A Luta Continua! Mozambique’s Struggle for Independence

“The Struggle Continues!” was the rallying cry of the Mozambican people in their war against Portuguese colonialism. Read on to discover how Mozambique became independent.

Jun 11, 2024By Thomas Bailey, BSc Geography

mozambique struggle independence


Mozambique had undergone centuries of suffering and exploitation at the hands of the Portuguese empire. As a wave of liberation swept the African continent, the Mozambican people would be inspired to take up arms against their oppressors. A nine-year guerilla conflict would ensue, ultimately leading to the nation’s freedom. The Mozambican War of Independence encapsulates the importance of collective struggle and sacrifice in the face of tyranny.


Mozambique Under Portuguese Colonial Rule

mozambique slavery portuguese colony
Men, women, and child slaves near Tete, Mozambique, are forced to walk through the fields fettered at the neck and wrists, wood engraving by J.W. Whymper after J.B. Zwecker, 1865. Source: Wellcome Collection


The African nation of Mozambique was first exposed to Portuguese settlers as early as the late 15th century. During this period, Portugal established early trading posts along the Mozambican coast, which it used to exploit the region for its valuable gold and ivory.


However, Portugal’s colonial appetite was not satisfied by Mozambique’s resources alone. During the 18th century, Portugal began enslaving the Mozambican people, predominantly selling them to French colonies in Brazil, Cuba, and North America. By the 19th century, Mozambique had become one of the largest centers of slavery in the world. Estimates suggest that approximately one million Mozambicans were sold into slavery (Waterhouse, 1996).


Around this time, Europe began formalizing its conquest of Africa. European nations callously divided the African continent among themselves during the Scramble for Africa and consolidated their territorial conquests during the 1885 Berlin Conference. Mozambique was formally recognized as a Portuguese territory following negotiations with Britain in 1891.

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The Portuguese, however, faced staunch resistance from the Mozambican people, notably from the Gaza Empire, which continued to control much of the country’s southern regions. Gungunhana, King of the Gaza Empire, fiercely resisted Portuguese occupation, but after several bloody clashes, he was ultimately defeated in 1895 (Waterhouse, 1996).


Upon assuming control of Mozambique, the Portuguese government contracted the administration of much of the nation to private companies, which imposed forced labor upon the indigenous people (Diaz & Alejandro, 2022). Mozambique became a major source of labor for mines in South Africa and South Rhodesia. Thousands of Mozambicans were forced across the border to work in appalling conditions. The treatment of Mozambicans was so horrific that it is estimated that thousands fled across the border to territories under British control, which were supposedly less oppressive.


African Liberation Movements in the Cold War Theater 

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Leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev (left) meeting with President John F. Kennedy (right) in Vienna, 1961. Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum


Mozambique, like most of Africa, remained under Europe’s exploitative control for the first half of the 20th century. However, following the end of the Second World War, this would steadily begin to change. Europe became far more concerned with rebuilding its own devastated continent than its African colonies. Their grip on Africa was loosening.


African independence and anti-colonial movements exploded in popularity during the 1960s. They were supported by a 1960 United Nations resolution, the Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which affirmed the granting of all peoples under colonial rule. A wave of independence swept the continent as France and Belgium granted independence to many of their African colonies. It seemed all of Africa would soon be free.


The African independence movements also occurred during the grips of the Cold War. Nikita Khrushchev, leader of the Soviet Union from 1953 to 1964, took an aggressive stance towards colonialism, stating that the Soviet Union would support any nation fighting for its liberation.


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António de Oliveira Salazar, Prime Minister of Portugal from 1932 to 1968 (1968). Source: Wikimedia Commons


Despite being close allies to many European colonial states, the US, as a former colony itself, also pursued a strong stance against colonialism. The US was increasingly concerned that the nationalist forces in Africa would develop communist sympathies and ultimately side with the Soviet Union. Thus, the administration of John F. Kennedy opened dialogue with nationalist movements in an attempt to dissuade the spread of communism. They even discussed potential financial assistance with movements in Angola and Mozambique. However, these did not materialize after Portugal threatened to withdraw US access to the Lajes Field air base in the Azores, Portugal.


