International Relations

What makes a conflict a civil war ? The complex case of Mozambique.

Rachel WUHRMANN (2016), The London School of Economics and Political Science, Msc in Conflict Studies. 


The nature of violent conflict has constantly been evolving throughout the centuries. Intimately related to the evolution of the modern state, it has gone through a number of phases, each one characterized by a different mode of warfare (Kaldor, 2012: 19). Whereas the 19th century saw war as a means of consolidating state power and a certain aura in the international sphere, the post-Cold War era was characterized by the dramatic decrease in inter-state disputes, and the rise of proxy wars and civil disputes. Twenty to thirty million people died in over 100 intra-state conflicts since 1945, and 90% of them were civilians (Harbom and Wallensteen, 2005: 623-35). Of the 118 armed conflicts which occurred between 1989 and 2004, only seven were inter-state wars (Ibid.). The domestic character of sovereign states therefore became the focus of attention for academia. War now seemed reserved for weak or failed states who did not have the capacity to maintain a monopoly of the use of violence, as we will further explore.

Civil wars are not a novel phenomenon, but they have only fairly recently been at the centre of the Conflict Studies literature, epitomizing the shift in modern forms of warfare. Nevertheless, what makes a conflict a civil war ? We will first attempt to define the main characteristics of such disputes, whilst briefly exploring the case of the American Civil War of 1861-1865. We will then explore the more complex case of Mozambique, reflecting on the relationship between decolonization, state weakness and the occurrence of such civil strife.

Carl von Clausewitz liked to define war as a ‘social activity’ (Kaldor, 2012: 16). In his book On War, first published in 1832, he defines this form of violent dispute as ‘an act of violence intended to compel our opponent to fulfill our will’ (Ibid.). As Mary Kaldor points out in her analysis of Old Wars, Clausewitz’ definition assumes that both ‘we’ and ‘our opponent’ are clearly defined and recognized. The profound difficulty of delineating such concepts lies at the heart of civil wars. As Kaldor argues, in the ‘post-war period, alliances were rigidified so that the distinction between what is internal and what is external is also eroded’ (Kaldor, 2012: 30-31). The second half of the 20th century was indeed characterized by irregular, informal wars, such as the resistance movements and guerilla wars of Mao Tse-Tung and his successors. New ways of ‘socially organizing violence’ (Ibid.) were found, and these no longer stressed the predominance of states as coherent, unchallenged actors. On the contrary, this issue of divided sovereignty was regarded as one of the primary characteristics of civil wars.

Stathis Kalyvas famously stressed the importance of divided sovereignty in explaining the occurrence of civil wars. His definition, stemming from the Greek heritage, ‘focused on the split nature of the polity, and (…) rival claims to sovereign authority by different factions’ (Kissane, 2016: 59). Because some actors believe that this divided situation may only be resolved by violent means, a civil war may ensue, expressing both the territorial and ideological split within a state. According to Kalyvas, because sovereignty is at issue, these conflicts are necessarily political, ideological and explosive, but relatively rare. He further characterizes these conflicts by using such concepts as ‘sedition’ or ‘rebellion’, which later emerged in large entities, such as Empires. The American Civil War encapsulates Kalyvas’ definition of a civil war. This conflict, fought between 1861 and 1865, opposed two opposing sides, divided not only territorially, but also ideologically, politically and culturally. The southern slave states challenged the authority of the central government, ultimately declaring secession from the United States and forming the ‘Confederate States of America’. This conflict finally ended after more that four years of fighting, and approximately 700,000 casualties. The number of men mobilized for this internal conflict, was far greater than for any other inter-state war.

