Robinson on Morier-Genoud and Cahen and Manuel do Rosário, 'The War Within: New Perspectives on the Civil War in Mozambique, 1976-1992'

Eric Morier-Genoud, Michel Cahen, Domingos Manuel do Rosário, eds.
David Robinson

Eric Morier-Genoud, Michel Cahen, Domingos Manuel do Rosário, eds. The War Within: New Perspectives on the Civil War in Mozambique, 1976-1992. Suffolk: James Currey, 2018. Illustrations. 268 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-84701-180-0.

Reviewed by David Robinson (Edith Cowan University) Published on H-Luso-Africa (April, 2019) Commissioned by Philip J. Havik (Instituto de Higiene e Medicina Tropical (IHMT))

Printable Version:

The War Within: New Perspectives on the Civil War in Mozambique, 1976-1992, edited by Eric Morier-Genoud, Michel Cahen, and Domingos Manuel do Rosário, is an important contribution to the historiography of the Mozambican Civil War. The significance of the collection is in three key aspects: the use of new sources, the provision of new detailed historical material, and the (what I call) historiographical-political project of the text. I will assess this final aspect critically, addressing both the work’s stated historiographical and unstated political aims. The book also includes a detailed research bibliography, which will be of great use to scholars navigating the field.

The War Within is a collection of seven chapters by a mixture of established and emerging scholars in the field of Mozambican history. Arranged geographically, the first four chapters on the country’s North deal primarily with war in Zambezia and Nampula Provinces, and the fifth and sixth chapters discuss Inhambane Province and the case study of Ilha Josina Machel in Maputo Province, respectively, while the seventh chapter engages in a sweeping macrohistory placing Mozambique within the context of the world-system and the succession of twentieth-century communist states. While the editors claim that “some aspects of the conflict have been well studied, in particular the origins of Renamo, the involvement of foreign powers, the extent of destruction, the situation of refugees, and the ending of the conflict,” they approach the war as more of a “total social phenomenon” that requires examination of all elements of societal life (p. 1). They thus argue that research needs to move beyond seeing Renamo as the central actor in the conflict and the Frelimo government as merely reactive, and they abandon the perspective that the war was primarily the product of global or regional interstate dynamics. Thus a key aim of the work is to support the perspective that “Renamo was not a mere group of bandits or warlords ... [and] managed to integrate itself in the historicity of local and regional tensions, thereby reproducing itself, and developing the war” (p. 7). More generally, the authors say they are trying to “kick-start” a new, wider research process that examines “more localized, regionalized and socialized understandings of the civil war” (p. 9).

The book’s first aspect of importance lies in its identification and use of new source materials for the study of the civil war period. The continuing relevance of the war to current Mozambican politics has hampered detailed research, as the Frelimo government has denied access to its central government archives and many of the decision-makers involved in the conflict are still active in government and civil society. On the Renamo side, Afonso Dhlakama maintained his tight, centralized control over the organization until his death last year, and Renamo activists have aimed to disassociate themselves with the party’s wartime excesses. The War Within thus demonstrates some of the diverse and underused sources that can provide insight into the period. In addition to oral history sources, the authors accessed provincial and district archives, as well as those of the Catholic diocese, and they suggest that further nongovernmental organization (NGO) archives may be good research sources. These are all potentially rich and detailed fonts of information about the war. Additionally, Cahen has through unconventional channels gained access to as-yet-unseen portions of the Gorongosa documents. These documents were captured during the Frelimo government’s 1985 military conquest of Renamo’s Gorongosa headquarters. Made up of internal notes and literature from Renamo, a selection was published by Frelimo at the time proving that Renamo continued to receive South African military assistance even after the bilateral Nkomati Accords between the two countries. However, the government reported that “dozens of kilos” of documents had been captured. Their fate had long intrigued me, and Cahen now has a portion of those documents in his possession, on which he will base further publications and which he plans to make freely available.

