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Can Decentralization in Mozambique Help Stabilize Southern Africa?

For many years the region of Southern Africa was considered a democratic stronghold on the continent. However, over the last five years, the region has experienced democratic backsliding including political leaders and ruling parties exercising unconstitutional methods to consolidate power and suppress citizen freedoms and opposition movements. Additionally, Russia and China continue to exert increased influence throughout the region, which threatens regional stability and US relations. The Southern African Development Community has long been a key economic ally of the US, working together toward regional integration and peace and security. Negative trends and continued influence from foreign global powers has created a situation that requires US and international attention to counter political developments in the region and promote democratic resilience.

Like its neighbors, Mozambique has experienced a downward trend in democratic values. The Ibrahim Index of African Governance reports Mozambique’s deterioration in ‘Human Rights’ as the second largest on the continent between 2016 and 2017. According to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2017, human rights violations in Mozambique have increased due to ongoing political tensions, most notably due to ongoing conflict between the ruling party, Front for Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), and the primary opposition, Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO). Security forces from the ruling party are notorious for inciting violence and intimidating RENAMO, and RENAMO groups commit atrocities in retaliation. The situation has forced migration of thousands of Mozambicans across borders into neighboring Southern African countries.

Internal conflict is an all too familiar phenomenon in Mozambique, a country that experienced a devastating political driven civil war from 1975 to 1992 that claimed more than one million lives.  Following the civil war, FRELIMO and RENAMO negotiated the Rome General Peace Accords (1992) and adopted a multi-party state to ensure free and fair elections and promote a more democratic state. Despite the peace accords, FRELIMO has succeeded each national election, a situation that has continued to exacerbate tensions between party lines and thus the peace agreement has so far not been implemented.

To curb the ongoing power struggle, Mozambican President Felipe Nyusi and Parliament recently approved a constitutional amendment to effectively decentralize power and grant political parties greater representation in regional provinces. Political parties which win provincial parliamentary elections can now appoint the respective regional governor and a state secretary.

Nyusi’s strategic approach to decentralization appears to present a practical movement toward negotiating with RENAMO. Nyusi suggests the changes going forward are results of an ongoing dialogue for peace with RENAMO’s late party leader, Afonso Dhlakama. Both sides believe that decentralization will provide opposition groups the opportunity to hold greater representation at the provincial level. Some critics, however, view the Amendment as an attempt to consolidate power between the two parties, isolating other opposition groups from the arena.

Considering historical political tensions, the constitutional amendment for decentralization presents a positive step in the right direction for Mozambique. With elections around the corner in October 2019, democratic reforms remain critical to providing legitimacy to a fair and free electoral process. As Mozambique strives for democratic reform, a pressing need remains for international external support to ensure real time peace results and to help continue the push for further reforms.

The U.S. recognizes the valiant efforts from the Mozambican President and late opposition leader in finalizing the decentralization agreement, but understands the need to continue progressing toward formal peace accords. The U.S. looks to Mozambique to continue working toward the demilitarization agreement, a final step in achieving lasting peace and security. Stability in Mozambique presents a valuable example for the southern Africa unit to counter democratic backsliding and promote regional peace and security. A country that has waited more than 25 years to implement a peace agreement, Mozambique remains in a unique position to lead the region in its struggle for progress. With many key allies of trade in the region, the U.S. should provide external resources to Mozambique to safeguard relations and support democratic resilience throughout the continent.