Previous Page Table of Contents Next Page

Annex 6
Traditional Authorities in Mozambique

Historical Background

Traditional chieftancies in Mozambique are decentralized institutions attached to a given territory (unlike tribal chieftancies). The Portuguese colonial administration defined land boundaries and territories for their own intents and purposes; at that time many traditional chiefs lost authority over "their" own population, while other chiefs gained power over a population over which they had no traditional rights. Many of the chiefs became associated with, or new ones were appointed by, the colonial regime under what was in effect indirect rule to undertake a number of jobs and functions1. According to the six-year research project by the Ministry of State Administration (MAE), "(...) after a generation this task [of acting as middlemen] came, in the collective unconscious, to form part of the very nature of being a traditional chief, even though this is not the case" (1996; parenthesis added).

The FRELIMO government of post-independence Mozambique then opted for a policy of exclusion of traditional authorities from power2, replacing them with party secretaries, accountable directly to the party leaders in national government. There exists, however, evidence that customary institutions were never de facto completely or always without real influence in the rural areas, although details on their position and relationships within the social structure are rather locality-specific (Messer 1998). Before and during the 17 years of civil war that ravaged the country, the armed RENAMO opposition took advantage of the FRELIMO stance toward traditional authorities to win them for their cause, collaborating closely with them. Therefore, the degree of local legitimacy of traditional authorities varies tremendously, and reflects the history of their interaction with the Portuguese colonial regime, and the FRELIMO government and RENAMO opposition after independence.

The Legislative Framework and the Current Decentralization Process

Since the Peace Accord in 1992, political events in Mozambique have called into question which type of policies to adopt vis-à-vis traditional authorities. Under economic liberalization policies the latter will be conceded more latitude as the state continues to withdraw many of its former support structures from rural areas; furthermore, decentralization may provide a new window of opportunity for "bottom-up" sustainable development. Laws 5/78, 6/78 and 7/78, of 22 April 1978, replaced the colonial administrative structure and introduced a system of governance resting on three levels: national, provincial and local (cities and districts). By 1983 it was publicly and officially recognized that the administrative system was excessively centralized (Guambe 1998). Thus, in 1987 further steps towards decentralization were taken, and on 13 September 1994 Law 3/94 established the Local Government Reform Programme of municipal administration. This programme, encoded in the lei dos municípios, includes the principle of "respect for, and collaboration with, traditional authorities", which was kept expressly minimal and loose, to allow for flexibility to adapt to the diversity of the phenomenon of traditional leadership in Mozambique.

The New Land Law (19/97)

The role of customary institutions in supervising access to land, particularly amidst recent waves of return migration, has been observed (Tanner 1996). Under the new land law, passed by parliament in September 1997, individuals or communities can acquire land rights through occupancy and use of a piece of land for a period of at least ten years, or by occupying land according to "customary norms and practices", provided these are not contrary to the constitution. However, "the nature and capacity of community-based land management institutions is an issue, as is the question of the articulation between customary and formal state authority, at locality and district level"(Quan 1999).

Local Institution Profile: Traditional Authorities3 in Mozambique

The theoretical and practical foundation of traditional authority is of a symbolic-religious nature, and is ultimately given legitimacy only by the communities themselves (endorsed through councils of elders). They are thus "grassroots institutions" that in effect have to negotiate their power day-by-day, and therefore embody a degree of flexibility that may be extremely useful for the efficient management of natural resources. The physical closeness to their "constituency" allows for the application of a set of rules and norms that will rarely be out of touch with the ecological reality and the management and conservation requirements of the natural resources in their territory. In West Africa, experience with the "gestion des terroirs" approach has shown that, for example in the case of managing and negotiating transmigrants' cattle corridors this flexibility is vital if ecological degradation and social conflict are to be avoided. It may also ensure that cultural rights and local self-determination are respected within the complex ethnic mosaic of Mozambican society, including, for example, matrilinear as well as patrilinear groups.

