Republic of Mozambique

POPULATION: 27.22 million (2014)

AREA: 308,642 sq. mi. (799,384 sq. km)

LANGUAGES: Portuguese (official); Sena, Shona, Makua, Swahili, and others


PRINCIPAL RELIGIONS: Traditional 50%, Christian 30%, Muslim 20%

CITIES: Maputo (capital), 3,025,000 (2000 est.); Tete, Beira, Quelimane, Sofala

ANNUAL RAINFALL: 55 in. (1,420 mm) in center, less in the north and south

ECONOMY: GDP $16.39 billion (2014)


  • Agricultural: cashews, cotton, sugar, corn, cassava, tea, tobacco, rice, tropical fruits, beef, poultry
  • Manufacturing: chemicals, petroleum products, textiles, food and beverage processing, cement, glass
  • Mining: coal, titanium, tantalite, some gold, mineral sands

GOVERNMENT: Independence from Portugal, 1975. Republic with president elected by popular vote. Governing bodies: Assembliea da Republica (legislature) with 250 seats elected by popular vote; Cabinet and prime minister appointed by the president.


  • 1975–1986 President Samora Machel
  • 1986– President Joaquim Alberto Chissano


EDUCATION: Compulsory for ages 7–14; literacy rate 40%

Republic of Mozambique

A large country on the east coast of Africa, Mozambique has had a long and violent history. After 450 years of exploitation by the Portuguese, Mozambicans fought a ten-year war for independence, then a civil war that lasted into the 1990s. Today the people of Mozambique have begun to put their violent past behind them. But drought, flooding, and a crushing national debt have made it one of Africa's poorest countries.


A land of great contrasts, Mozambique is nearly twice the size of California. The country has hundreds of miles of coastline along the Indian Ocean, with some of the best natural harbors in Africa. The Mozambique Channel separates the country from the large island nation of MADAGASCAR.

The country's terrain consists mainly of a low plain along the ocean coast, rising westward to a high central plateau and mountains. The ZAMBEZI RIVER divides the country from west to east. North of the river, the coastal plain is narrow and rises steeply to the highlands. South of the river, the plain is much broader and the change in elevation more gradual. In the far northwest, Mozambique borders the waters of Lake Malawi.

The northern two-thirds of Mozambique has a rainy season from November to April, with annual rainfall between 39 and 55 inches. The southern third sees less rain, only about 23 to 31 inches, and sometimes suffers from long periods of drought. Although Mozambique lies not too far from the equator, its temperatures generally remain moderate because of the country's high elevations. The hottest weather is found in the low-lying coast and the Zambezi River valley.

Mozambique has a rich diversity of forests, waters, and wildlife. Along the coast, shrimp and other marine creatures thrive in the marshy mangrove forests. Tropical forests are shrinking but still exist in coastal areas and in the north-central region, while savanna grasslands cover much of the plateaus.

Mozambique's natural resources hold great promise for the country's future. Geologists believe that a wealth of metals and minerals lie below the surface. However, the country has little capacity for mining, and many forests and wildlife habitats are being destroyed for short-term profits. Mozambique's greatest resource may be its rich soils, which can support a wide variety of farming. Many people live in the most fertile areas.


From the earliest known hunters and gatherers to the politicans and bankers of modern life, Mozambique's history spans thousands of years. The region has experienced a long series of migrations, invasions, conquests, and struggles.

Early History

By about A.D. 70, people living in what is now Mozambique had established some stable settlements where they farmed, fished, processed iron, and crafted pottery. Around 250 small groups of BANTU PEOPLES began migrating into the region from the north and west. Over the next 150 years, waves of Bantu displaced or absorbed much of the indigenous population. They laid the foundation for a shared Bantu heritage that still can be felt in the languages and social customs of Mozambique.

After about 1000, Arab, SWAHILI, and Indian traders began to settle along the coast. They founded small chiefdoms that grew into independent states. The port of Sofala became a major center for exporting gold and ivory.

These coastal traders had contact with several African states that lay farther inland. The kingdom of MUTAPA, also known as Mwene Mutapa, controlled the gold trade south of the Zambezi River, and by the 1500s it was probably the largest and most powerful state in central and southern Africa. The kingdom of MALAWI controlled the IVORY TRADE north of the river.