The term ‘civil war’ was first coined by the Romans. Bellum civile indeed refers to the citizen becoming the main enemy in a violent dispute. This is important for three main reasons. Firstly, if the citizen is the enemy, then everyone in a society becomes involved in the dispute. It becomes increasingly difficult to identify a common enemy clearly, and the sentiment of psychose spreads irrationally and far more easily amongst the population. Secondly, civil war brings death in the intimate space of the household. As Thomas Hobbes suggested, ‘in a civil war one does not fear any particular thing, or any particular moment, but fears for one’s entire being due to the absolute closeness of death’ (Ibid., 61). Finally, since civil wars are fought amongst citizens, there are no real battle lines, which makes escaping from such theater of conflict increasingly difficult. The conventional nature of warfare is transformed into something far more chaotic, brutal and unrestrained, emphasized by the absence of any laws or ethics. War in the Hobbesian sense of ‘all against all and neighbor against neighbor’ seems inescapable, and fragmentation within one’s own community befalls. As Frank O’Connor once reflected, ‘all we know for sure is that in civil war father is often set against son and brother against brother, and no doubt from time to time they have killed one another’ (O’Connor, 2004: 190).

Harry Eckstein defines civil wars as a mere variant of internal wars, on the same level as revolutions or insurgencies. He defines these internal wars as referring to ‘any resort to violence within a political order in order to change its constituency, rulers or policies’ (Eckstein, 1965: 171). The adoption of such term reflected a ‘shift in the geographic focus of war studies’ (Kissane, 2016: 40), whilst also emphasizing the crucial importance of legitimacy. Indeed, as opposed to inter-state disputes, state authority is challenged, with two sides opposing each other. The modern nation state has been defined by the renowned German sociologist Max Weber, as ‘an organization that legitimately monopolizes the means of coercion over a given territory’ (Ibid., 41). These boundaries become blurred during civil wars, for neither the legitimacy claims of the opposing groups, nor their territorial divisions can be objectively distinguished or asserted. The polarizing asymmetry between them only grows as the rival claims develop, often leading to state collapse. The political scientist Michael Ignatieff argued that what defines a failed state is precisely its ‘inability to maintain a monopoly of the internal means of violence’ (Ignatieff, 2002: 117), to further expand on Max Weber’s research. Such weak states are hospitable to and harbor non-state actors, which can more easily challenge the very status of the government, ultimately leading to civil war. Not only does this weaken even more the nation, who is ultimately unable to build solid institutions or perform the ‘basic functions of the state’ (Zartman, 1995: 5), but its reconstitution becomes increasingly more difficult, for unlike inter-state disputes, the enemy ‘stays within’ when peace is found. The coexistence between such factions is therefore even more difficult to reach, especially in the critical phase of state restructuring.

The concept of legitimacy is therefore of predominant importance in the study of civil wars. Indeed, some countries seem more vulnerable to rival threats, precisely because they lack the means of confidently asserting their own legitimacy. This is the case of most decolonized countries who were formed after 1945. In such countries, national unity was formed primarily against an external actor – the colonized force – but when the latter disappeared, the newly-born state struggled to affirm its common identity, and faced growing risks of violent opposition. Moreover, this nationalist sentiment was increasingly more difficult to develop. Are these countries thus doomed to experience civil strife ? We will briefly explore the case of Mozambique, and explain why this dispute was defined as a civil war, even though external actors were involved.

Mozambique gained its independence in 1975 after nearly five hundred years of Portuguese rule. The Front for Liberation of Mozambique (FreLiMo) rapidly rose to power, and began to apply policies of nationalization. Allied to the Soviet Union, it rapidly became regarded as a threat by its two neighbours, Rhodesia, former Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Its gradual weakening, both a product of FreLiMo’s policies, and the debris of colonization, created a fertile ground for the emergence of non-state-actors who could effectively challenge the government in power. Financed by both Rhodesia, and later South Africa, the Mozambique Resistance Movement (ReNaMo) was created for this purpose, namely to challenge the state, regardless of the methods of terror employed. Its influence grew, eventually leading to a civil war which lasted from 1976 to 1992, and which resulted in more than 900,000 deaths, and five million displaced, out of a population of 15 million.

