchical ruling party, the capture of most economic resources by political insiders and transnational corporations, and violent conflict.

The Mozambique of 2022 looks very different from the Mozambique of 30 years ago. In 1992, the country had two evenly matched political rivals and an economy in ruins. After the peace accords, Frelimo remained in control of the state but was weakened by years of conflict. Renamo had considerable military strength and support in the middle of the country. Sixteen years of war had brought the economy to its knees: growth rates in the early 1990s were negative, and the country was deeply in debt.

In return for generous financial and technical support, donors, including the United States, convinced Frelimo to abandon socialism, adopt a market economy, and embrace multiparty politics. In 1994, the former armed foes faced each other in the country’s first multiparty elections. In the legislative elections, Frelimo won 129 seats; Renamo took 112 seats. Frelimo’s presidential candidate, Joaquim Chissano, won comfortably with 53 percent of the vote. He had previously been appointed to the post by Frelimo in 1986 following the death of Samora Machel, the country’s first president since independence in 1975.

By 2022, Mozambique had held six national elections at regular intervals. Frelimo has retained power under three different presidents. A constitutionally mandated, two-term limit for the presidency has been institutionalized. Civil society and independent media are small-scale, but active and vocal.

Meanwhile, the government has privatized most of its state-owned enterprises, selling them off to both domestic and foreign investors. Although the country is still heavily dependent on overseas development assistance, foreign investment has consistently outpaced aid in the past decade. Mozambique has developed trade relations not only with other African countries, such as South Africa, but also with the Netherlands, China, India, and the United Arab Emirates. Mozambique also continues to trade with Portugal, the former colonial power.

After an economic contraction in 1992, the average growth rate between 1993 and 2019 (prior to the pandemic) was 7.2 percent per year. The poverty rate declined from nearly 68 percent of the population in 1996 to 46 percent in 2014, though it has been rising since 2015.

Despite the many substantive and positive changes over the past 30 years, current assessments of political and economic conditions in Mozambique range from pessimistic to alarmist. Most rankings of the political system place it squarely in the “electoral autocracy” camp. Election irregularities and constraints on freedom of expression and participation all but guarantee victories for the ruling party.

Foreign investment has consistently outpaced aid in the past decade.

Besides the effects of climate change, which have produced deadly floods in Mozambique over the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic has strained the fragile health care system and dried up the tourist trade, which accounted for about 9 percent of GDP in 2018. A growing jihadist insurgency has resulted in the deaths of over 3,500 people, uprooted nearly a million more, and delayed the development of rich natural gas deposits off the northern coast. A $2 billion loan fraud involving politicians at the highest level—known as the “tuna bond” or “hidden debts” scandal—has slashed Mozambique’s international credit rating, damaged investor confidence, and undercut public trust.

In the 1999 election—the second since the peace accords—President Joaquim Chissano narrowly won reelection, defeating Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama. Renamo’s allegations that Frelimo had falsified the results to deny Dhlakama’s victory were rejected by the National Electoral Commission and ultimately by the Constitutional Court, which validated the results, but journalists and academics later found the allegations to be credible. After that close call, Frelimo notables determined that endemic corruption and weak linkages between the party and its supporters accounted for the near loss of power. To strengthen the base and clean up Frelimo’s image, the party’s Central Committee chose Armando Guebuza, a distinguished veteran of the anticolonial struggle, as the party’s 2004 presidential nominee. During the campaign, Guebuza criticized Chissano’s style of governance and pledged to curb corruption and inefficiency in the public sector. Besides pledging to improve the well-being of all Mozambicans, especially the poor, Guebuza also highlighted the ways in which market competition, domestic entrepreneurs, and foreign investors could contribute to national development.

Following a commanding victory, Guebuza launched an anticorruption campaign. The initiative gained considerable respect from the public but sowed fear among fellow members of the party, especially after several former ministers were brought to trial on corruption charges. Among the most prominent were Almerino Manhenje and António Munguambe, two onetime members of Chissano’s cabinet who were sentenced to two and twenty years in prison, respectively. The trials served another purpose: Guebuza used them to weaken rival factions within Frelimo and to convince party notables that he was prepared to punish disloyalty to him or his political agenda.

