By the 1960s it was clear that the Portuguese government would not follow the precedent offered by its British and French colonial counterparts in negotiating, relatively peacefully, the terms of decolonization with the rising forces of nationalism in its African colonies, including Mozambique. Too economically underdeveloped to feel confident of retaining the neocolonial reins after its colonies’ independence, Portugal’s authoritarian political system at home was also one legitimized ideologically by the myth of empire and by ingrained practices of paternalism. Nationalists in Mozambique (but also in Angola and Guinea Bissau) would have to fight for their freedom against such a recalcitrant colonial power.
In the early 1960s, Tanzania became the central base for nationalists from throughout the southern African region who had come to similar conclusions about the imperatives of their own situations vis-а-vis white minority rule. In Dar es Salaam, encouraged toward unity by the Organization of African Unity (OAU) and certain continental leaders like Julius Nyerere and Kwame Nkrumah, a number of Mozambicans-in-exile came together, drawn from various of the quasi-nationalist movements then existent in territories neighboring Mozambique, from student and other organizations that had developed, up to a point, inside Mozambique itself, and from more distant exile (elsewhere in Africa, in Europe, and in North America). They moved to form, at a founding convention in September 1962, a more unified and effective organization to be named FRELIMO, the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (soon referred to simply as "Frelimo"). Crucial to this development was Eduardo Mondlane who returned from a career of university teaching in the United States and employment with the United Nations to accept the position of first president of the new organization.
With the OAU Liberation Committee backing and by dint of a deft handling of relationships with other potential sponsors beyond Africa, both East and West, Frelimo soon outstripped rival claimants to nationalist primacy. Thus Frelimo was to prove far more skilled than other liberation movements in the region in drawing military assistance from both the Soviet bloc and China; its diplomatic efforts would also garner it an impressive degree of international acceptance, as well as considerable practical assistance for its "humanitarian" programs, from some Western governments (notably from the Scandinavian countries and Holland), churches and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).
Frelimo’s primacy in the eyes of the OAU and others was further consolidated by the movement’s advances in military terms. After the training in Algeria of its first military cadres, including Samora Machel (soon to be head of the guerrilla army and later first president of independent Mozambique), the movement launched, in 1964, an armed struggle that would soon drive the Portuguese from large parts of both the Cabo Delgado and Niassa provinces, which bordered on Tanzania. Similar efforts were at first abortive in Tete, but from 1968 Frelimo reengaged more successfully in that province (via Zambia), pushing forward in the early 1970s to the Zambezi and ultimately, bypassing an inhospitable Malawi, into the middle of the country where it began to pose some threat to the Portuguese presence in Manica and Sofala provinces.
Such was the unifying logic exemplified by Frelimo, and the advantages reaped from the consolidation of its legitimacy within Africa and beyond, that only rather marginalized alternative voices were now heard within the broad camp of Mozambican nationalism. Much more apparent were tensions within Frelimo itself. The conventional political practices that had defined the brand of nationalism prevalent elsewhere in Africa seemed ill – suited to the requirements of the guerrilla warfare that was now deemed necessary. In consequence, one wing of the movement (influenced both by its own experience inside the country and by a sympathetic awareness, in those heady days of the 1960s, of the ideas of "people’s war" associated with the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions) began to advocate a more deeply grounded process of popular mobilization. The experience of these cadres also drew them towards an anti-imperialist critique of the nature of Portuguese colonialism and of the global capitalist system that framed it, another dimension of their radicalization.
Set against this increasingly leftist, even Marxist, tendency was a nationalist politics that instead emphasized a more exclusively racial reading of the imperatives of the anticolonial struggle and a more opportunist (elitist and entrepreneurial) practice of it. The contradictions within the movement that these differences produced may have helped trigger the 1968 assassination of Mondlane in Dar es Salaam, although the actual bomb that killed the Frelimo president was traceable to the Portuguese police.
Mondlane’s death was no doubt a considerable loss to the movement in the long term, albeit one difficult to measure. Like the younger colleagues who would become his successors, Mondlane was certainly moving to the left, but his continuing presence at the heart of the movement might well have moderated the autocratic tendencies that Frelimo would eventually carry into government after 1975. More immediately, however, his death and the question of the succession merely brought into sharper focus an internal power struggle, one in which Samora Machel and the progressive group around him (with valuable support from Julius Nyerere, president of Tanzania where Frelimo was then primarily domiciled) prevailed over the more conservative Uriah Simango for the leadership. This elevation of Machel, a considerable military leader and a charismatic force, to the presidency meant a positive consolidation of the practices of armed struggle as well as a confirmation of the movement’s leftward trajectory.
Some historians have questioned any such account of Frelimo’s forging of effective and progressive purpose during this period. They have emphasized, for example, the importance of regional and racial factors to the movement’s internal politics, viewing the group that emerged to power under Machel’s leadership as being marked principally by their identity as "southerners" or "mulattos." Others have chosen to see them merely as constituting an arrogant elite-in-the-making in their own right, albeit one (some would add) self – righteously and uncritically wedded to a modernizing agenda. Such interpretations are almost certainly overstated, although, as regards the latter point, it is probably true that the very successes of the new leadership during this phase of their struggle helped blind them to certain complexities of the transformational project they would seek to realize for their country in the postliberation period.
Opinions also differ as to the extent to which Frelimo had actually rooted itself firmly in a popular base in its "liberated areas," even in those parts of the country where it had a palpable guerrilla presence. Nonetheless, the beginnings of a project of social transformation and popular empowerment (in terms of education, health, gender roles, even production) that the leadership felt it was witnessing in these areas helped further to radicalize its views as to what a liberated Mozambique could look like under the movement’s leadership. It is also true that only a relatively small percentage of the population in the northern part of the country fell under the direct influence of Frelimo activity. Yet there can be little doubt that the movement had earned for itself a substantial credibility in the minds of a large proportion of the country’s overall population by the time of the Portuguese coup in April 1974.
The precise reasons for the fall of Portuguese fascism are much debated. Nonetheless, the guerrilla challenge in Africa (and not least in Mozambique) to the regime’s colonial project was an especially crucial factor in both draining the Portuguese army’s morale and undermining the legitimacy of Marcelo Caetano’s regime at home. Frelimo had been able to weather the combination of brutal intimidation (the massacre at Wiriyamu in 1972, for example), construction of strategic hamlets, and launching of "great [military] offensives" (such as the much trumpeted "Operation Gordian Knot") thrown at it in the early 70s. Then, even after the coup, Frelimo refused to be tempted by the neocolonial blandishments of General Spinola and instead kept the fighting alive until a more radical Portuguese government agreed both to transfer power to the movement and, as occurred in June 1975, to recognize the new nation’s independence.
Fatefully, Frelimo had thus come to power with much popular support but without benefit of elections and indeed (so certain was it of its mission to further transform in socioeconomic terms the lives of its popular constituency) with a pronounced distaste for entertaining opposition to what it considered to be its noble purposes. The hierarchical tendencies implicit in its experience of the (necessary) militarization of its struggle but also imbibed from the authoritarian practices of even the most enlightened nationalist leaders elsewhere on the continent no doubt contributed to this predilection. But so too did the movement’s heady pride in its victory, its self-confidence, and its unquestioning commitment to the progressive project, deemed to be at once socialist, modernizing, and developmental, that it had forged in the liberation struggle.
John S. Saul
See also: Mondlane, Eduardo; Mozambique: Machel and the Frelimo, 1975-1986.
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