Mozambique is a classic example of civil war in a recently independent nation state. It fits our previous definition of civil strife, for this dispute was altogether characterized by two opposing groups fighting each other within their own community, disregarding each other’s claims for legitimacy or sovereignty. The involvement of regional and international actors however played a major role in exacerbating tensions between the opposing factions. Samara Machel, the first President of Mozambique, had an absolute hatred for the members of ReNaMo, which emphasizes the previously stated problem of state reconstruction after an internal dispute. Durable peace may only be possible when camps recognize each other as legitimate actors. Machel disregarded ReNaMo fighters, and referred to them simply as ‘thugs’ or ‘bandits’. He also condemned the international community for fuelling tensions between his people, responding the following way to a journalist questioning him about his actions against ReNaMo: ‘Your question should be this, I wish you would ask me this: “When will European powers stop supporting armed bandits ? When will they stop ?’” (Almeida, 2012). Civil wars are therefore made increasingly complex when opposing factions refuse to regard each other as legitimate entities. Some governments ultimately never recognized that their state suffered a civil war. This was for example the case of Algeria, who experienced a civil strife which began in 1991, and which continues to some extent until this day. This conscious denial proves to show the inherently negative quality of such forms of dispute, as opposed to traditional modes of warfare. The concept of civil war is therefore paradoxical, for they are predominantly ‘experienced as decidedly uncivil’ (Kissane, 2016: 58).

            Civil wars have often been regarded as the worst form of warfare, for they not only destroy a state’s infrastructure and inflict human loss – as any other ‘traditional’ form of violent dispute would – they also profoundly and painfully divide societies, communities and even families. The brutality of such intimate division is deeply entrenched in the collective memory of a people, even in such cases as Algeria, where the government denied the very existence of such strife. The very fact that they attempted – and superficially succeeded in revoking such unpleasant elements of the past, proves to show the profound complexity of civil war. Its long-term consequences can have devastating consequences, for reconstruction is made much more intricate when the enemy remains within.

We have attempted to outline the main characteristics of civil wars, namely the challenges they pose to the legitimacy and sovereignty of a state, as well as its fragmented aspect. In order to do so, we explored two different cases which contrasted both in nature and aftermath. The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865, and finally resulted in the consolidation of the centralized state’s authority and the abolition of slavery. The Mozambique Civil strife, on the other hand, lasted from 1976 to 1992 and left the country in an uncertain and weak position, which remains to this day. These two cases were fascinating to compare, for they occurred in countries which did not share the same historical processes of state formation. One indeed was formed prior to 1945, when war was still waged as a means of centralizing state authority, whilst the other was born in reaction to centuries of colonization, which left deep wounds on the community and fragile civil society.

The latter case of Mozambique leads us to ask the following question, are there states that are so weak and fragmented, that even the term ‘civil’ sounds foreign to them ? As Massimo d’Azeglio once declared in 1861, ‘We made Italy; we must now make Italians’ (Gilmour, 2011). This famous anecdote encapsulates the slow process of nation formation and common identity consolidation. Can the term ‘civil’ therefore be applied in cases where the people don’t even feel part of the same community, let alone same nation state ?





Almeida, H. (2012). Samora Machel Speech (Online Video) Available at: (Accessed: 18 April 2016).

Eckstein, H. (1965). On the Etiology of Internal Wars. History and Theory4(2).

Gilmour, D. (2011). The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples, Penguin Books: Australia.

Harbom, L. and Wallensteen, P. (2005). “Armed Conflict and Its International Dimensions, 1946-2004”,  Journal of Peace Research vol. 42, no. 5. 

Kaldor, M. (2012). New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era, Cambridge: Polity.

Kissane, B. (2016). Nations torn asunder, Oxford University Press : Oxford.

Ignatieff, M. (2002). “Intervention and State Failure”, Dissent, Vol. 49, No. 1.

O’Connor, F. (2004). The Lonely voice, New York.

Zartman, I. W. (1995), Collapsed States: the Disintegration and Restoration of Legitimate Authority, Boulder, Lynne Rienner.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s