Mozambique: war of independence

Introduction | Atrocities | Fatalities | Ending | Coding | Works Cited | Notes


Long after Great Britain, France, and other former colonial powers granted their colonies independence, Portugal strove to maintain its colonial authority over its three “overseas provinces.” The Salazar-Caetano dictatorships’ staunch opposition to the prospect of independence led to a decade-long struggle for liberation in Mozambique, characterized by large-scale, one-sided violence against civilians and forced relocation. With the launch of its first attack in 1964, the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) waged a guerrilla “People’s War” to destabilize the Portuguese colonial government and unite all Mozambicans in the movement for independence.[i] To stamp out the rebellion, the Salazar-Caetano regime directed the Portuguese Armed Forces (PAF) to pursue a brutal counter-guerrilla campaign.

Atrocities (1964-1973)

While FRELIMO was responsible for a number of civilian deaths over the course of the conflict,[ii] it was the PAF that quickly emerged as a perpetrator of mass atrocities against civilians. The principal tenets of its counter-guerrilla strategy included the severance of all material and ideological support to FRELIMO, with the aim of weakening the movement to the point of surrender.[iii] In practice, the PAF, along with members of the covert General Security Directorate (DGS),[iv] routinely detained and tortured civilians to extract information about FRELIMO; still others were interrogated and tortured as suspected collaborators. Many civilians died from the wounds inflicted during torture, which could range from whippings to electric shocks,[v] while others were condemned to execution. Seemingly arbitrary killings by individual soldiers were also commonplace,[vi] along with rape, mass murder, and village massacres.[vii] Mass murders, classified as the deliberate killing of groups of civilians, took place throughout the Cabo Delgado, Tete, Beira, Vila Pery, Niassa, and Zambezia districts; several massacres, categorized as the killing of 25 or more, are also on record.[viii] The most infamous massacre occurred at Wiriyamu in 1972, in which nearly 400 civilians were killed.[ix] In some instances, the PAF surrounded and attacked a targeted village and killed all inhabitants who were unable to escape.

The most egregious instances of civilian deaths, however, are associated with the Portuguese policy of forced relocation into controlled villages. Known as aldeamentos, the fortified relocation camps were designed to serve three purposes: to prevent FRELIMO’s access to civilians; to alleviate local grievances through the provision of basic amenities and health and education services; and, in the long term, to increase the economic viability of the areas.[x] Yet the PAF’s goal to promote economic and social progress within the aldeamentos was quickly superseded by the perceived short-term urgency of circumventing FRELIMO’s influence.[xi] Rather than encouraging civilians to relocate by building superior facilities, the PAF resorted to commanding civilians to abandon their homes and possessions within 3-15 days of notification and resettle in the Portuguese-controlled areas.[xii] Those that refused were commonly labeled terrorists and killed, while others were tortured to instill fear in the broader population and warn them of the consequences of resistance. Commonly cited estimates assert that 750,000 to one million civilians were relocated to aldeamentos over the course of the war.[xiii] With few exceptions, the rapid relocations manifested in poorly planned camps without adequate sanitation or farming plots,[xiv] with most facilities indefinitely delayed until time and resources became available.[xv] Due to deleterious conditions, an estimated 6-8% of the population in each aldeamento died from starvation, contagious disease, and exhaustion while living under Portuguese control.[xvi]


In spite of numerous academic studies of the nature and extent of the PAF’s violence against civilians, a precise estimate of the total number of civilian deaths remains elusive. Scholars credit the Salazar-Caetano dictatorships’ press censorship, the relative remoteness of the war zone, and insufficient foreign press coverage with the obfuscation of total civilian deaths.[xvii] Further, while Portuguese media reports, classified intelligence documents, and public government documents do contain records of state-sanctioned violence, there were several incentives to exaggerate or underreport numbers. The Portuguese hoped to enhance public perception of the PAF’s control and strategic gains by overstating the number of relocated Mozambicans and the number of identified FRELIMO-collaborators.[xviii] Yet there were also clear incentives to underestimate or deliberately conceal the number of civilians killed. Taking these caveats into account, studies of these sources, along with census data and eye witness reports, indicate that the total number of civilians killed lies in the range of 30,000 to 40,000. The stronger research appears to support this total, but as the data is severely incomplete, we are including the wider margin of estimates, which places the total estimated killed at 50,000 civilians.

