Policy-relevant Questions of Justice and Sovereignty in Mozambique


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Our times are characterized by contradictory forms of globalization: hegemonic neoliberal globalization and counter-hegemonic globalization – the globalization of the groups, communities and movements fighting oppression and domination associated with neoliberalism and neocolonialism (An-Na‘im, 2013; Mamdani, 2015). In various contexts movements and communities are articulating their struggles generating new possibilities of inter-knowledge and inter-communication, as key elements to decolonize the political structure we live in (Santos, 2017; Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2018). This shared knowledge is made possible by relearning to conceptualize notions of personhood, state and sovereignty in a relational manner, linking past experiences with the present shared world.

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A key political factor in statehood in African is its colonial history. The colonial project produced a well-structured logic for analyzing, defining and regulating otherness – Africa and its inhabitants – as an empty space of knowledge. This political project was based on the conception of ‘others’ not as distinct individuals or communities with their own structures of power and knowledge, but as a homogeneous representation, imagined in terms of the political goals and fantasies of the European settlers. This colonial representation, in terms of knowledge has produced a radical division between metropolitan (eurocentric) and colonial contexts: the former inhabited by citizens and the colonial predominantly inhabited by ethnic groups. This radical division between metropolitan and colonial realities and the social relations present in these contexts represents what Sousa Santos defines as an abyssal line, a form of interpretation so insidious that is still present today (2007:46).

As Sousa Santos underlines, colonial side of the line disappears as reality, becomes non-existent and is, as already referred to, actively produced as non-existent. Indeed, the colonial space with its knowledges and normative processes was marginalized to assert the triumphalist modern ‘rule of law’, which both produced the abyssal line and rendered it invisible. In consequence, the inhabitants of the colonial zone became perceived as non-beings, not recognized as full humans.

In theory, the state has jurisdiction over its population. In order to administrate its inhabitants, many African states have adopted democratic systems of representation and consultation, indicative of various versions of democracy inside the state. This is particularly important in the field of justice. In Mozambique, as in other countries, at the core of the nation-state is the idea of the state as the sole source of legitimate law. Here, the rule of law refers to a state which, at the same time, subordinates itself to its own rules (legislation) and respects certain rights of individuals. In this sense, the state legitimates itself a situation where the ‘rule of law’ guarantees itself as a supreme sovereign power, controlled and regulated by the legal structure. Ideally, all citizens are subject to the same law, all have equal recourse to a court of law, and all have a right to be judged based on reason.

However, in the country, the modern state operates replicating eurocentric principles inherited from the liberal political tradition – individual rights, respect for private property, and adherence to the rules of the free market. In this sense, the modern Mozambican state seems, on the surface, to be a modern state, as the existent legislation inspired by the eurocentric legal culture (Dutch-Roman). Nonetheless, the legal plurality present challenges this narrow representation of justice, as other sources of law are very significant: various indigenous African and the Islamic systems operate side by side, sometimes competing, sometimes in articulation with each other (Santos, 2006; Bonate, 2007; Meneses, 2012a). In this sense, and despite the pervasiveness and juridical equality identified in modern sovereignty, sovereignties vary, both due to the (neo)colonial geopolitics and other nonstatist conceptions of sovereignty (Bishara, 2017: 349).

The current challenges regarding the representation of the state as a modern and rational form of unitary governance is a clear sign how community justices, the ‘other’ justices in limbo, are questioning the core elements of the modern states. In this sense, this reality reveals the ongoing struggles bottom-up, regarding other cultural and epistemological references absent from the state: “the ways in which the state is being contested and reformed transform it into an increasingly complex social field in which state and nonstate, local and transnational relations interact, merge and confront each other in dynamic and even volatile combinations, making the nature of legal plurality even more complex” (Santos, 2006:44). As the realities studied in various African contexts indicate, sovereign power is not inevitably associated with the capacity to bear rights. Indeed, the colonial reality is a clear example of a paradoxical abyssal exclusion: the creation of non-beings to justify the violence and the presence of foreign powers.

Therefore, it is important to examine the extent to which the state has used the law to maintain a particular form of governmentality about justice, a reality that is increasingly contested by the citizens and local/traditional authorities. The disputes over what counts as justice reflect the aspirations of AU Agenda 2063, aspiring for a strong African citizenry. Agenda 2063 states among one of its core objectives the rededication to the enduring Pan African vision of “an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena.” If this is the challenge, how can we, Africans use our knowledges and experiences to democratize our democracies, incorporating African political and judicial elements?

Taking this questions seriously requires to examine the economic, social, cultural, political and symbolic ways in which the peoples of the continent are being related to each other. This would mean thinking through whether one is comfortable with, within the current political frame of knowledge production, with the civic/ethnic binary in our societies and with ourselves.

Based on archival and fieldwork research, this paper, with a focus on Mozambique, is organized in three parts. The first part shortly examines the historical path that led to the emergence of the category of local, traditional authorities, as well as analyzes their relationship with the modern state. The second part examines the wave of social unrest and problems that have triggered conflictual realities in Mozambique, to analyze the complex relationship between the state administration and local, traditional authorities. The social and economic cost of neoliberal development is fundamental to understand the growing social unrest; this analysis goes hand in hand with a theoretical examination of elite dominance as a product of a subsisting colonial project, represented in the body of the modern state (Neocosmos, 2016). Finally, the article concludes by raising policy-relevant questions of justice and sovereignty in Mozambique and in the continent.

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