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Mozambique’s local elections loom amid low-level guerilla war, silent general strike


Fredson Guilengue works for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS) regional office in Johannesburg. He has published extensively on Mozambique’s politics. His work also extends to areas such as social movements, land, agrarian issues and climate change. He is currently enrolled for his PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Historically, elections have not been peaceful affairs in Mozambique. Since 1994, electoral processes have been marred by violence, assassination of members of civil society and the opposition, and significant accusations of vote-rigging.

What does it mean for Mozambique to be heading into local elections in the context of terrorist attacks, evidence of massive voter registration irregularities and an ongoing, silent public sector strike?

The date is set. The next local elections in Mozambique will be held on 11 October 2023. 

According to the National Electoral Commission, the institution in charge of organising elections in the country, the funds are finally available. This comes after a period of uncertainty about donors’ willingness to assist amidst numerous corruption cases involving state institutions.

These will be the sixth local government elections in Mozambique since the introduction of a multiparty system in 1990. The first round of local elections was held in 1998.

Frelimo, the ruling party since 1975, has led most of the previous processes despite being voted out of important urban municipalities such as Beira, under MDM (Movimento Democrático de Moçambique), and Quelimane and Nampula, under Frelimo’s archrival, Renamo. 

In the previous local elections, the industrial municipality of Matola almost fell to Renamo.

In this year’s local elections, the 26 contesting political parties, coalitions and individual candidates will fight for seats and control of 65 local municipalities. In the previous poll, only 53 were contested. 

Last year, the national parliament approved the expansion of municipal areas in the country by adding 12 more municipalities.

Currently, Frelimo controls 44 of the existing municipalities, with nine remaining in the hands of opposition parties. 

But the ruling Frelimo is clear about its main objective for the forthcoming election. According to Filipe Nyusi, Frelimo’s president, the party wants to take it all. The plan is to win all 65 municipalities by driving out the existing opposition parties and adding new ones into Frelimo’s existing areas of control.

However, this is not going to be a simple task for Frelimo, especially in the major urban municipalities of Beira, Nampula, Quelimane and possibly Matola.

Beira, Nampula and Quelimane have always been hostile to the ruling party, even before the establishment of a multiparty system in the country. 

These have been the territories that have historically given rise to opposition to Frelimo mainly because of the constantly growing sense of marginalisation which they blame on the governing party. 

Matola, however, has recently entered the category of hostile territories due to Frelimo’s poor management of municipal affairs there.

Historically, elections have not been peaceful affairs in Mozambique. This time it does not seem it will be different. 

Since 1994, electoral processes have been marred by violence, assassination of members of civil society and the opposition, and significant accusations of vote-rigging.

This year, the voter registration process was again marked by accusations from civil society and opposition parties that the registration process was penalising opposition strongholds like Beira and Quelimane. It was claimed that potential voters in those areas were being intimidated to prevent them from registering.

Technical hitches with voter card printers were also recorded in what observers believe to be areas of influence of the opposition, denoting what they perceived to be a strategy from the ruling Frelimo to interfere in the process.

Some observers have argued that Frelimo’s interference has resulted in some 700,000 potential voters from the opposition being excluded from the elections. But, as in the past, the institutions in charge of guaranteeing the transparency of elections do not take accusations of irregularities seriously.

Adding to this already worrying picture is the fact that Mozambique will be holding local elections in the context of a brutal terrorist conflict centred in the northern part of its most northern province of Cabo Delgado. 

Out of the 12 new municipalities recently created, two of them – Balama and Ibo – fall under the province of Cabo Delgado, bringing to seven the number of municipalities in that province.

Out of the seven municipalities, only the capital city of Pemba has not yet experienced direct attacks from the insurgents. 

However, while it’s true that support from the Rwandan and SADC troops has managed to significantly reduce the capacity of the insurgents to conduct regular attacks, it’s also clear that the conflict is far from over. It’s also not clear if the insurgents’ contestation of Western-inspired institutions also includes disrupting elections.   

Meanwhile, the current context in Mozambique points to the transformation of the conflict in Cabo Delgado into a permanent low-scale guerrilla-type terrorism. This is where attacks occur with less intensity, while the group remains active underground.

How elections are to play out in such a context is predictable. Many voters who were forced to look for shelter in safer areas will be excluded from the process, denying them the chance to decide on their future. 

How political parties are going to mobilise support in this climate of fear and anxiety is another challenge. Voters might not have the chance to interact with their potential leaders due to security concerns.

Meanwhile, in the urban centres and to some extent in all parts of the country, the situation remains tense. The deterioration of the government’s relationship with mostly Western donors in 2016, triggered by the case known as “hidden loans”, has made it difficult for the government to pay the salaries of some public employees on time and in full.

To balance its payroll last year, the government established new salary tables, much to the unhappiness of some sectors, including teachers, doctors and magistrates. Since then, the civil service has been hit by threats of strikes and actual strikes in some sectors, while other sectors have embarked on a silent strike.

Medical doctors have been the only ones to openly declare “war” on the government. Magistrates are said to have embarked on a silent strike, with legal processes gathering dust on their tables.

A recent public demonstration after the death (by illness) of a rapper critical of the regime sparked nationwide protests, bringing into sharp relief both the level of latent social anger and the brutality of the government’s response to public demonstrations.

Once again, repressive methods were used against the people to suppress them. Some local and international activists have identified and criticised human rights violations committed by police.

However, with only a few months until local elections, Frelimo doesn’t seem overly concerned about the growing public resentment or the public employees on strike.

Why? Possibly because in Mozambique, elections rarely reflect the true dynamics in a particular socioeconomic and political context.

The current president, Filipe Nyusi, in the 2019 general elections, and against all odds, managed to win an impressive 73% of the vote. Frelimo obtained 73.6% of the vote – a massive victory against its Renamo and MDM opponents, which few observers expected.

And this happened at a time when the government was also mired in other serious political, financial and economic crises. DM         


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