Skip to content

Will religious organisations have a role in mediating the Cabo Delgado conflict?

It is likely that the path to ending the conflict in northern Mozambique will also involve the participation of religious organizations

Cabo Ligado Monthly: December 2021

The history of the military conflicts in post-independence Mozambique cannot be described without looking at the role and impact of religious organizations in the search for national reconciliation and peace building. Churches in particular have played a prominent role not only in humanitarian assistance, but also in leading the processes of conflict resolution in Mozambique. The ongoing armed conflict in northern Mozambique is no exception.

After becoming independent from Portugal in 1975, two years later, Mozambique witnessed a civil war between government forces and the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO) that ravaged the country for 16 years. Political causes are said to be at the root of the civil war, but these were exacerbated by deep social and ethnic divisions, poverty, and social inequality. Under the leadership of the Christian Council of Mozambique (CCM), Mozambican churches became directly involved in the search for a solution to the war in 1984 through the creation of the Commission for Peace and National Reconciliation. Based on the conviction that peace would only come from dialogue and the unity of Mozambicans, the Commission had enormous influence in persuading the leadership of the government and RENAMO to engage in dialogue. In 1987, after a decade of fighting, and in light of the reality that the war was far from ending, the then-president of Mozambique, Joaquim Chissano, accepted a proposal for dialogue put forward by CCM, and showed an openness to dialogue with RENAMO. Likewise, several clerics met with RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama, who also showed interest in dialogue. As a result, the parties reached a cessation of hostilities agreement in 1992 in Rome.

The negotiations that culminated in the signing of the Rome Agreement were also in part the result of work done by a lay Catholic organization, the Community of Sant'Egidio. The dialogue sessions took place for a year at the headquarters of the Sant'Egidio Community and were mediated by the Mozambican bishop Jaime Gonçalves, two representatives of the Sant'Egidio Community, and a representative of the government of Italy. In the post-conflict period, religious institutions were fundamental in the process of national reconciliation, in the return of displaced persons to their areas of origin, in the implementation of the disarmament and reintegration program, as well as in the creation of an electoral observatory that aimed to ensure integrity and transparency in electoral processes. Included in the electoral observatory were CCM, the Islamic Council of Mozambique (CISLAMO), and the Catholic Church's Episcopal Conference of Mozambique (CEM), among others.

However, in 2012, hostilities between the government led by Frelimo and the largest opposition party Renamo resumed, reviving the traumas of the civil war. As a means of exerting greater pressure on the government regarding a number of political demands, Dhlakama returned to his military base in the central province of Sofala, and began training veterans. In 2013, an attack on a police station in Maringue, Sofala province represented the beginning of military hostilities. RENAMO boycotted the 2013 elections, plunging the country into uncertainty. Once again the churches called for the preservation of the 1992 peace agreement, unity, and reconciliation among Mozambicans. After several rounds of dialogue between the government and Renamo, the two parties reached a new peace agreement that temporarily ended military hostilities and made room for the 2014 general elections, this time with the participation of Renamo.

The political crisis in Mozambique ignited again after the 2014 general elections were held. Frelimo won the elections which were strongly contested by Renamo. Armed violence followed and once again forced the government and Renamo to the negotiating table. The dialogue was mediated by Mozambican religious figures Dom Dinis Sengulane, Bishop Emeritus of the Anglican Church of Mozambique, and Father Filipe Couto. Later, the dialogue adopted international mediation, with Mario Raffaelli and Angelo Romano of the Community of Sant'Egidio as mediators representing the European Union. Dhalkama passed away in 2018 following an illness, and his replacement, Ossufo Momade, signed the third peace agreement with the Mozambican government in August 2019, marking the end of hostilities with the government. Once again, religious organizations were crucial to the achievement of peace and the end of military hostilities.

Mozambique is once again embroiled in a military conflict, this time in the northern provinces of Cabo Delgado and Niassa. Religious organizations have become involved in providing humanitarian assistance and speaking out for the victims of the conflict. Caritas, a humanitarian organization of the Catholic Church, has sent food and clothing to those displaced by the conflict, and along with CCM, has provided psychosocial support to those displaced. Religious organizations have also denounced the numerous human rights violations throughout the conflict. In his time as Bishop of Pemba, Dom Luiz Fernando Lisboa was very critical of the government's approach to the conflict, accusing the armed forces of abusing civilians. He likewise called for greater international intervention in the humanitarian crisis in Cabo Delgado province. As well, Dinis Matsolo, bishop of the Methodist Church in Mozambique, has asserted that a military solution is not enough to end the crisis, drawing attention to the need to look at issues of socio-economic development and promotion of social harmony.

Inter-religious dialogue events have been a platform used by different religious organizations to propose solutions to the conflict. A recent interfaith meeting of religious leaders took place on 3 January 2022 in Pemba. In the final declaration, the leaders rejected any association between violence and religion. They emphasized that the conflict is exacerbated by social, economic, and ethnic factors, and that religion should be part of the solution. Religious leaders in Mozambique say they are encouraging the government to engage in dialogue with insurgents as a way to end the violence.

Religious organizations have a strong legacy of promoting peace and reconciliation during civil conflicts in Mozambique. Religious organizations operate at the local level, and often use their local knowledge to draw attention to the social, economic, and ethnic inequalities that drive conflict. Peace initiatives conducted by religious organizations have proven throughout the history of independent Mozambique to be a workable and effective solution to armed conflicts. It is likely that the path to ending the conflict in northern Mozambique will also involve the participation of religious organizations, so long as the government is willing to accept their assistance.