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Southern Africa Report Archive

There is the promise of a progressive role for chiefs in some parts of Mozambique, a rather startling claim that is made by Ann Pitcher.

vol 12 no 1

Mozambique: Chiefs, companies and cotton; Observations from rural Nampula
M Anne Pitcher

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 12 No 1, November 1996
Page 26



Anne Pitcher is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Colgate University, Hamilton, New York.

Since the signing of the peace accord between Frelimo and Renamo in 1992, one of the most controversial political changes in Mozambique has been the recognition of "traditional" authorities or village chiefs (also known as regulos). After independence, the Third Frelimo Congress accused chiefs of collaborating with the Portuguese during the colonial period and condemned their customary practices as "obscurantist" and "traditional." The Congress labelled chiefs divisive, reactionary elements of an archaic tribal-feudal structure and charged them with exploiting local communities for their own gain. The government then outlawed chiefs and replaced them with village Presidents and party secretaries.

But after a 17 year civil war, in which its enemies sought and sometimes secured the support of these "obscurantist" leaders and their followers, the Frelimo government changed its position. It agreed to accept "traditional" authorities for both pragmatic and political reasons. First, recognition of chiefs was a central plank in Renamo's traditionalist agenda so agreeing to this demand would help to end a costly, brutal, and lengthy war. Second, by 1992, evidence had begun to accumulate that in spite of Frelimo's abolition of chiefs, some were de facto representing communities. This was particularly true in the centre and north of the country, where colonialism had not severely disrupted customary lineage systems and the state had been forced to negotiate compromises with local leaders. Here, chiefs had remained more integrated in their communities and were more legitimate than in the south. In many of these areas, Frelimo's condemnation of chiefs together with the creation of communal villages had led to sympathy, if not active support, for Renamo by disaffected rural leaders and their followers. Thus, the agreement to recognize traditional authorities again was an attempt to re-capture a disaffected population while at the same time meeting a central demand by Renamo.

In 1994 and 1995, I had the opportunity to observe the process of recognition and re-emergence of chiefs in the three districts of Monapo, Meconta, and Mecuburi in Nampula province. Nampula is located in the north of Mozambique and is largely inhabited by the Makua, the largest ethnic group in the country. It is an agriculturally productive area; it not only has the potential to be self-sufficient in food, but also its cotton and cashews contribute greatly to the overall value of Mozambique's exports. The majority of Nampula's rural inhabitants also voted for Renamo during the 1994 elections. Thus, the political and economic changes of the Frelimo-led government must make a positive impact here if Frelimo wants to regain support in this part of the country.

Chiefs in Nampula - informal recognition versus formal institutionalization

Informal recognition and a renewed reliance on chiefs are obvious and widespread in Nampula. In all three districts I studied, chiefs reported that shortly after the 1992 accords, government members contacted them to tell them "they should do the things they did before." Following this pronouncement, government officials such as village or district administrators, company agents, and non-governmental organizations contacted and consulted with chiefs in order to transmit information to local communities, or to encourage agricultural production, or to set up training schemes. Chiefs I interviewed in the three districts reported that they now mobilize the local population to repair streets or plant crops, consult with their own councils, allocate land, and settle conflicts within their communities. Most importantly, local peoples also recognize the chief as their legitimate representative. When respondents in the three districts were asked which person has the most authority in their community, 70% of the 90 people I interviewed answered that it was the chief (regulo in Portuguese or muene in Makua). A majority of those interviewed also answered that they would consult the chief if they had disputes over land or domestic difficulties (e.g. divorce).

Although their roles have expanded considerably and both communities and officials now rely on chiefs, many chiefs feel these measures fall short of their expectations. All of the chiefs that I interviewed in the three districts of Nampula expected the government to institutionalize formally their position in the administration, to give them uniforms, and to pay them as in the colonial period. Yet the government hesitates to articulate clearly what the functions of chiefs should be, to institutionalize their roles, or to formally cede power to "traditional" authorities.

Three reasons may explain the government's reluctance. The first is that it fears that chiefs are strong supporters of Renamo and that the Frelimo-led government will lose further support if it defines their roles or shares power. These fears are not unfounded, of course. In Nampula, nine out of the twelve chiefs I interviewed claimed to have voted for Renamo in the 1994 elections and had encouraged their communities to vote for Renamo too. All of them attributed their revival by the government to Renamo's efforts and were grateful for Renamo's emphasis on "traditional" authority. Moreover, in those areas where Renamo was able to exercise some control during the war, the government has been experiencing difficulties re-establishing authority. In some places, there are dual administrations and sometimes dual chiefs. For example, in Momane, Mecuburi, old and young people actually split over the selection of the chief after the 1992 accords. Initially, older members of the community selected the first chief who was loyal to Renamo. When the government disapproved of the choice, younger members of the community chose the second chief, who was from the same family as the first chief, but a Frelimo supporter. Now the community has two chiefs and inhabitants choose the one with whom they prefer to discuss land conflicts or disputes with other members.

