Peace vs. Justice in Mozambique

By Hanna Denecke, MA Security & Terrorism

In this blog post I explore the peace versus justice debate in post-conflict societies by looking at the case of Mozambique. Between 1977 and 1992, the Mozambican ruling party FRELIMO (Front for the Liberation of Mozambique) was engaged in a civil war against the rebel group RENAMO (Mozambican National Resistance). The conflict resulted in great human loss, around one million died, thousands were disabled, thousands of children were forced to become child soldiers and millions were displaced (Honwana, 1997). Under these circumstances, the question of how to deal with former perpetrators of (mass) violence can easily turn into a trade-off between advancing justice and maintaining peace. Especially, when there is no clear victor, peace depends on a compromise between the former adversaries.

Transitional Justice: Concepts and Mechanisms

Transitional justice is usually described as the process of addressing the crimes committed by a former regime or during conflict. Typical components are legal justice in the form of prosecutions, truth commissions, amnesty laws and sometimes traditional justice mechanisms. The aim of transitional justice is to prevent the recurrence of old conflicts and to preserve peace. Post-conflict societies tend to focus either on retributive justice or on restorative justice.

The former refers to the legal account of justice dominant in Western societies, according to which a perpetrator has to be prosecuted and held accountable for his crimes. Retributive justice generally consists of prosecution and trials at the national or international level. Especially, from a Western viewpoint legal prosecutions after human rights violations appear to be an appropriate response (Pankhurst, 1999). Trials can have a number of positive effects. They can potentially contribute to a truth-telling process, promote the rule of law and deter acts of vengeance. The punishment of perpetrators establishes a clear responsibility for violent acts and can help victims to focus on the future.

However, legal prosecution after a civil war or similar conflict is not as straightforward as it may seem. First of all, the new government has to approve of national as well as international trials, which can lead to a situation in which members of the new government escape legal prosecution. Furthermore, trials depend on the available evidence, which can be scarce. Often those involved in planning and organising the violence are likely to get away (Pankhurst, 1999). Lastly, legal prosecution of large numbers of perpetrators tends to be overwhelming for national courts (Graybill, 2004). In the case of international trials through criminal tribunals or the International Criminal Court (ICC), prosecution is often limited to a very small number of individuals. Moreover, international law tends to be imposed by the West on post-conflict societies without taking into account the local context. Therefore, the local population tends to perceive legal processes as something distant and formal that does not directly involve them (Lambourne, 2009).

In contrast to this, restorative justice focuses on reconciliation often by using traditional justice mechanisms or truth commissions. One of the most influential interpretations of reconciliation comes from John Paul Lederach (1997). He argues that an agreed upon vision of a peaceful future is of equal importance to reconciliation as acknowledgement of past crimes. Thus, reconciliation “represents a place, the point of encounter where concerns about both the past and the future can meet” (Lederach, 1997 p. 27). A common mechanism that promotes restorative justice and reconciliation are truth commissions. The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is probably the most well-known (Pankhurst, 1999). Similar to trials, truth commissions have the advantage that the plight of victims is acknowledged and they can potentially give victims a voice. The problem is that truth commissions emphasise one narrative of the past and silence other views. Thus, they can only successfully promote reconciliation if this narrative is accepted by each of the former conflict parties. This can be facilitated if perpetrators of violence are offered amnesty for former crimes. Therefore, amnesty laws are often used in combination with truth commissions and at the cost of legal prosecutions. Amnesty appears to be a common mechanism in cases were the new government has been involved in the violence and is usually negotiated during peace negotiations (Pankhurst, 1999).

Finding the right balance between punishment for past atrocities and establishing friendly relations between former conflict parties and communities by emphasising forgiveness is extremely important in order to prevent the outbreak of new violence. Yet, some authors claim that restorative and retributive justice are not exclusive, rather they tend to overlap and work together. Lambourne (2009)argues that colonialism has influenced the legal mechanisms in many African states so that the distinction between Western retributive and traditional restorative justice is blurred. In practice, the mechanisms are often used simultaneously. There is no need to choose one over the other but as long as there is local support for it, restorative and retributive justice can be combined. In Mozambique it seems that peace was deemed officially more important than justice, yet a more detailed account of the local mechanisms shows that justice has not been completely disregarded.

Transitional Justice in Mozambique

Due to the long duration of the civil war, the Mozambican society was deeply divided and trust between the communities had to be rebuild. Thus, reconciliation formed an essential aspect of the peace talks. The primary mechanism of transitional justice was the amnesty law anchored in the General Peace Agreement of 1992. For many years Mozambique appeared to be a success story of political reconciliation after violent conflict, but more recent developments show that the situation is fragile. Contrary to what was agreed upon during the peace negotiations, RENAMO did not fully disarm and since 2013, increased tensions have led to renewed episodes of violence between FRELIMO and RENAMO (Regalia, 2017).

