Chissano Succeeds Machel in Mozambique Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On November 6, 1986, Foreign Minister Joaquim Chissano succeeded to the presidency of Mozambique after Samora Machel was killed in a plane crash. Chissano led the impoverished African nation for nearly two decades, overseeing the end of a devastating civil war and directing the transition to democracy.

Summary of Event

On the evening of October 19, 1986, Samora Machel, the first president of an independent Mozambique, boarded a Soviet-piloted Tupolev Tu-134A after a summit meeting with Malawian president Kamuzu Banda. The plane left the airport at Lusaka, Zambia, without incident, but as it approached Mozambique’s capital city of Maputo it made an inexplicable 37-degree right turn, which led the jet to descend directly into the Lebombo Mountains. The aircraft crashed several hundred yards inside the border of South Africa, killing most of the passengers, including President Machel. Theories on the cause of the crash have ranged from pilot error to an act of assassination involving a deceptive radio beacon broadcast by the South African apartheid regime. However, Machel and South African president Pieter W. Botha had signed the Nkomati Accord Nkomati Accord (1984) two years earlier, by which both parties pledged to cease supporting insurgency movements in each other’s countries. This agreement would seem to have eliminated any major enmity on the part of South Africa. Mozambique;government Democracy;Mozambique [kw]Chissano Succeeds Machel in Mozambique (Nov. 6, 1986) [kw]Machel in Mozambique, Chissano Succeeds (Nov. 6, 1986) [kw]Mozambique, Chissano Succeeds Machel in (Nov. 6, 1986) Mozambique;government Democracy;Mozambique [g]Africa;Nov. 6, 1986: Chissano Succeeds Machel in Mozambique[06210] [g]Mozambique;Nov. 6, 1986: Chissano Succeeds Machel in Mozambique[06210] [c]Cold War;Nov. 6, 1986: Chissano Succeeds Machel in Mozambique[06210] [c]Independence movements;Nov. 6, 1986: Chissano Succeeds Machel in Mozambique[06210] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 6, 1986: Chissano Succeeds Machel in Mozambique[06210] Chissano, Joaquim Botha, Pieter W. Dhlakama, Afonso Machel, Samora

Whatever its cause may have been, the mysterious wreck offered a rare opportunity for a change of leadership in a state ruled by one party, the Marxist-Leninist Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (the Mozambique Liberation Front, or FRELIMO). FRELIMO The former foreign minister, Joaquim Chissano, was vaulted to the rank of the president on November 6, 1986. He was personally less charismatic than Machel but was, contrarily, a stronger administrator, more pragmatic, and generally more cautious and deliberate in his approach to decision making, which served him well in the long run.

Chissano inherited a tough commission, as the nation was plagued by a host of challenges, foremost of which was an ongoing civil war with an anticommunist guerrilla movement known as the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (the Mozambican National Resistance, or RENAMO), RENAMO which was under the leadership of Afonso Dhlakama. South Africa was suspected of continuing to funnel support to RENAMO through third-party countries such as Malawi, but the Nkomati Accord had at least managed to dry up a major source of overt aid.

Nevertheless, much to the surprise of FRELIMO hard-liners, the war continued to expand. The government’s economic incompetence, bureaucratic corruption, and opposition to Christianity and Islam, as well as its almost complete lack of regard for traditional village social structures, had alienated many rural peasants. On the other hand, RENAMO’s brutal tactics had effectively counterbalanced these mistakes. Evidence of the group’s ruthlessness was found in an important U.S. State Department report filed by Robert Gersony Gersony, Robert in 1988 that gave detailed accounts of RENAMO atrocities including mutilations and executions by shooting, stabbing, drowning, and even burning. Gersony estimated that the organization was responsible for the deaths of 100,000 Mozambicans. The Gersony report had a significant effect in blocking U.S. support for RENAMO, despite its attempts to portray itself as an anticommunist ally.