Traditional chiefs have legitimacy, on religious and lineage grounds, as mediators between a given ethnic group and its environment. The primary function of traditional authorities is to ensure peace and harmony in the rural communities within their territory (território4). Thus, a "bad" chief would be someone not able to assure this, for example, during celebrations when people consume alcohol and fights break out. Mediating in land conflict resolution and regulating access to land are thus the main tasks of traditional authorities. Most of the time solutions are reached among the parties involved, often with the mediation of the respective local lineage chief(s). Only when the latter are unable to reach a verdict acceptable to everyone is the traditional chief approached. He or she is acknowledged to have ultimate knowledge of the customary geographical boundaries and will take a decision, in consultation with his or her counsellors. To make land claims before the traditional authorities usually takes the form of oral testimony by credible witnesses, a practice accessible to all.

State institutions charged with land administration are rarely approached for conflict resolution (Mucussete 1996), unless one of the parties stands to gain from their involvement, as when they derive legitimacy to substantiate their claim from modern legislation rather than customary rights. There is in fact a broad (and not necessarily consistent) repertoire of norms and laws that the more shrewd individuals can draw upon and interpret to their own advantage. The resolution of land conflicts, therefore, becomes somewhat unpredictable, and the involvement of the traditional authorities does not guarantee that outcomes favour the poor. Rather, results are determined by a dialectic relationship between traditional norms and individual behaviour, and may be strongly influenced by political considerations. Switching legal arena to influence the outcome of disputes is an opportunity that is more difficult to seize for the poor than it is for better-off and informed rural households.

In practice, the actions of party secretaries and traditional authorities continue to coincide, and include, among others, the task of teaching agricultural production techniques. In many areas, (e.g., Banga and Djavula) the former have disappeared altogether (Lundin and Alfane 1999).

Traditional authorities also contribute significantly to the maintenance of social capital, for example by mediating accusations of witchcraft (in northern Mozambique: ufiti) and other similar conflicts. These accusations are frequent and occur from the bottom to the top of the social hierarchy, from the poor to the rich. This implies that individual accumulation of wealth takes place within the texture of both vertical and horizontal solidarity bonds in a given community. Therefore, as a result of witchcraft accusations, the accused will be exhorted by the traditional authority or some other form thereof (e.g. a local tribunal), to allow for some redistribution of their economic wealth, either through the networks of mutual assistance (ayuda mutua), or, more indirectly, by paying for health care, school fees, funerals, marriages, etc. This type of "transfer" is also sought in relations with the State. For example, a widow in Banga (Tsangano district, Tete province) in charge of five children, solicited the help of the local chief (nyakwawa) to approach the local administrator (chefe do posto) to be exempted from paying school fees. The administrator rejected her case with the justification that her children are young and healthy, so they could open up fields (machambas) and cultivate them to pay for the fees. This example shows that for the most marginalized segments of rural society, traditional chiefs remain an important "interface" with local government officials to enlist certain types of services and support.

In lineage-based, hierarchical societies, mechanisms for redistribution are an expression of the moral obligations of the more senior members of the community who are in charge of ensuring social and spiritual reproduction, as well as its more junior members in charge of ensuring economic welfare through adequate levels of agricultural production and trade. These mechanisms are essentially networks of mutual support and solidarity, as well as clientelistic relations among kinship groups of unequal social status. The historical power relations and priority rights of some lineages are largely the consequence of who occupied the land first; the descendants of the first to settle and open up fields will claim superior social status, as will those who are members of a lineage that came to dominate others through battle and conquest. Dominance and privileges of one particular lineage and clan, therefore, have their roots in the ancestral domain, legitimized through religious ideology and ritual by means of the symbolic capital embodied in traditional authorities (Bourdieu 1977). This leads to the configuration of local property relations and differentiated rules of access to land and other natural resources, in turn leading to the subordination and poverty of certain clans.

Policy-makers in Mozambique realize the importance of making decentralization, and the implementation of the new land law, as participatory and transparent as possible, creating an enabling environment to tap social capital for local development efforts. "(...) Land policy issues raise fundamental questions of rural governance, and the law itself requires further legislation to clarify exactly how rural communities can hold land, women's land rights, and the roles of the various forms of customary authority in Mozambique" (Quan 1999). Following the MAE research project, the Government is currently giving more thought to what the articulation between traditional authorities and the State could look like. For the time being, no legislation exists that addresses this important issue directly, and the only law (2/97) mentioning traditional authority at all pertains to urban settings. The very low turnout at the October 1998 local elections in 33 newly created urban municipalities calls attention to the fact that, to borrow a phrase from Fox (1996), civil society takes time to thicken.