Although chiefs appreciate Renamo's contribution to their restoration, many are quite ambivalent about Renamo. Most lamented and deplored the destruction of their communities as a result of the war. Thus, even one chief who had been targeted as a collaborator and ridiculed after independence because he had served in the colonial armed forces, took a neutral stand in the conflict between Renamo and Frelimo. Now he says that while he does not feel secure with Frelimo, he does not know what Renamo wants either. With regard to the Frelimo-led government, surprisingly, chiefs were not openly hostile, but mostly confused and distrustful of government measures. Many said they were willing to work with the government if their expectations about their jobs could be met. Most wanted to help their communities. But it is not clear to them whether they are the last rung of the state administration or just unofficial community liaisons. Particularly in the districts of Meconta and Mecuburi where Renamo activity was great during the war, not surprisingly many chiefs are unsure as to whether they should follow orders from the Frelimo-led government or from Renamo. It seems the government needs to close the gap between its understanding of the role of chiefs and the expectations that chiefs themselves have of their position in the administration.

The second reason why the government is reluctant to institutionalize the position of chiefs is that the selection process for chiefs does not accord well with the government's recent commitment to democracy. Succession is based on hereditary principles: one becomes a chief not through democratic choice or through merit, but by birth. Among the matrilineal Makua, who inhabit parts of Zambezia and Niassa and most of Nampula and Cabo Delgado provinces, it is customary that when an old chief dies, a council of elders will meet and select his nephew - the son of his sister - to become the new chief. Although Frelimo condemned this practice, it continues in many parts of the north. Among the chiefs I interviewed, I found that most of them had succeeded to their positions in the customary way. They were the nephews of chiefs who had died and were chosen on the basis of that connection.

Although there is no formal election and members of the community do not vote, the customary practices are actually more flexible and the selection process is more competitive than a formal description suggests - at least in Nampula. For example, if the chief who dies has many sisters, the council of elders may choose from quite a selection of nephews for the new chief. If there are nieces but no nephews, a woman may be chosen. Secondly, the council of elders sounds out public opinion and considers other criteria before making a selection. It might consider whether the candidate has "good standing" in the community, is a fair man, and has "heart." For example, the current Mocapera, a chief who comes from a long line of powerful chiefs in Corrane, Meconta district, was actually the younger brother of the heir apparent when his uncle died in the 1960s. The older brother was supposed to become the chief but because he drank too much and the local population objected to him, the council of elders in charge of the nomination chose the younger brother, now the present Mocapera. Third, communities can split over their choices and settle disputes by choosing two chiefs, as the case in Momane illustrates above. Fourth, chiefs cannot operate at will once selected. If they are young, they must confer with the council over many decisions. Their decisions and behaviour must benefit their subjects. For example, two "traditional" authorities I interviewed in Monapo district feared that they would be replaced if they were unable to help their communities.

The flexibility and discussion accompanying the choice of chiefs suggest that they could be accommodated by the democratic process, but their functions must be clearly defined and their power balanced by other channels of representation. To counter the hereditary basis of chiefly selection, the government (after local consultation) should establish alternative mechanisms through which citizens could express grievances and preferences. The 1990 Constitution makes a provision for democratically elected, local, legislative bodies and it will be interesting to see if the forthcoming local elections will enact it.

Even if the process of selection could be resolved, there is a third factor that explains why the government is reluctant to incorporate local chiefs into the formal administration. The reluctance stems from the same reasons that the government condemned chiefs just after independence. That is, it perceives them to be traditional and oppressive, reactionary and divisive. They symbolize, and many were associated with, a period that saw the worst abuses of Mozambicans. Understandably, Frelimo hesitates to share or formalize power in light of those features. But while forces on the political front stall, economic changes are defining the function of chiefs anyway.

Privatization also shaping roles of chiefs

The privatization of cotton production in Nampula is one of the greatest factors hastening their re-insertion into the local political economy, though in quite contradictory and ironic ways. To illustrate this claim I am going to focus on a strike I witnessed at a cotton market in Corrane, Meconta district, in July of 1995. The strike only lasted two days but the role of the local chief in the strike challenges some of the government's perceptions about traditional authorities. More importantly, who was involved and the way the strike's ending was negotiated offer us ominous as well as optimistic scenarios about what the future may hold for the state, companies, chiefs, and the peasantry.

Corrane lies in the "zone of influence" of SODAN, a joint venture cotton company formed between Joao Ferreira dos Santos and the Mozambican government. Cotton is one of the major cash crops in the province of Nampula and contributes greatly to the total value of Mozambique's exports every year. For that reason, the Frelimo-led government, like the colonial government before it, has been concerned to increase production. After a series of losses in the 1980s by state farms in charge of cotton production, the government decided to privatize them, forming joint ventures with national and international companies. Under the terms of an agreement signed in 1990, the government granted SODAN monopsonistic privileges to purchase all peasant produced cotton in its "zone of influence." This zone covers several districts (including part of Monapo and Meconta districts) in eastern Nampula and one district in southern Cabo Delgado. It includes around 80,000 smallholders producing cotton on half to one hectare (on average), in addition to food crops for their own subsistence.