The United Nations’ supplementary report on the Commission of Inquiry on the Reported Massacres in Mozambique comprehensively outlines evidence on the number and circumstances of intentional civilian deaths. Drawing on eyewitness and expert testimonies, the report provides an account of mass murders, massacres, torture, and other PAF atrocities that range between a low estimate of 1,500 civilian killed and a high estimate of 2,500. This estimate is based on evidence of direct violence, and excludes those who died in the aldeamentos. The report also notes that spikes in overall violence occurred in the years 1971-1973.[xix] Highlighted incidents include the massacre of 300 at Cambeue in 1971; 90 in Chiuaio in 1972; and 200 at Inhaminga in 1974. In several instances, however, the Commission noted that it could not conclusively determine if an alleged event took place due to insufficient or unverifiable evidence. As such, the provided estimate of total direct deaths leaves room for a significant margin of error. For example, the Commission mentions that the PAF is suspected of killing over 1,000 civilians by water poisoning;[xx] yet, because the event is officially recorded as a cholera outbreak and there is a lack of sufficient evidence to the contrary, this is not included in the report’s definitive estimate of civilian deaths.

With certainty, the vast majority of civilian deaths occurred within the aldeamentos. The policy of relocation was first proposed by Colonel Basílio Seguro, the Governor of Cabo Delgado district, in 1965. By 1973, the Commander-in-Chief in Mozambique, General Kaulza de Arriaga, asserted that approximately one million civilians had been relocated to the aldeamentos.[xxi] This estimate, while viewed with skepticism,[xxii] alludes to the sheer scale of the PAF operation. Several additional sources, including a New York Times report of 1973 mid-census data, corroborate that the total reached at least 607,000 to 750,000.[xxiii] Other media reports asserted that 63.3% of the population in Cabo Delgado district, 67.7% of the Niassa district, and 44% of the Tete district had been relocated by 1974.[xxiv] According to testimony from Roman Catholic missionaries in the Tete district, an estimated 6-8% of the population in each aldeamento died from malnutrition and disease;[xxv] deaths of suspected collaborators from torture likely took place as well. If this estimate is extrapolated to the Cabo Delgado and Niassa districts, then some 36,000 to 60,000 Mozambicans died while under direct Portuguese control.[xxvi]

The estimates drawn from the UN Report are generally supported by other scholars’ estimates, which range from 30,000 to 43,500 total civilian deaths.[xxvii] Although only a general timeline of 1966-1973 is provided for the relocation camps and associated deaths, it is the rising incidences of mass murders and massacres from 1971 to 1973 which suggest that this period is the peak of civilian deaths. The scholar Thomas Henriksen argues that the rise in reported violence reflects two trends: first, select episodes of violence by individual perpetrators within the PAF escalated to a systematic counter-terrorism strategy, particularly as the urgent relocation of civilians to aldeamentos became an imperative for winning the war; second, the Roman Catholic missionaries in Mozambique finally reached a breaking point and began to protest and report instances of violence.[xxviii] In conclusion, a conservative estimate of total civilian deaths that acknowledges the potential overestimation of the population of civilians in the aldeamentos stands at 30,000 to 60,000.

