Lessons in Peace: The relevance of Mozambique's peace agreement 20 years later

The signing of the Mozambique general peace agreement was planned for Oct. 1, 1992. Several African heads of state and government ministers traveled to Rome to join several members of the Sant’Egidio Community, a group of lay people dedicated to prayer, evangelization and solidarity. After 11 rounds of negotiations at Sant’Egidio over 26 months, there remained one basic problem: Who was to control the territory during the transition before the first round of democratic, universal elections? This issue prompted many more questions: Who had sovereignty? How could the guerrillas be assured that the cease-fire would be respected? And how could the government be assured that the areas still under guerrilla control would not break up national unity or signify reduced sovereignty? For three days international mediators worked non-stop with the leaders of each side in Rome.

Many people who offered support—especially in Mozambique, where people were still suffering, dying and hoping—were waiting to find out if there was going to be a true peace or if this was just a dream. Finally, late on Oct. 3, agreement came on the last protocol, and the signing took place the next day, a Sunday. The Mozambique government maintained sovereignty over the entire territory. In practice, the government assigned administration of separate regions to local administrators, whether from Renamo or the government, according to the actual distribution of power. And a commission of Sant’Egidio mediators and representatives of the two sides was created to settle controversial cases.


In those days all you could hear on the streets in Mozambique was uninterrupted radio broadcasts as the silent population waited desperately for good news. On Oct. 4, after evening prayer in Rome’s Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere with Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, the joy and singing went on for an hour. In Mozambique the nightmare that had claimed one million lives and resulted in millions of displaced and starving people was over.

The Sant’Egidio Method

It all started in July 1990 after years of civil war, famine, suffering, refugees and international failures in Mozambique. The Community of Sant’Egidio had not “chosen” to be a direct player in international diplomacy. It loved the people of Mozambique and was interested in peace as the only chance to interrupt a spiral of violence that claimed so many victims, including some young people of Sant’Egidio. Sant’Egidio had worked to mitigate confrontation and the problems faced by the Catholic Church and other Christian worshippers as well as the missionaries based in the country. Sant’Egidio was instrumental to Pope John Paul II’s first meeting with President Samora Machel when the president stopped in Rome on his way back from the United Nations. Sant’Egidio passed the “exam” of the Mozambique government when it launched aid programs for the population through the Mozambican chapter of Caritas and local Christians—gaining personal credit with the leadership class trained in Europe at the Sorbonne and the sociology department of the University of Trent, Italy, where the Red Brigades had studied for “revolution.”

But the Pax Romana—as the French newspaper Le Monde called it—was not conceived at a table. For years Sant’Egidio had said that “everything is lost in war” and that war was truly “the mother of poverty.” Sant’Egidio had explored the possibility of a national effort of dialogue with some Mozambican government representatives when the two sides still branded each other “bandits” and “murderers.” Sant’Egidio established a relationship with the leadership of an anomalous guerrilla group that had very few international contacts and, therefore, little international bargaining clout.

Sant’Egidio facilitated the first meeting, when each side agreed to the method proposed by Andrea Riccardi, the founder of Sant’Egidio: “Leave aside what divides and start working on that which unites,” echoing Pope John XXIIIbut at a diplomatic level. When the first joint protocol was signed, the sides saw each other as adversaries in the conflict but also considered themselves “brothers of the common Mozambican family” and publicly announced the desire to start negotiations. A Ferrari Spumante wine bottle and a first photo together celebrated the event.

Again in August 1992, during the second round of negotiations, when the two sides could not agree on the choice of one or more governments to act as mediators, Sant’Egidio was officially asked to carry out the role. Along the way the “Sant’Egidio method” gained ground as a practical and historical necessity. The group had many strengths: a mix of knowledge of the problems on the ground; credibility that it had no ambition other than peace and reconciliation; combined action with others and with interested governments, keeping their roles distinct; attention to the human factor as a primary issue in the negotiations; the art of co-existence and friendship; and the ability to decipher languages. These factors developed a common language between the two sides through which mutual demonization gave way to the discovery of a political field to replace military confrontation as a solution to differences of opinion and the forces on the ground.

It was not easy. The 26 months of negotiations seemed long. At the beginning it seemed as though it would be resolved in a matter of months. But a mentality of peace had to be created, a trust that was not yet there. A warrior had to be transformed into a politician. There were military problems of security. Deaths were still occur ring. The people were dubious. The missionaries, close to the suffering of the populations, were tempted by impatience. Why so slow? Paradoxically that slowness was one of the secrets of the success of peace and its duration. (Sant’Egidio and Mozambique recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the peace agreement.) The negotiations themselves were a key to success. To negotiate is to pay attention to the details. The very method of negotiating was a school of democracy for both sides: language, rules, mechanisms and mentalities. And it would become still more useful in the two decades that followed.