Although pressure was mounting on Europe to relieve their control of Africa, Portugal was reluctant to do so. Portuguese Prime Minister and dictator António de Oliveira Salazar refused to grant their colonies independence. He declared that Portugal’s territory in Africa were not colonies but instead “overseas provinces” and thus was integral to Portuguese sovereignty. It became increasingly clear that Portugal would not relinquish control of Mozambique peacefully.


The Mueda Massacre & The Birth of FRELIMO

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Mueda town center, site of the 1960 massacre, 1995. Source: 4wallz via Wikimedia


Revolution was simmering in Mozambique by the early 1960s, and numerous liberation movements had begun gathering support. On June 16, 1960, two prominent civil society leaders visited North Mozambique to meet with the region’s colonial administrator. A large crowd gathered outside the colonial office in Mueda in support, with many holding placards calling for freedom and independence. However, Portuguese forces requested that the crowd of Mozambicans salute the Portuguese flag.


The crowd refused. Tensions soon flared and were exacerbated when the two leaders were arrested. Portuguese troops opened fire on the crowd, killing upwards of 500 people (Israel, 2020). The Mueda Massacre, the brutal murder of peaceful Mozambican protestors, would be the spark to ignite Mozambique into revolution.


On June 25, 1962, three liberation movements—MANU, UDENAMO, and UNAMI—agreed to combine their strength and form the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Liberation Front of Mozambique), better known as FRELIMO. The new movement appointed Eduardo Mondlane as its leader, an anthropologist who gained a PhD from Northwestern University and worked at Syracuse University before returning to Mozambique to fight for its liberation (Waterhouse, 1996). FRELIMO quickly became the prominent organization in Mozambique’s struggle for independence.


FRELIMO was headquartered in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. The Tanzanian government was sympathetic to Mozambique’s cause after having achieved independence from Britain in 1961.


Following the establishment of FRELIMO, many Mozambicans, especially young students, crossed the border into Tanzania to join the movement. As numbers grew, it became time to decide how Mozambique would achieve independence. Many within the organization still wished to achieve victory peacefully. However, many were inspired by Angola’s ongoing armed struggle against Portugal and by Algeria’s monumental victory against France. FRELIMO ultimately decided to pursue a guerilla people’s war, akin to the struggles fought in China and Vietnam.


Armed Struggle Begins

josina machel frelimo mozambique
Josina Machel, head of FRELIMO’s Department of Social Affairs and wife of Samora Machel. Source: Mozambique History Net


After receiving training in Algeria, FRELIMO forces were ready to begin their fight for independence. On September 24, 1964, the movement launched simultaneous attacks on colonial administration buildings and key infrastructure in an attempt to destabilize the foundations of Portuguese colonial rule. FRELIMO employed guerilla tactics, often ambushing Portuguese forces in small numbers before retreating into the wilderness.


The struggle was slow and arduous for the first few years of the war, due to the small size of FRELIMO forces. Their numbers slowly grew, however, and by 1967, there were an estimated 8,000 guerillas within FRELIMO. However, Portugal also increased their forces, with troops rising from 8,000 to 24,000 between 1964 and 1967 (Opello, 1974). As such, FRELIMO struggled to make any major impact on Portuguese rule.


The movement had established a significant foothold in the Northern regions of Mozambique. This allowed FRELIMO to consolidate control and slowly penetrate the country’s central regions.


A notable development in FRELIMO’s operations occurred in 1966 when the movement allowed women to play an active role in the liberation struggle. After receiving training, women contributed to FRELIMO in a variety of capacities, though usually not on the front line. Women made key contributions to intelligence gathering and mobilizing support in areas not under FRELIMO control. They also played an instrumental role in the liberated areas under FRELIMO administration, participating in their defense and contributing to social initiatives, such as literacy campaigns and health care (Diaz & Alejandro, 2022).