Natural Resource Management and Development Projects

Great care is needed to reach an appropriate balance of respect for traditional authorities and their role in representing the interests of local communities, while still aiming to redress grievances that emerge from these same institutions. For example, in the case of projects that promote individual land titling for women in patrilinear societies - without doubt a laudable and often crucial development objective by itself. However, were the project to end or go awry, these women may no longer be able to claim support from their communities, which they would have had under the traditional mode of access to land.

In Banga, Tete province, 1996, the PROAREA UNDP-supported community development project assisted in establishing a Community Development Committee (CDC) to represent the interests of the community and to coordinate activities. The CDC includes 11 annually elected members drawn from different sectors of the Banga community: women and youth have their representatives, and a local traditional authority (nyakwawa) is also a member. The latter, in charge of traditional cultural transmission and education (including in agriculture), brings to the CDC his experience and that of his court of counsellors (mulumudzanas). These arrangements have worked well on the grounds of both local legitimacy and efficiency, such that in only three years the CDC has taken up a wider role in local governance and seems prepared to continue beyond the end of PROAREA.



To serve as rural police force, tax collectors, to mobilize joint labour for infrastructure and other works, etc.


See also Bako-Arifari, 1997.


Traditional authority includes (Lundin 1998) those who hold local traditional power - the traditional chiefs, the lesser lineage chiefs, the chiefs of social groups; those who hold spiritual power; the traditional doctors; the herbalists; those who know the essential skills for the basic physical survival of the community; those who know and can work with the mechanisms of social control; and those who control cultural transmission. These powers, skills or tasks can, and usually do, overlap in the person of more than one individual.


Their relationship to the land is determined by where the ancestors of a given lineage are buried; thus, chiefs are the symbol of an intimate alliance with their território.


Bako-Arifari, 1997. "Relations de Processus de Décentralization et Pouvoirs Traditionnels: Typologie des Politiques Rencontrées." FAO, Decentralisation et Developpement Rural 15, Rome, available also at

Bourdieu, 1977. "Outline of a Theory of Practice", Cambridge Univ. Press.

Blom, forthcoming. "Norms and Outcomes: Land disputes in rural Angónia, Mozambique", Centre for Development Research, Copenhagen.

FAO, forthcoming. "Comparative Analysis of Traditional Structures in Decentralization Policies and Programmes", Rome.

Fox, 1996. "How Does Civil Society Thicken? The Political Construction of Social Capital in Rural Mexico, World Development 24 (6), pp. 1089-1103.

Guambe, 1998. "Historical Evolution of Decentralisation in Mozambique", in Decentralisation and Municipal Administration, F. Ebert Foundation, Maputo.

Lundin, 1998. "Traditional Authority in Mozambique", in Decentralisation and Municipal Administration, F. Ebert Foundation, Maputo.

Lundin & Alfane, 1999. "Análise Comparativa Das Estruturas Tradicionais Nas Políticas E Programas De Descentralizaçâo: uma leitura de realidade em Moçambique do período pré colonial ao processo actual de democratizaçâo", Primeiro esboço para comentários e revisâo, CEEI, Maputo, Maio de 1999. MAE, 1996. "Algumas Reflexoes Sobre Autoridades Tradicionais E Sua Interaccao Com O Estado", Maputo. Mascaretti and Martins, 1992, "Diagnostic Study of Niassa Province, Mozambique," Land Reform 1992-1993, pp. 72-93.

Messer, 1998. "Relating Social Capital, Customary Community Institutions and Decentralisation Processes to Inform Decentralisation Policy: Case Study in Mozambique", unpublished research proposal, SDAR/FAO.

Mucussete, 1996. "Terra E Meio Ambiente", Brochura 4 do projecto Descentralizaçâo E Autoridade Tradicional, MAE, Maputo.

Quan, 1999. "Issues in African Land Policy: Experiences from southern Africa", NRI for DFID.

Previous Page Top of Page Next Page