The strategy that the company has adopted to encourage and increase production assigns a prominent role to chiefs. SODAN officials contact them at the beginning of the cotton season to inform them about production plans. SODAN may negotiate with chiefs about increasing production or ask them to get their communities to engage in road repair. During the season, company employees work alongside or through "traditional" authorities to exhort people to weed their cotton or apply pesticides. At harvest time, the company will contact chiefs to tell them where the markets to buy the cotton will be held.

SODAN compensates chiefs for the integral role they play in the cotton cycle. For example, the fields of the chiefs around Corrane had clearly received more pesticides than those of the common people. Their cotton plants were taller and fuller and the bolls were larger. Moreover, chiefs in the districts of Monapo and Meconta reported receiving money and bicycles from the company in recognition of their contribution to production.

But compensating chiefs does not necessarily buy their wholehearted collaboration as SODAN officials learned. Last year, as the cotton markets began in early July, producers in both Netia, Monapo district and Corrane refused to sell cotton to the company, arguing that the price of $1500 meticais per kilo (about 17 US cents) that the company offered was too low. On the day of the strike in Corrane, many people had gathered at the chief's abandoned and bullet-ridden former home to sell their cotton. Thousands of cotton sacks were carefully stacked around the yard, the sack of one producer distinguished from another by the presence of a piece of coloured ribbon, or a symbol on a sack, or a distinct method of closing the sack. Men and women, poor and not so poor, community leaders and ordinary people, spoke in animated voices about how the government-run, Cotton Institute had set the price of cotton in collusion with the cotton companies and without consulting producers. One producer said that he knew the export price of cotton and peasants were being exploited. The cabo (assistant to the chief) said it was unfair and they should be paid $2000 meticais per kilo (about 22 US cents). Other people mentioned that they heard producers in Netia had demanded $2000 meticais per kilo and that several Indian traders had actually offered this price to producers. Collectively, heatedly, and spontaneously the peasants decided that they would stand firm at $2000 when the company arrived.

By mid-afternoon, company employees arrived with their scales, weights, cashboxes, rubber stamps, receipts, cranes and trucks to find people sitting next to their cotton sacks grumbling about the price of cotton. The officials attempted to set up their operation but the cabo and a large producer surrounded by the people said they would not sell. As the negotiations became louder and louder, the officials repacked their things, promising to return the next day. As they left, the crowd clapped and cheered.

On the second day of the "greve dos camponeses," or the peasant strike as its participants called it, the company officials returned. But this time, they brought the assistant to the District Administrator of Meconta (in which Corrane is located) and two armed guards, one sporting an old Carbine and the other, an AK-47. Although the two guards were brought ostensibly to protect the cashbox from being robbed, they stood menacingly next to the assistant District Administrator as he harangued the producers to sell. The chief took the brunt of the abuse as he tried to represent the peasants' interests. Eventually, the crowd capitulated not through victory or compromise but through resignation. They knew they could not win against a joint-venture of company and state coercion.

One tale about one chief who acted on behalf of his community for two days against one cotton company does not mean that chiefs are local heros. But it does mean to suggest that some chiefs presently have interests that coincide with those of their communities and that for some, legitimacy rests on tangible local support and not some mystical sense of tradition or worse, coercion. In reality, chiefs have played different roles at different times in different parts of the country. Decisions about what is "traditional" and "obscurantist" or, which local leaders are legitimate and which are not, demand thoughtful attention to local variations in customary practices. Aided by local input, the government needs to confront this complexity on a case by case basis, without making universal assumptions about the "oppressive" and "traditional" nature of chiefs.

Finally, the cotton strike asks us to consider seriously what the dynamics of power will be in the "new" Mozambique. One scenario is that the Frelimo-led government continues to recognize chiefs without formally incorporating them into the government while it openly supports private companies. It is then possible that we will continue to see some chiefs and their communities pitted against an anti-peasant state that has lined up with private companies to exploit them. This will be both sad and ironic considering that Frelimo once vowed to end the "exploitation of man by man." Another possibility is that the government will drop its earlier objections to chiefs. Along with economic interests, it will seek to co-opt their support and shape their roles to facilitate the needs of business, much as the colonial government did in the past. Indeed, a little extra income and a little more recognition by the government or companies might buy the unscrupulous collaboration of a group of leaders who are only slightly less impoverished than the people they lead. But let's consider a third scenario, even though in many settings it may prove too difficult to realize, given the current political and economic constraints existing in Mozambique. Then, if the Frelimo-led government is still interested in social justice, as it claims to be, it might try to facilitate those chiefly tasks that would enhance the wellbeing of communities, rather than siding with private companies against "traditional" authorities and their constituents. This approach would do much to correct the mistakes that Frelimo made towards chiefs and their supporters in the past and might secure for Frelimo a new base in the countryside for the future.

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