Within Mutapa and Malawi, chiefs and councils of elders ruled over small local areas. They distributed land to their subjects and called on the spirits of ancestors to make the land flourish. In return, the people paid taxes to the chiefs in food and labor, and the chiefs were entitled to the larger tusk of any elephant that died in their territory. The chiefs, however, had to pay tribute to the larger state. The local economies of Mutapa and Malawi rested mainly on farming, along with cattle raising, hunting, fishing, and mining. Trade in gold and ivory linked both Mutapa and Malawi to the Arab and Swahili merchants on the coasts. The Portuguese Invasion. Portuguese sailors first landed on the coast of Mozambique in 1498, while searching for a sea route to India.

Other explorers followed, and within a few years the Portuguese had several small settlements and trading posts on the coast. During the 1500s the Portuguese challenged the Swahili and eventually succeeded in taking control of the coast.

From their strongholds on the ocean shores, the Portuguese sent their armies and diplomats inland. In 1607 they forced the rulers of Mutapa to give up all their mines, and in 1632 they defeated Malawi. The king of Portugal gave out prazos, large estates in the interior, to Portuguese settlers. These settlers, prazeiros, often formed alliances and marriages with local African families, producing a mixed Afro-Portuguese culture. As a result, the influence of Portuguese authority declined. Indian traders moved in on Portuguese commerce, and several Arab and African groups revolted. In 1692 Mutapa and its allies drove the Portuguese from the interior.

The Slave Trade

In the mid-1700s, however, the Portuguese regained power and wealth through the SLAVE TRADE, which grew to terrifying proportions. As many as 1 million Africans from the region were forcibly taken to work in the Americas, the Caribbean, India, and Madagascar. Although Portugal outlawed the slave trade in 1836, the trade continued to dominate commerce throughout the century.

Slave raiders destroyed and captured entire communities in Mozambique. The rural economy was ruined as productive workers were taken away, and the remaining people could not grow enough food or protect against droughts. Indigenous societies were deeply disrupted and divided as a new, small class of Africans profited from enslaving other Africans. Southern Mozambique suffered less from the slave trade, but in the mid-1800s the area was conquered by the Nguni, an African people who had fled from South Africa.

Colonial Rule

Although the Portuguese grew rich from the slave trade, they were dependent on the Africans and prazeiros who controlled much of it. This situation and the success of the Nguni limited Portuguese influence. In the late 1800s, however, Portugal launched new assaults on the interior. Many Africans took up arms to defend their homelands, and Portugal did not overcome all resistance in Mozambique until 1917.

To increase their control over the country, the Portuguese set up a centralized administrative system with districts divided into European and non-European areas. They forced many African peasants to work for farms and factories owned by Europeans. Large numbers of Mozambican men went to work in South Africa for better pay in the mines and plantations there.

Portugal also granted private companies the right to rule the lands and peoples of specific areas. In return, the companies were supposed to develop the area's agriculture, trade, and infrastructure. Most companies, however, merely exploited the natural resources for their own profit.

In 1932 a dictator named Antonio Salazar came to power in Portugal. Mozambique was given a new status, that of province, that seemed to involve more autonomy. In fact Portugal kept a harsh grip on its Mozambique. The colonial authorities forced the indigenous population to grow cotton, rice, and other cash crops for export. The workers received little or no pay, so Portuguese companies could obtain these products very cheaply and make enormous profits on the world market. Portugal also declared that Mozambicans who adopted the Portuguese language and culture could gain citizenship and rights. But in practice very few Africans could qualify, allowing the whites to justify their own dominance. During the 1950s and 1960s, thousands more Portuguese settlers came to Mozambique to claim the opportunities denied to indigenous people.

Meanwhile, the Salazar regime gave the Roman Catholic Church full responsibility for educating and converting black Mozambicans. The church's mission was to provide only a basic education and to instill discipline so that the Portuguese could rely on Africans as a source of cheap labor. As a result, the vast majority of Africans in Mozambique remained illiterate.

These policies continued to devastate black communities in Mozambique. Rural areas lost hundreds of thousands of their most productive members, while the emphasis on growing export crops left little land for food crops. Debt, famines, disease, and other problems all increased. The few Africans who lived in urban areas endured segregation and filthy slums.

Independence and After

By the 1950s a number of black leaders emerged in Mozambique to oppose colonial rule. In 1962, several groups united as the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), a political party that spearheaded the movement for independence. Two years later, under its leader Eduardo MONDLANE, FRELIMO took up arms and launched a guerrilla war. For more than a decade, the rebels fought to liberate areas of the country. They abolished the cash crop system so that people could grow food for themselves and the army, and they helped open free clinics, schools, and orphanages. In 1974, Portuguese officers overthrew the dictatorship in Portugal and ended the war.