Promises, Challenges Ahead

Was this experience a once-in-a-lifetime case? We must ask ourselves this question, because it seems as though it is not possible to automatically apply, with similar effectiveness, the “method” created in Mozambique to other African and international conflicts. Or, we must ask, what conditions are needed to repeat it or make it possible to repeat it? The wars of the past two decades are less often conflicts between states and more often wars inside countries, with many people and governments involved. This increases the complexity and the number of players involved in the peace process.

One complicating factor is the fact that the resolution of conflicts has become a new field of research. University professorships, research institutes and independent and government-connected research centers have multiplied. When the subjects multiply, there are more available means, but the complexity heightens. There is a sort of “bureaucratization” of paths to peace. It is hard to take into account all the levels that made the “Mozambique case” the model for possible negotiations and success.

In Burundi a path similar to Mozambique’s was taken. When the reserved talks started in Rome, the chances for success looked very good, and the path seemed to lead to rapid results. The publicity made it inevitable to transfer the talks to Africa, where all countries interested in peace were given an official role—first Tanzania, then the African Union, South Africa and the European Union. The number of participants on both sides in the conflict grew from two to 18. As can be imagined, the procedures became stymied. Even prestigious and credible international pressure, represented by the visit of then President Bill Clinton to Arusha, with the collaboration of Nelson Mandela, proved insufficient.

In time, delay itself became a critical factor in an official international context. When divisions take place inside an armed group—a likely event due to communication problems, a shift of power on the ground and personal factors—it is possible that a group originally accredited to sit at the bargaining table becomes too weak on the ground, and the strongest faction is no longer present at the negotiations. This jeopardizes the effectiveness of the whole negotiation process. A signed agreement leaves important problems unsettled and does not guarantee a true end to the war and the safety of the population. This is just one example, but a very real risk. The devil is in the details. In the case of Burundi, there were still a lot of details to clear up.

But there are also cases in which the “Mozambique method” becomes timely again, and this is not only because Sant’Egidio has become “African.” (It has thousands of members in sub-Saharan Africa.) The reunification of Ivory Coast and the negotiations conducted before the crisis in 2010 by Burkina Faso’s President Blaise Compaoré, with the help of Sant’Egidio, were part of events in which the combined actions and components of the “method” demonstrated their effectiveness.

Niger and Guinea, two cases of “preventative peace” created in several rounds at Sant’Egidio in Rome, showed another possible itinerary: emerging from dictatorship and coup d’etat, the first steps with mutually agreed upon rules, elections, the establishment of checks and balances in society and assurances for the opponents and the “losers” in the process of democratization.

This path created two “successful failures.” The first was in Algeria, where the Rome Platform and unilateral surrender of arms by the armed faction of the Islamic Front offered some hope and became the foundation, too late and after too many victims, on which Algerian society experienced a reduction in extremist violence. The second was in Kosovo. The initial agreement between Slobodan Milosevic and Ibrahim Rugova was a successul attempt to create the conditions of peace before the outbreak of the civil war, but there was no international support to implement it.

The “method” also proved decisive for putting an end to more than 30 years of civil war in Guatemala, creating contact groups and an agenda that revived the official negotiations in the mid-1990’s. It may turn out to be useful again today in the matter of Casamance, a Senegalese territory fighting for independence, and other “forgotten” wars. And it may lessen damage from existing crises, as happened in Liberia, avoiding a final battle in Monrovia. Or it may offer an increasingly necessary political, more democratic way out in the terrible Syrian Civil War, haunted by Al Qaeda’s shadow.

Even when the international community risks standing on a slippery slope that, in the end, looks toward external military intervention as the apparent solution to complex problems, the Sant’Egidio method may prove useful. Unfortunately we know that at least in the most sensational cases, from Afghanistan to Iraq, and recently in the development of the Arab Spring, there is no shortage of problems. There is no doubt the method can help with intermediate solutions, like finding ways to offer relief to civilian communities caught in the grips of violence. But it might also prove useful in far-reaching international crises.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

The coronavirus pandemic has both increased the frequency of deaths and constrained our ability to accompany the dying.
Valerie SchultzJuly 07, 2020
A man holds a Confederate flag outside the Statehouse in Columbia, S.C., on July 9, 2015, hours before Gov. Nikki Haley signed a bill to remove the flag from Statehouse grounds. (CNS photo/Jason Miczek, Reuters)
In an-all white suburb of Detroit, waving the Confederate flag at football games was a tradition during the 1970s. Looking back, William Collins Donahue realizes that the practice was not so innocent.
A Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol honor guard folds the retired Mississippi state flag after it was raised over the Capitol grounds one final time in Jackson, Miss., on July 1. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
As Mississippi puts away the Confederate stars-and-bars, native son Jeremy Zipple, S.J., reflects on the heavy silence around racism that prevailed during his childhood.
Jeremy ZippleJuly 07, 2020
America Media won top awards for best essay, best feature article and best multimedia package series.
America StaffJuly 06, 2020