The second important aspect of the collection is the provision of new, detailed historical material. All chapters apart from the seventh introduce new historical details garnered from the new sources being used. While in my opinion no new “game-changing” details are revealed, there is much historical material of use for more detailed studies of the civil war period. This includes information about military plans and movements of both Renamo and Frelimo forces, internal political relationships, relations with civilian populations, and local cultures and economies. These are often supported with useful quoted segments of documents and interviews, and in places tables of statistics have been provided. The history of the Partido Revolucionário de Moçambique (PRM) in Zambezia Province is explored in Sérgio Chichava’s chapter 1, supported by an interesting interview with leader Gimo Phiri; and the Naparama neo-traditional resistance movement is explored in more depth in Rosário’s chapter 2 and especially Corinna Jentzsch’s chapter 3. Useful oral accounts of life near and on Renamo bases in Mozambique’s South are presented in Lily Bunker’s chapter 6. Historians Cahen and Morier-Genoud address wider historiographical issues in chapters 4 and 5: Cahen uses the Gorongosa documents as part of his evidence in arguing that Renamo had a social base of support among marginalized elements in Mozambican society and an at-least-rudimentary program of politicization of members; and Morier-Genoud argues that Renamo’s lack of success in Mozambique’s South was due more to issues of climate, resources, and population distribution, than to tribal politics.

While innovative sources and useful new details are provided by this volume, the editors’ claims to important factual discoveries and historiographical innovation, along with the historiographical-political project of the text, must come in for criticism. Despite the detailed research bibliography provided at the end of the book, there is little evidence of serious engagement with that wider historiography. As I cannot believe this failure to engage with the majority of literature on Mozambican history is due to lack of familiarity with the field, in some cases it may actually be of such a serious level it must count as serious bias and misinterpretation of the facts.

In quick summary then, what are the editors’ key claims regarding the macroscopic “results” of the text? First, they argue that Mozambique’s civil war really began in 1976 in Zambezia with the operations of the PRM and Renamo later united with that independent rebellion. The purpose of this claim is to provide a legitimate origin claim for the civil war, as the editors admit that Renamo itself was formed and directed by Rhodesia and subsequently South Africa. Second, they contend that the PRM’s and Renamo’s successes in Zambezia and Nampula were based on long-running historical, but not ethnic, tensions with other regions. Third, they maintain that Renamo’s poor achievements in the South were due to ecology and government counterinsurgency strategies and more widely that ecology shaped the war, and that while Renamo was restricted by drought, the Frelimo government used it as a counterinsurgency weapon. Fourth, they claim that Frelimo troops created sufficient problems with locals throughout the country to be considered enemies, and even drive locals to support Renamo, often before Renamo had arrived in the area. And they note that government troops punished or killed people for supporting Renamo or even being neutral. Fifth, they state that there was a multiplicity of actors, including popular militias, private militias, foreign troops, Naparama militia, and the Renamo-initiated Mulelepeia militia, and that civil society was active throughout the war, including the Catholic Church, private traders, NGOS, and aid donors. Sixth, Morier-Genoud states in the conclusion that “Renamo was highly organized and disciplined (far from any banditry) from its earliest days.... We also saw that Renamo had a political programme, even if a weak one, much earlier than usually understood (before Nkomati)” (p. 224). And finally, Morier-Genoud contends that the war was a result of local and global dimensions and that “it would probably be more fruitful historiographically to think of this dynamic in terms of the internationalization of a local war than the internalization of an external conflict” (p. 225).

Without doubt new evidence is presented to justify many of these claims. However, for the most part, these are ideas that have been developed to some extent throughout the literature up to this point. Possibly the most original of the claims relates to Morier-Genoud’s analysis of how ecology and demography helped structure the war. Otherwise, while well worth further investigation, claims regarding ethnic and historical divisions in Mozambique, negative impacts of Frelimo, and poor discipline by government troops have been frequently mentioned in texts on the civil war since the 1990s.[1] Cahen’s chapter, which exults in its claimed findings that Renamo were not merely bandits and had a political program, seems particularly bizarre as virtually no one has claimed Renamo were merely “armed bandits” in decades. Indeed, the focus of most of the literature is how they were centrally controlled and influenced by South Africa.[2] His emphasis on proving Renamo had a pre-Nkomati political program is strange, because a number of permutations of that political program from 1981 onward were already reported by Alex Vines in the 1990s (RENAMO: From Terrorism to Democracy in Mozambique? [1991]), along with the complex machinations of Renamo’s National Council from around 1982, which included representatives of Renamo’s exiled black and white leadership, internal leadership, and PRM’s Phiri. I discuss the complexities and evolution of Renamo’s political program and leadership factions in my own PhD thesis.[3] Cahen also overemphasizes Renamo’s autonomy and ignores evidence that they continued to get direct support from South Africa into the late 1980s and that they meanwhile courted a variety of other international sponsors. While citing from the Gorongosa documents, Cahen conveniently omits mention of Colonel Charles van Niekerk’s promise to Dhlakama during a trip to Pretoria that he will keep sending assistance until victory regardless of political agreements and omits the “General Plan of 24 February 1984,” which included “1. Destroy the Mozambican economy in the rural zones. 2. Destroy the communications routes to prevent exports and imports ... and the movement of domestic produce. 3. Prevent the activities of foreigners (cooperantes) because they are the most dangerous in the recovery of the economy.”[4]