Independence came in 1975, but peace and progress did not. Thousands of Portuguese settlers left the country, taking their skills and wealth. Before leaving they killed cattle and destroyed property and machinery, which had a ruinous effect on the economy.

FRELIMO and its leader, Samora MACHEL, established a one-party state based on socialism. The government nationalized all industry and abolished private ownership of land. It also provided a safe haven for black rebels who were fighting the white minority governments of SOUTH AFRICA and Rhodesia (present-day ZIMBABWE and ZAMBIA). In 1976 Rhodesia began to supply arms and funding to an opposition movement in Mozambique. With additional backing from South Africa, the Mozambique National Resistance Movement (RENAMO) launched armed strikes against FRELIMO that developed into a bloody civil war by 1982.

In 1986 FRELIMO abandoned socialism. It accepted loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, international organizations that required Mozambique to change its economic system so that it could produce enough money to pay back the loans. The government sold off many state industries, often to foreign investors. It devalued its currency, which caused the country's poor people to become even poorer. Hardship, unemployment, and unrest grew amid a few economic success stories.

Meanwhile, FRELIMO reached a cease-fire with RENAMO in 1992 and opened elections to other political parties. Although the 1999 elections drew wide protests by RENAMO supporters, FRELIMO managed to cling to power. The government has pursued new goals for industry and tourism and has introduced a program to combat poverty by empowering women.


Mozambique's economy is still in transition from socialism to capitalism. The economy has grown and has benefited a few people in business and government. Despite new optimism, Mozambique faces a great challenge to develop its agriculture and industry and overcome the poverty of its people.

Agriculture is the primary economic activity in Mozambique. Most people engage in subsistence farming, growing corn and sorghum and raising cattle, goats, sheep, and chickens. In the most fertile areas, however, large plantations have replaced family farms since the early 1900s. The plantations employ many laborers to produce cash crops, especially cashew nuts, sugar cane, cotton, and tea. However, this large-scale agriculture did not perform well under socialism and has suffered from a series of droughts.

Mozambique has a large fishing industry, and shrimp is the country's major export. However, the shrimp industry faces a growing threat—the destruction of coastal mangrove forests where most of the shrimp live and breed. Overfishing also poses a danger, although the government has recently set limits on how much fish and shrimp can be caught. Mozambique currently produces iron ore, titanium metal, oil, and natural gas. Small industries exist to refine oil, process aluminum, and manufacture textiles, machinery, chemicals, and cement. However, these activities employ only a small percentage of the population. Mozambique's industry suffers from corruption, outdated technology, a shortage of roads and rail lines, and a shortage of electrical power. The nation's many rivers are a great resource that could be used for hydroelectric power. The giant Cabora Bassa dam on the Zambezi River does produce electricity, but most of this power is sold to South Africa and not used to develop Mozambique itself.


Mozambique has a great diversity of ethnic groups and ways of life. From the far corners of the country near Lake Malawi to the bustling cities and shores, Mozambican life is both traditional and in transition. The great majority of Mozambicans belong to related ethnic groups that speak Bantu languages. The largest Bantu group, the Makua-Lomwe, lives mainly north of the Zambezi River. Along the northern coast, many residents speak Swahili and are part of the Islamic culture and religion.

The Nguni peoples are a smaller group who migrated to Mozambique from South Africa in the 1800s. While more information is being learned about the people of Mozambique, very little historical information exists. Both the Portuguese colonial leaders and native leaders such as ex-president Samora Machel were reluctant to gather information on the different ethnic groups that populate the country. Instead they attempted to present the image of a unified Mozambique in which all people used a common language and shared similar goals. Those attempts at unification largely failed.

Most Mozambicans live in rural areas and follow traditional lifestyles based on KINSHIP relations. Many groups north of the Zambezi River have a matrilineal society in which people trace descent through the female side of the family. Most groups south of the Zambezi have patrilineal descent through the male side of the family. Today, growing numbers of Mozambicans are moving to the capital city of Maputo and other urban areas in search of opportunities. (See also Colonialism in Africa, Ethnic Groups and Identity, Independence Movements, Ivory Trade, Plantation Systems, Southern Africa, History.)