Having sidelined his rivals, Guebuza proceeded to reinvigorate party cells within state institutions by requiring membership in Frelimo as a condition of appointment to higher levels of the public sector. To further cement the linkage between the party and the state (which had previously been a feature of Mozambican politics when Frelimo ran a one-party state after independence), Guebuza also appointed provincial party secretaries to local government positions. This “frelimization” of institutions was loudly denounced by the opposition and civil society. But Guebuza also sought to resuscitate the foundational organizing principle of “national unity” orchestrated by, and through, the Frelimo party. Repackaging popular phrases used by Samora Machel during the anticolonial war, he reminded Mozambicans of their heroic struggle for independence and called on them to fight against poverty and for peace and democracy.

To revive the base of the party at the local level, Guebuza launched the Local Initiative Investment Fund (later renamed the District Development Fund) in 2005, giving each district administrator the power to decide and manage 7 million meticais yearly (about $286,000 at 2005 exchange rates). Although the funds were ostensibly meant to develop districts and give them greater financial autonomy, they also bought the loyalty of beneficiaries. Some administrators used the money to furnish their offices and houses or to cover other personal expenses. Others issued loans for local business initiatives—one of the intended uses of the funds—but without requiring a sound business plan or expecting repayment. The key requirement was that borrowers be party members.

As a result of these measures, Guebuza and the ruling party handily won the 2009 general election. Guebuza took about 70 percent of the vote and Frelimo garnered two-thirds of the parliamentary seats, triggering opposition accusations of election rigging. Frelimo continued to dominate in subsequent elections despite increasing internal divisions and several scandals. With a new presidential candidate from the northern province of Cabo Delgado, Filipe Jacinto Nyusi, Frelimo was victorious again in 2014.

Nyusi won a second term in 2019. In that election, civil society activists, opposition parties, and poll observers denounced Frelimo’s intimidation of opposition supporters, its reliance on state resources for its campaign, widespread electoral irregularities including “ghost” voters, and several targeted assassinations allegedly ordered by the ruling party.

After nearly capturing the presidency in the 1999 elections, the major opposition party has seen its political fortunes decline. Some of Renamo’s troubles have been of its own making. Its former leader, Afonso Dhlakama, was adept at forcing concessions from the Frelimo administration, but he failed to strengthen his own party machinery between elections. He relied on an autocratic, highly centralized leadership style to check the rise of other party officials who might have threatened his power. He frequently demoted or expelled those who became popular with voters or proved competent at their jobs, leaving the top echelons of the party without seasoned, professional leadership.

Daviz Simango, who was elected mayor of Beira on the Renamo ticket in 2003, experienced .this treatment. Daviz was a son of Uria and Celina Simango, who were among the founders of Frelimo. They were allegedly murdered by Machel’s government following independence. As mayor, Daviz improved the delivery of basic services such as garbage collection and reformed the city’s financial administration. But when voters and the media applauded the improvements he made in Mozambique’s second city, he was expelled from Renamo. He formed his own party, the Mozambican Democratic Movement, in 2009. After initially offering a refreshing alternative to the two main parties, it began to suffer the same fate as many opposition parties in Africa—marginalization by larger parties, a lack of institutionalization, and the concentration of power in the party leader. Daviz Simango died of COVID-19 in early 2021; his brother, Lutero, was elected by the party’s electoral commission as the new leader.

Besides its internal clashes, Renamo has also been weakened by the practices and policies of Frelimo. The ruling party’s oversight of the transition to a market economy deprived opposition supporters of access to economic opportunities. Former Renamo combatants who were integrated into the national military as part of the 1992 peace accords were pushed to the margins. Only recently, following another bout of conflict between Renamo and Frelimo, have a few Renamo combatants been appointed to high-ranking military positions. Renamo’s disastrous showing in the 2009 elections—Dhlakama received only 16 percent of the vote for the presidency, and the party captured just 51 of the 250 seats in parliament—afforded Frelimo unprecedented power to pass legislation and to amend the constitution.