The end of the mass atrocities in Mozambique coincided with conflict’s abrupt conclusion in the aftermath of Portugal’s 1974 military coup d’état. Following Antonio Salazar’s death in 1970, the Caetano administration faced increasing levels of domestic anti-war sentiment and international pressure to decolonize, accompanied by decreasing levels of morale within the PAF. These currents of change led to a swift reversal in colonial policy after the PAF overthrew the Caetano government in April 1974. This leadership change, coupled with the moderating influence of domestic and international opinion external to the regime, led directly to the cessation of violence. While several factors converged to bring an end to the PAF’s atrocities against Mozambican civilians, evolving internal politics among Portuguese citizens and settlers played the most significant role. As the PAF waged three overlapping colonial wars in Mozambique, Angola, and Guinea-Bissau, citizens in Portugal became increasingly weary of the drain on national resources and disillusioned with the cause of colonial unity and Lusitanization (spread of Portuguese colonial ideology). Heightened international criticism of Portugal’s residual colonialism and the PAF’s misconduct further compelled the general populace to lament that Portugal was on the wrong side of history. The government’s reluctance to grant independence incurred strained diplomatic relations and punitive sanctions.

Meanwhile, Portuguese settlers in Mozambique also began to question the wisdom of continued warfare. They increasingly perceived the military to be disorganized and ineffective, and turned to African mercenaries for protection of their persons and property.[xxix] In 1973, the settlers protested against PAF incompetence after they were forced to evacuate from the Beira district. As the hope of victory dwindled, the settlers began to express interest in an alliance with black Mozambican elites.[xxx] The Caetano administration’s refusal to negotiate a political solution met with escalating criticism. Taking a pragmatic view, the settlers considered the proposed alliance to be a politically strategic solution for two groups that had much to lose in the event of FRELIMO’s victory, given the movement’s Marxist-Leninist ideology.

The proximate cause of both the coup and the end of the Mozambican war and its atrocities was the dissatisfaction of the PAF troops themselves. In 1972 the Caetano government, responding to a shortage of Portuguese willing to fight overseas, initiated a new policy that non-career recruits would receive the same ranking and benefits as career military graduates following a brief training. With unsatisfactory professional compensation and little public recognition or support for their personal sacrifice on the battlefield, the PAF increasingly viewed their contributions in Africa as meaningless. In February of 1974, the deputy armed forces minister, General Antonio Spínola, published his seminal work Portugal e o Futoro. Embodying public discontent, his book argued against the government’s claim that colonization defended the West and advocated a change in colonial policy. The outburst of domestic and international support for Spinola’s anti-colonial rhetoric prompted the Caetono Government to dismiss him, an action which helped to catalyzed the military to mobilize a coup d’état on April 25, 1974.[xxxi]

Designated the interim president, Spinola directed the cessation of violence in Mozambique and quickly implemented a new policy of independence for Portuguese colonies. Following the signing of the Lusaka Accord in September 1974, Lisbon gradually transferred political power to FRELIMO over the course of nine months. Upon FRELIMO’s recognition as a legitimate government on June 25, 1975, all Portuguese soldiers and secret police had returned home.


We code this case as ending through strategic shift, under the moderating influence of domestic forces (within Portugal), with a leadership change, resulting from coup in Portugal, and the withdrawal of international forces.

Works Cited

Antunes, Jose Freire. 1996. A Guerra de Africa 1961 – 1974. Lisbon: Temas e Debates.

“Atrocities and Massacres, 1960-1977.” Mozambique History Net. http://www.mozambique

Bender, Gerald J. 1972. “The Limits of Counter-Insurgency: An African Case.” Comparative Politics, 4:3, 331-360.

Cann, John P. 1997. Counterinsurgency in Africa: the Portuguese Way of War 1961-1974. Westport CT and London: Glenwood Press.

Clodfelter, Michael. 2001. Warfare and Armed Conflict: A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500-2000, 2nd ed. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc.

Commissions of Inquiry on the Reported Massacres in Mozambique. 1974. “Report.” United Nations General Assembly 29th Session Supplement 21 (A/9621).