With the mention of PRM’s Phiri, it should also be noted that previous literature notes that while PRM was formed in 1976, its first military operations were not until 1978 and that there is little evidence of wide support by the time it joined with Renamo in 1982.[5] There is no new evidence presented updating these claims—Chichava saying their operations “remained confined to the regions close to the border with Malawi” (p. 26). It is also downplayed that PRM and predecessor organizations were only allowed to operate with the permission of the pro-South African Banda government in Malawi and that they had a continuing relationship with groups like the Malawian Young Pioneers, who were funded and influenced by South African intelligence.[6]

Behind the editors’ claims of widening the historiography of the Mozambican Civil War, which in itself is a praiseworthy program, is actually a more nefarious political aim, largely based on historical amnesia and relativism. The aim is clearly the historical rehabilitation of Renamo as an organization and political force. The methods pursued in this text toward this end are multiple and nuanced. They are: amnesia over Renamo’s foreign sponsorship and brutal strategies, by rapidly passing over Renamo’s origin, deemphasizing the first half of the war, and avoiding discussion for the most part of Renamo’s worst atrocities and scorched-earth tactics; the decentering of Renamo as the primary military/political antagonist in the war, by emphasizing as many other forces as possible, despite their limited impact; the emphasis on non-Renamo-related resistance to the Frelimo government and crimes and atrocities committed by government soldiers; the celebration of Renamo’s political program and its at-least-minimal political education; arguments that where Renamo lacked support, or had to predate on local populations, it was often due to climatic depredations or the government’s military tactics; and, in the final chapter, contentions that meta-historically Frelimo and Renamo were very similar and were only shaped differently by their “world-historical timing” and “socio-cultural endowments” (p. 216). It should be remembered that one hundred thousand people were killed, one million died, and five million were displaced in the war. Credible reports attribute 95 percent of atrocities to Renamo, though the editors of this book seem poised to being revisionists.[7] Described mildly, Renamo attacks often involved the burning down of homes; mutilations of individuals by cutting off limbs, ears, or breasts; and public killings. According to Ken Wilson, “Renamo’s violence [was] not a peripheral aberration, reflecting for example poor military discipline, but [was] on the contrary one of Renamo’s central operational tools and [was] elaborated for this purpose to become virtually a ‘cult.’”[8]

While the book tries to avoid the reality of these activities, a few mind-focusing fragments stood out to me in the text. Phiri’s telling statement about his 1987 defection from Renamo, related in Chichava’s chapter, in which he notes that, apart from Renamo’s N’dau tribalism, “the other reason for the split was the destruction of the country’s infrastructure. If we won the war, what would we have left to govern?... I couldn’t accept the destruction of Mozambique. If we destroy the country, where are we going to find the money to rebuild? Do you think that those telling Dhlakama to destroy the country are then going to give him money if he took power one day?” (p. 27). The memories of women from Maputo Province kidnapped by Renamo, in Bunker’s chapter: “The bad thing [about girls being abducted during the war], child or not, she had to have a ‘husband.’... It was obligatory, of course. They [women and girls] had to accept because if they did not accept, they were killed” (pp. 198-99). A scene from the 1990s in Nampula, that Rosário describes as “political propaganda” and “promot[ing] the ideas for future choice,” in which “Renamo’s men showed photos of Joaquim Chissano and Afonso Dhlakama then asked people who their president was: those who pointed at Joaquim Chissano were threatened with death, while those who pointed at Afonso Dhlakama were congratulated for having made a good choice” (p. 65). Also, the direct evidence that Dhlakama was a war criminal, from the Gorongosa documents cited in Cahen’s chapter, whereby he gave direct orders to “eliminate enemy agents, burn down all infrastructure ... eliminate members of the Frelimo party ... and [kill] enemy people ... [even in areas where] our enemy hasn’t started its offensive against this sector yet” (p. 120). Dhlakama also personally received, in turn, detailed reports about the executions of unarmed soldiers, militiamen, and political representatives of this period of history.