In response to this economic and political exclusion, Dhlakama demanded reforms. When his demands proved futile, he repudiated the 1992 peace accords and announced a resumption of war in 2013. He returned to Gorongosa, his former military base in the center of the country, and waged armed attacks to pressure Frelimo. The attacks continued intermittently in the run-up to the 2014 elections, as well as in advance of the 2018 municipal polls and 2019 national elections. That violent campaign yielded several concessions, including a switch to direct election of provincial governors, who previously had been appointed by the ruling party.

Dhlakama died suddenly in May 2018. As with many organizations dominated by “big men,” his death triggered a leadership struggle and crystallized factions within the party. Owing to its own weaknesses and Frelimo’s electoral manipulation, Renamo failed to win a single province in 2019—even in its traditional strongholds. With a hazy political program and its electoral machine in disarray, and having gone through a bitter internal struggle to select a new leader, Renamo’s prospects of survival are precarious. Even the military leverage used as a last resort by Dhlakama has been effectively ruled out by the peace deal signed by Nyusi and the new Renamo leader, Ossufo Momade, since Renamo’s military bases have been closed under its terms.

The political dominance of Frelimo is paralleled by the presence of its members in prominent positions across the Mozambican economy. In the early 2000s, Joel Hellman, Geraint Jones, and Daniel Kaufmann popularized the term “state capture” to describe the process whereby transnational companies were manipulating and co-opting state officials and institutions to gain financial advantage during the transition of Eastern European countries to market economies. In Mozambique, the process has been more of a two-way exchange.

The ruling party deprived opposition supporters of access to economic opportunities.

At the urging of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and Western donors, the ruling party began privatizing substantial state holdings in the early 1990s. Foreign firms sought to curry favor with the government by appointing powerful politicians to their boards or offering them small stakes in new or privatized enterprises. Ruling party elites took advantage of the privatization process to gain substantial interests in nearly every sector of the economy, from agriculture and trade to finance and mining.

Already well underway during the Chissano administration, the process of state capture was refined and restructured under Guebuza. He centralized rents and opportunities; his loyalists benefited from state procurement contracts. Research by the Center for Public Integrity, as well as reporting by the investigative journalist Marcelo Mosse and our own studies, indicate that presidents and their families, ministers, deputy ministers, governors, military officers, veterans of the liberation struggle, and members of parliament have interests in hundreds of companies involved in agriculture, timber, industrial sectors, import-export, finance, and tourism. Elites are connected to each other through interlocking directorships, holding companies, subsidiaries, and joint ventures. According to several recent reports, some high-ranking government and military officials, party elites, customs agents, and local police are also involved in the illicit trade of gemstones and heroin.

But the real jewel consists of vast offshore natural gas deposits in the north. Their presence has been suspected at least since the colonial period, but exploration was accelerated under Guebuza. Together with coal mining, Guebuza viewed the development of gas reserves as an opportunity not only to enhance his personal wealth, but also for the country to gain some economic independence from the West by catering to China’s demand for resources. Geological studies in 2010 confirmed an estimated 180 trillion cubic feet of gas deposits in the Rovuma Basin, in the deep waters of the Indian Ocean off the coast of Cabo Delgado. Transnational companies soon rushed in. The US energy company Anadarko was the first mover, followed in 2011 by Italian firm ENI.

The discovery of gas has shifted the center of gravity of both Mozambique’s economic prospects and its political power to the north. A number of currently serving and retired army generals—including Alberto Chipande, Lagos Lidimo, Salvador Mtumuke, and Raimundo Pachinuapa, all of whom belong to the Makonde, the main ethnic group in Cabo Delgado—have formed energy, hydrocarbon, mining, and security companies to exploit the opportunities brought by gas as well as gemstones and other resources. They have flexed their political muscles, too, joining other Frelimo party notables and civil society actors to thwart Guebuza’s efforts to run for a third term, and playing their cards so that one of their own, Nyusi, could ascend to the presidency. Nyusi not only is a Makonde from Cabo Delgado, but also served as minister of defense under Guebuza. With him as president, many observers believe that control over the state and business has shifted decisively into the hands of the Chipande family and other Makonde strongmen.

Just as northern political entrepreneurs consolidated their power, the Nyusi administration became embroiled in a scandal over foreign loans obtained during Guebuza’s presidency. In 2012, with gas development underway, officials secretly contracted with Russian state-owned bank VTB and Credit Suisse to receive state-secured loans of $2 billion, ostensibly to purchase military equipment for Mozambique’s maritime defense and security needs and to upgrade its fishing fleet. After Guebuza completed his term, allegations emerged of bribery, corruption, and willful secrecy in the securing of the loans, implicating several prominent politicians, including the current president and his predecessor.