“Continuation of African Nationalist Guerrilla Activities.” 1973. Keesing’s Record of World Events, 19 (February): 25755. Keesing’s Worldwide, LLC, 2006. tomzgroup/pmwiki/uploads/1364-1973-02-KS-a-JHS.pdf.

Dhada, Mustafah. 2013. “The Wiriyamu Massacre of 1972: Its Context, Genesis, and Revelation.” History in Africa, 1-31. DOI: 10.1017/hia.2013.2.

Flower, Ken. 1987. Serving Secretly: An Intelligence Chief on Record, Rhodesia into Zimbabwe, 1964-1981. London: John Murray.

Funada-Classen, Sayaka. 2012. The Origins of War in Mozambique: A History of Unity and Division. Translated by Masako Osada. Tokyo: Ochanomizu Shobo Co Ltd.

Hall, Margaret and Young, Tom. 1997. Confronting Leviathan: Mozambique since Independence. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Hastings, Adrian. 1974. “Some Reflections upon the War in Mozambique.” African Affairs, 73:292, 262-276.

Henriksen, Thomas H. 1983. Revolution and Counterrevolution: Mozambique’s War of Indpeendence, 1964-1974. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

 Jundanian, Brendan F. 1974. “Resettlement Programs: Counterinsurgency in Mozambique.” Comparative Politics, 6:4, 519-540. DOI: 10.2307/421336.

Lacina, Bethany and Gleditsch, Nils Petter. 2005. “Monitoring Trends in Global Combat: A New Dataset of Battle Deaths.” European Journal of Population, 21, 2–3, 145–166.

MacDonald, Scott B. 1993. European Destiny, Atlantic Transformations: Portuguese Foreign Policy Under the Second Republic, 1974 – 1992. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction Publishers.

Newitt, Malyn. 1995. A History of Mozambique. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Thaler, Kai M. 2012. “Ideology and Violence in Civil Wars: Theory and Evidence from Mozambique and Angola.” Civil Wars, 14:4, 546-567. DOI: 10.1080/13698249.2012.740203.

Villiers, C.F. de. 1973. “Portugal’s War,” Africa Institute Bulletin, 11:6.


[i] Funada-Classen 2012, 232.

[ii] Thaler 2012.

[iii] Henriksen 1983.

[iv] Henriksen 1983, 133-139.

[v] Commissions of Inquiry 1974, 70 and Henriksen 1983, 129.

[vi] Henriksen 1983, 131.

[vii] Commissions of Inquiry 1974, 79.

[viii] Ibid., 111.

[ix] Dhada 2013, 16.

[x] Jundanian 1974, 535; Henriksen 1983, 154.

[xi] Henriksen 1983, 157.

[xii] Commissions of Inquiry 1974, 51.

[xiii] Henkrikson 1983, 155; Commissions of Inquiry 1974, 47.

[xiv] Funada-Classen 2012, 333.

[xv] Jundanian 1974, 527.

[xvi] Commissions of Inquiry 1974, 52.

[xvii] Thaler 2012, 550; Jundanian 1974, 519.

[xviii] Thaler 2012, 550

[xix] Commissions of Inquiry 1974, 83.

[xx] Commissions of Inquiry 1974, 110.

[xxi] Jundanian 1974, 522-524.

[xxii] Funada-Classen 2012, 261 and Henriksen 1983, 155.

[xxiii] New York Times, May 26, 1974 and Washington Post, Dec. 25, 1968, cited in Funada-Classen 2012, 262.

[xxiv] Hall and Young 1997, 28-30; Henriksen 1983, 155; Washington Post, Dec. 25, 1968, cited in Funada-Classen 2012, 262.

[xxv] Commissions of Inquiry 1974, 52.

[xxvi] Villiers 1973, 249.

[xxvii] Clodfelter 2001, 260 and Lacina and Gleditsch 2005.

[xxviii] Henkriksen 1983, 131

[xxix] Funada-Classen 2012, 268

[xxx] Ibid., 267

[xxxi] MacDonald 1993, 17.

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