The editors’ call for more focus of study on “the government’s army, the state, traditional militia, private armed forces, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), churches, or other actors of ‘civil society’” is certainly something to be supported, as is the use of diverse sources and the reporting of subsequent discoveries (p. 5). But the reason that the examination of Renamo, and their international supporters, has been so prominent in the literature is because for sixteen years they were the primary agents of destruction and chaos in Mozambique, conducting brutal killings and decimating infrastructure. Nothing can be understood without Renamo and their activities as an organizing context. A more complex history is to be encouraged, and the Frelimo government should be held to account, but not at the cost of historical amnesia about the causes of the war and its wider, international dynamics.


[1]. Margaret Hall and Tom Young, Confronting Leviathan: Mozambique since Independence (London: Hurst and Company, 1997); David Robinson, “Curse on the Land: A History of the Mozambican Civil War” (PhD diss., The University of Western Australia, 2006); and Alex Vines, RENAMO: From Terrorism to Democracy in Mozambique? (London: James Currey, 1991).

[2]. Stephen A. Emerson, The Battle for Mozambique: The Frelimo-Renamo Struggle 1977-1992 (Solihull: Helion & Co, 2014); Hall and Young, Confronting Leviathan; Malyn Newitt, A Short History of Mozambique (London: Hurst and Company, 2017); Robinson, “Curse on the Land”; and Vines, RENAMO.

[3]. Robinson, “Curse on the Land.”

[4]. The Gorongosa Documents: Desk Diary, Maputo: Government of Mozambique, September 30, 1985. Extracts were published by the Bureau de Informação Pública, Maputo, in 1985. 

[5]. João M. Cabrita, Mozambique: The Tortuous Road to Democracy (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2000), 128-29.

[6]. Robinson, “Curse on the Land”; and David Robinson, “Renamo, Malawi and the Struggle to Succeed Banda: Assessing Theories of Malawian Intervention in the Mozambican Civil War,” ERAS 11 (December 2009): 1-22. 

[7]. Robert Gersony, Summary of Mozambican Refugee Accounts of Principally Conflict-Related Experience in Mozambique (Washington, DC: Bureau for Refugee Programs, US Department of State, April 1988), 41.

[8]. Ken Wilson, “Cults of Violence and Counter-Violence in Mozambique,” Journal of Southern African Studies 18, no. 3 (September 1992): 531.

Citation: David Robinson. Review of Morier-Genoud, Eric; Cahen, Michel; Manuel do Rosário, Domingos, eds., The War Within: New Perspectives on the Civil War in Mozambique, 1976-1992. H-Luso-Africa, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL:

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.

Dear colleagues,

We have read the review of our edited book _The War Within. New Perspectives on the Civil War in Mozambique, 1976-1992_ by Dr David Robinson, published earlier in the week by H-Review and H-Luso-Africa. In view of the attack contained in the review, we feel the need to respond.

Like most, we see book reviews as most important for academia and we appreciate greatly that our book got reviewed on H-Net and H-Luso-Africa, and that it got reviewed and published rapidly.

Dr Robinson disagrees with our analysis and he criticizes our book harshly. We see no problem with this, that is: no problem with his disagreeing with our central argument that the war in Mozambique was a "total social fact" in which Frelimo and Renamo were central, but not the only actors of the conflict.

We also see as legitimate for him to consider that our innovative primary sources and what they reveal is not sufficient to alter the analysis of the armed conflict which, for him, should continue aligned to the 1980s' view that the war was only an external conspiracy waged by the South African apartheid regime, with Renamo as a mere proxy.

It is not acceptable, however, that the reviewer goes on to argue that our argument, and that of our authors, is NOT the result of scientific research, but rather the outcome of a premeditated conspiracy aiming at "the historical rehabilitation of Renamo as an organization and political force".

It is indeed NOT acceptable for Dr Robinson to claim, without a shred of evidence, that we are "actually" motivated by "a nefarious political aim, largely based on historical amnesia and relativism".

The deployment of such baseless "ad hominem" attack is unacceptable, if not scandalous, and we are greatly disappointed to see it published on professional academic sites such as H-Net Reviews and H-Luso-Africa.

Yours sincerely,

- Eric Morier-Genoud, Domingos do Rosario, and Michel Cahen