In response, donors suspended direct support to Mozambique’s state budget, plunging the country into a severe economic crisis. Though the sanctions were intended to punish the political elite, the crisis mostly hurt the poor and reversed the gains the country had made in the fight against poverty. Top government officials escaped serious punishment.

Donors pushed for an independent audit, which was conducted by Kroll, a New York–based corporate investigations firm. Kroll’s findings suggested that there had been a scheme to divert the borrowed funds to private Mozambican individuals. The scheme was aided by a host of advisers, lawyers, and intermediaries in the West and elsewhere, who all received commissions for their services.

The security services disputed the findings, claiming that since they could not share classified information with Kroll, the firm’s report had not captured the full story. Yet several trials connected to the case in New York, London, and Maputo indicate that state officials involved in the loans, including the former minister of finance, the general director of the Mozambican secret services, the director of economic intelligence, several bureaucrats, and the former president’s own son, Ndambi Guebuza, pocketed huge sums from the deal. Credit Suisse pleaded guilty in 2021 to defrauding investors, and Senator Elizabeth Warren specifically cited the scandal in a letter to the US Labor Department, requesting that it prohibit the bank from handling retirement funds in the United States. In Mozambique, 19 individuals are currently on trial for alleged involvement in the scam—though it is unlikely that any powerful politicians will be convicted.

In October 2017, a wave of insurgent attacks erupted in Cabo Delgado. Referred to locally as al-Shabaab (though there is no apparent connection to al-Shabaab in Somalia), the insurgent movement has been burning villages, killing residents, displacing communities, and destroying crops for the past five years. After an especially dramatic attack on the coastal town of Palma in March 2021, French transnational oil company TotalEnergies suspended its $20 billion liquified natural gas project there; Exxon has indefinitely delayed its own investment. A vigorous debate has taken place regarding the root causes of the conflict in Cabo Delgado, but there is no doubt that economic precarity and impoverishment have facilitated its spread.

If the reach of the state is “thick” in the southern capital of Maputo, it is “thin” in Cabo Delgado. For decades, this northern province has been a smugglers’ paradise. Illegal immigrants from Somalia, Kenya, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, and even Niger and Thailand are involved in the trafficking of timber, rubies, gold, and refugees, apparently with the complicity of high-level Mozambican officials. Several cities and ports along the coasts of Cabo Delgado and Nampula, the province just to its south, are also key corridors for the trafficking of drugs such as heroin. Originating in Afghanistan, heroin is sent overland to Pakistan and shipped by sea to northern Mozambique. It is then transported by road to South Africa, where it is either consumed or exported to Europe.

Some observers have speculated that the development of gas projects threatens these lucrative networks and trade corridors, and that the conflict is an attempt to protect or capture the drug trade. But the trafficking networks have already moved south. The real problem is that the inability of weak state institutions to enforce the rule of law or promote development, as well as their lack of interest in doing either, has enabled the growth of the insurgency.

Simmering local grievances over exclusion, unemployment, and poverty cannot be ignored. Investments in gas as well as gemstone mining projects have led to the forcible displacement and resettlement of residents who mainly depended on fishing or artisanal and small-scale gem mining for their livelihoods. Although these perilous conditions may not have precipitated the conflict, they have fueled it. To recruit fighters, the leaders of the insurgency denounce government corruption and tap into the frustrations of young, rural Mozambicans over economic insecurity, attracting locals by promising better living conditions than what is offered by the Frelimo government. But insurgents have also pledged to implement Sharia law and appear to have links to the Islamic State of Central African Province. This has raised fears, especially in the West and in southern Africa, that the movement mostly comprises extremists who want to establish an Islamic state.

Instead of fostering local development projects that might address the underlying drivers of conflict, powerful politicians initially ignored the unrest while continuing to line their own pockets. As the attacks spread, the government resorted to a variety of mercenaries to restore order, including the Wagner Group from Russia and DAG, a South African private military company. Neither they nor Mozambique’s own armed forces made much headway; in fact, some of the military’s efforts at counterinsurgency have deepened local grievances.