Chissano publicly sought a military victory but had privately approved a request by the Mozambican Christian Council, a Protestant umbrella organization, to open a dialogue with RENAMO. This eventually led to several meetings in 1988 and 1989 in Nairobi between FRELIMO-authorized Catholic and Protestant delegates and representatives of RENAMO. The talks were held under the sponsorship of President Daniel arap Moi Moi, Daniel arap of Kenya, who had previously given limited support to Dhlakama. The initial meetings showed that the two sides were far apart, but clearly there was strong interest in a settlement of some type. Another initiative, undertaken by a Catholic student organization, the Community of Sant’Egidio, resulted in direct peace talks between the two sides beginning on July 8, 1990, in Rome, Italy.

Chissano’s increasingly liberal orientation further improved the chances of a settlement with RENAMO. Under his tutelage, FRELIMO largely shed its adherence to Marxist-Leninist principles at its fifth party congress in 1989. In 1990, Mozambique adopted several changes to its constitution that allowed for the development of a multiparty political system. This simultaneously removed a major cause for grievance and created a nonviolent, non-RENAMO alternative for opponents of the regime. Further pressure to reach an accord was put on Dhlakama when Mozambique suffered a severe drought in 1992 that stripped resources from RENAMO’s rural areas of support.

Mozambican president Joaquim Chissano (left) and RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama shake hands after settling the terms of a peace agreement, as Zimbabwean president Robert Mugabe (center left) and Italian diplomat Emilío Colombo look on.

(Reuters/Luciano Mellace/Archive Photos)

In the end, there were twelve rounds of meetings sponsored largely by the Italian government before the highly successful Rome General Peace Accords Rome General Peace Accords (1992) were signed on October 4, 1992. Two years later, elections were held and FRELIMO remained in power with a modest majority in the new National Assembly. Mozambique also agreed to adopt a number of economic reforms and was subsequently rewarded by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund with a rescheduling and restructuring of its crippling debt payments. These programs included the outright forgiveness of more than one billion dollars; even so, critics argued that too much of the nation’s revenue was still being used to pay interest on outstanding debt. Mozambique remained one of the world’s poorest states, but the economy saw some improvement, with inflation dropping from a high of 70 percent to about 5 percent by the end of the decade. The members of Mozambique’s voting public were apparently satisfied enough with these gains to reward Chissano with a second five-year term in 1999.


Mozambique’s change in direction was driven simultaneously by internal and external forces. On one hand, FRELIMO made conscious decisions about when and how it would be willing to reach an understanding with RENAMO. On the other hand, it would be a mistake to separate events in this African nation from the broader thaw of the Cold War. Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of liberalization, and the subsequent reduction of aid for Soviet allies, clearly had a big impact on FRELIMO’s move toward Western ideological practices. Much stir has been made over Machel’s death, but given the fact that he had already begun the rapprochement with South Africa, the ideological transition may have taken place whether it was he or Chissano who was in power. Nevertheless, it is hard to imagine someone much better suited to steer his party, and his country, in the direction of peace than the mild-mannered diplomat who assumed office in early November of 1986. Mozambique;government Democracy;Mozambique

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Abrahamson, Hans, and Anders Nilsson. Mozambique: The Troubled Transition. London: Zed Books, 1995. Tackles the Mozambican civil war through fieldwork conducted from 1977 to 1994. The study favors a structural approach emphasizing economics and society over personalities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hall, Margaret, and Tom Young. Confronting Leviathan: Mozambique Since Independence. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1997. Explores the history of Mozambique from independence through the end of the civil war. The conflict is reviewed in a traditional but highly effective political-ideological context.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Newitt, Malyn. A History of Mozambique. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995. Provides a broad review of the long history of Mozambique going back to the sixteenth century. This allows for a deeper understanding of both the background to the revolution against Portugal and the civil war.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rotberg, Robert. Ending Autocracy, Enabling Democracy: The Tribulations of Southern Africa, 1960-2000. Cambridge, Mass.: World Peace Foundation, 2002. Considers the conflict in Mozambique as part of much larger macropolitical developments affecting the entire region of Southern Africa.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Vines, Alex. RENAMO: From Terrorism to Democracy in Mozambique? York: Centre for Southern African Studies, 1996. Explains the civil war largely by focusing on RENAMO rather than the Mozambican government. It does not ignore outside factors, however, and manages to explore a variety of political and social forces affecting the conflict.

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South Africa and Mozambique Sign Nkomati Accord

African Countries Begin to Revive Democratization

U.N. Security Council Brokers Peace in Mozambique

Categories: History