The general amnesty declared by the government rendered legal trials impossible and in contrast to many other cases, in Mozambique the amnesty laws were not accompanied by a truth commission. Thereby, the government decided to focus entirely on reconciliation and dismissed any calls for justice. The decision was based on practical concerns for maintaining peace among a deeply divided society and suited both FRELIMO and RENAMO. In addition, the weak economy of Mozambique was unsuited to accommodate the costs of a truth commission or legal prosecutions (Chicuecue, 1997). However, the extent to which amnesty was supported by the local population is debated. In cases where amnesty is the only mechanism implemented during periods of transitional justice this can be interpreted as a denial of the past. Yet, Honwana (1997)argues that revenge or speaking out about traumatic events are not common notions in Mozambique. Instead, the focus is on reintegration and moving forward. According to Hirsch (2010), interviews with local population also show that there was no denial or amnesia. Rather, the people had made a conscious decision to focus on the future and not engage in vengeance. In contrast to this, Igreja (2010)adopts a more critical view towards the amnesty and argues that the plight of the victims was overlooked as the authorities took no responsibility for the past abuses.

By adopting traditional mechanisms, the rural communities in Mozambique were able to deal with the abuses, while not interfering with the general amnesty. Rituals were used to reintegrate victims and perpetrators into the local community and to renew friendly relationships between the living and the spirits. In Mozambican culture, violence tends to be perceived as an illness that needs to be cured (Graybill, 2004). Thus, the traditional ceremonies often consisted of rituals of purification, which included both victims and perpetrators. Chicuecue (1997)describes rituals during which offenders confess and acknowledge their crimes, in order to reconcile with the offended, no matter if these are dead or alive. The offender usually gives an oath not to act wrongful again and sometimes has to pay a small fine to the offended party. In cases where the offended party is not alive, traditional healers are used to communicate with the spirits. These rituals are also used to ask forgiveness from dead relatives who could not be adequately buried (Chicuecue, 1997). During the ceremonies the spirits make clear demands that can even involve acts of retribution, such as the killing of a member of the offender’s community. In these cases, the healers will usually mediate between the spirit and the offender in order to find a different solution (Honwana, 1997).

The traditional rituals differ significantly from the official amnesty adopted by the state. In conformity with Lederach’s account of reconciliation they offer a place where concerns about the past and the future come together. Yet, not all of the rituals are successful in achieving reintegration and reconciliation. Sometimes a spirit cannot be appeased, or a soldier will not refrain from violence despite having participated in a purification ritual (Honwana, 1997). Therefore, the traditional mechanisms, just like any official or legal mechanisms of transitional justice, must be viewed in pragmatic terms. The recent outbreak of violence between FRELIMO and RENAMO might suggest that full reconciliation has not been achieved, neither through the amnesty laws nor through the traditional rituals. However, the decision to implement amnesty, rather than establishing a truth commission or advancing trials has been based on a realistic view of the circumstances. It is unlikely that any other mechanism would have been better suited at achieving some extent of reconciliation in Mozambique. Moreover, despite not being always successful, the traditional rituals have contributed to reintegration and reconciliation at the personal level. The more recent episodes of violence appear to have been triggered by unequal access to political power between RENAMO and FRELIMO (Regalia, 2017).


The case of Mozambique exemplifies the importance of local participation in the transitional justice process. The official choice of amnesty was preferred by the top officials of FRELIMO and RENAMO, yet the population favoured the traditional mechanisms based in their culture. This shows that mechanisms of transitional justice are not exclusive. Unofficial and official responses to human rights violations can work together and complement each other. In Mozambique, the decision to focus on the future and advance peace over justice was based on cultural and situational considerations. Despite the renewed violence, choosing peace over justice was the most feasible option for Mozambique.


Chicuecue, N. M. (1997). Reconciliation: The role of truth commissions and alternative ways of healing. Development in Practice, 7(4), 483-486.

Graybill, L. (2004). Pardon, Punishment, and Amnesia: Three African post-conflict methods.Third World Quarterly, 25(6), 1117-1130.

Hirsch, J. L. (2010). Peace and Justice: Mozambique and SierraLeone compared. In Sriram C. L., Pillay S. (Eds.), Peace versus Justice? The dilemma of transitional justice in Africa. (pp. 202-219). Woodbridge: James Currey.

Honwana, A. M. (1997). Healing for Peace: Traditional healers and post-war reconstruction in southern Mozambique. Peace & Conflict: Journal of Peace Psychology, 3(3), 293-305.

Igreja, V. (2010). The politics of Peace, Justice and Healing in Post-War Mozambique: ‘Practices of rupture’ by Magamba spirits and healers in Gorongosa. In Sriram C. L., Pillay S. (Eds.), Peace versus Justice? The dilemma of transitional justice in Africa(pp. 277-300). Woodbridge: James Currey.

Lambourne, W. (2009). Transitional Justice and Peacebuilding after Mass Violence. The International Journal of Transitional Justice, 3(1), 29-48.

Lederach, J. P. (1997). Building Peace: Sustainable reconciliation in divided societies(2013th ed.). Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.

Pankhurst, D. (1999). Issues of Justice and Reconciliation in Complex Political Emergencies: Conceptualising reconciliation, justice and peace. Third World Quarterly, 20(1), 239-256.

Regalia, S. (2017). The Resurgence of Conflict in Mozambique: Ghosts from the past and brakes to peaceful democracy. Notes de l’Ifri, Institut Français Des Relations Internationales, 4