The discovery of gas has shifted the center of gravity to the north.

Fearing that the insurgency could spread beyond Mozambique’s borders, the security council of the South African Development Community (SADC) agreed to deploy troops to the country, a longtime member. While arrangements for their arrival were being made, however, Nyusi signed a secret bilateral arrangement with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda to deploy about 2,400 Rwandan troops, more than double the number of the SADC contingent, to assist Mozambican forces in fighting the insurgents.

Members of SADC, especially South Africa and Botswana, have raised concerns about the growing influence and involvement of Rwanda in the region. Observers believe that Kagame is also using the intervention as an opportunity to try to silence his opponents, some of whom are in exile in southern Africa. A leading Rwandan opposition leader, the former intelligence chief, and a former army chief were all murdered in South Africa between 2010 and 2014. In Mozambique, a Rwandan journalist who had directed the Christian radio station Amazing Grace in Kigali, and was a critic of Kagame’s policies, was abducted in May 2021 and has not been seen since. Four months later, the vice president of the Association of Rwandan Refugees in Mozambique (ARRM) was killed. He was a former officer in the Rwandan army.

About 4,000 Rwandan refugees live in Mozambique; half of them reside near Maputo. According to the ARRM, refugees have grown increasingly fearful following the disappearances and murders, and some are leaving. The appointment of Claude Nikobisanzwe as Rwanda’s high commissioner in Mozambique has intensified those fears. Prior to his appointment, Nikobisanzwe was expelled from South Africa due to allegations that he was involved in the killing of Rwanda’s former intelligence chief.

Regardless of whether the immediate causes of conflict in northern Mozambique involve drug cartels and smuggling corridors, the expansion of Islamic extremism, local grievances, or all of those factors together, the situation appears to have entangled Mozambique in larger, more complex transnational and regional geopolitical rivalries from which it will not easily extricate itself. Multinational companies that have already invested in natural gas are playing a “wait and see” game, pushing anticipated returns into the future (though they may change their minds given the spike in natural gas prices owing to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine). The mercenaries and allies on which Mozambique depends to fight al-Shabaab will also expect to be paid, with either political or economic favors. If gas revenue actually materializes, the question is whether any of it will reach ordinary Mozambicans.

Across Africa, people have participated in civil society organizations and social movements to protest threats to their well-being from land grabbing, the destructive environmental impact of mining, the failure of governments to provide reliable and affordable access to basic public services, and lack of security. In Mozambique, civil society, nongovernmental organizations, activists, journalists, critics, and ordinary people are speaking out about their circumstances, too.

Local communities that have been displaced by coal extraction or biofuel projects have blocked transport corridors and held impromptu demonstrations intended to force companies and the government to honor their rights or offer greater compensation. The founder of Justiça Ambiental, a Mozambican environmental group, has loudly protested human rights violations and environmental degradation associated with gas exploration, demanding immediate termination of the projects. Civil society organizations such as the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Democracy and Development, the Budget Monitoring Forum, and the Mozambican branch of the Media Institute of Southern Africa have documented and denounced corruption, cronyism, secret deals, hidden debts, and violations of journalistic freedoms.

Presently, these efforts are too easily suppressed by the exercise of state power. Although Article 51 of the Constitution guarantees citizens “the right to freedom of assembly and demonstration, within the terms of the law,” the ruling party has effectively prohibited most demonstrations, and security forces have used live ammunition to disperse protesters. Activists who try to organize protests have been charged with threatening state security. Journalists have risked and lost their lives to investigate the individuals and networks engaged in illicit financial flows or drug smuggling.

Fearing the repercussions of engaging in overt criticism, most Mozambicans avoid protests and grumble about conditions in the privacy of their own homes. Together with the perception that elections are rigged, this severely circumscribes the possibilities for holding the government accountable. Foreign “partners” either turn a blind eye or have been distracted by other issues, such as resurgent authoritarianism, the debilitating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic in their own countries, and, as of this writing, the horrific humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine. At the end of the day, ordinary Mozambicans may have to intensify their own creative efforts to realize their hopes for democracy, security, and well-being in Mozambique.