FRELIMO Suffers Internal Conflict 

samora machel president mozambique
Samora Machel, President of FRELIMO and First President of Mozambique. Source: The Citizen


Divisions within FRELIMO soon surfaced as progress in the liberation struggle faltered. Lazaro Nkavandame, a senior leader of FRELIMO and former leader of MANU, became increasingly disillusioned with the direction of the movement. He disagreed with the socialist ideas being implemented within the liberated zones under FRELIMO control. Small-scale violence occurred between FRELIMO and members of MANU in 1968, and Nkavandame attempted to form a new separate organization. Ultimately, he, along with MANU members, was expelled from FRELIMO. Nkavandame would later supposedly establish contacts with the Portuguese and became a key critic and propagandist against FRELIMO.


The internal cohesion of FRELIMO suffered a devastating blow when, on February 3, 1969, their leader, Eduardo Mondlane, was assassinated. He had previously escaped three other assassination attempts. However, while staying with a friend in Dar es Salaam, an explosive device hidden in his mail exploded as he opened it (Shore, 1992). Mozambique and Africa had lost a talented statesman and figurehead of the liberation movement.


The perpetrator of Mondlane’s assassination has never been conclusively discerned. Some accuse China or the Soviet Union, as Mondlane was relatively moderate in his political stance, thus constraining FRELIMO from truly embracing communism. However, it is generally accepted that Portugal most likely orchestrated the assassination. However, it is believed they would likely have needed assistance from within Mozambique and maybe even FRELIMO (Roberts, 2017).


Mondlane’s death resulted in a leadership battle until Samora Machel was eventually appointed FRELIMO’s new president. Many observers, including the Portuguese, expected the assassination would have a significantly detrimental effect on FRELIMO’s operation. However, this was not the case. FRELIMO and the Mozambicans were invigorated; their fight for liberation was intensified to diminish what Mondlane’s murderers hoped to achieve.


Operation Gordian Knot

kaulza arriaga mozambqiue war gordian knot
Portuguese General Kaúlza de Arriaga who led Operation Gordian Knot, 1961. Source: Wikimedia Commons


By 1970, little had been gained by either side in the war despite six years of fighting. FRELIMO continued to control significant portions of the northern regions of the country and persisted with its guerilla tactics, though it was proving to have insubstantial effects in undermining Portuguese control.


Portugal, however, had steadily been increasing its forces in Mozambique, with nearly 60,000 troops stationed in the country by 1970. Many of these troops, believed to be as many as 60%, were African troops serving in the Portuguese Colonial Army (Opello, 1974). The year 1969 had seen the appointment of a new commander of Portuguese forces in Mozambique, General Kaúlza de Arriaga. He had closely studied the conflict in Mozambique and traveled to the US to meet General William Westmoreland, Commander of US forces in Vietnam, to discuss tactics that could be utilized.


Inspired by his meeting with Westmoreland, Arriaga devised Operation Gordian Knot, the first major Portuguese offensive of the war, which featured heavy aerial bombardments and the use of helicopters to proceed and support ground troops.


mozambique independence poster
Poster issued to celebrate Mozambique’s independence by José Freire, 1975. Source: Aluta Continua Art


The operation was launched on June 10, 1970 with 35,000 ground troops. Its aim was to destroy the network of FRELIMO bases and camps covering the north of Mozambique, as well as to cut off the organization’s access to Tanzania, through which it was receiving support.


Ultimately, the operation successfully destroyed over one hundred FRELIMO bases. However, the operation resulted in a significant portion of Portugal’s troops concentrated in the north. FRELIMO successfully dispersed their troops, not only reducing their casualties but also allowing them to penetrate the country’s central regions, which were now weakly defended. This allowed FRELIMO to open a new frontline in the Tete Province.


Operation Gordian Knot lasted for seven months and was the largest and most expensive Portuguese operation of the war so far. Though it did destroy the majority of FRELIMO bases in the north, it did not have a particularly decisive impact on the organization, which was able to regroup and reorient its operations.


Continued Fighting & War Crimes

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Memorial to those killed during the Wiriyamu Massacre. Source: Portugal Resident


Fighting continued in Mozambique into the early 1970s, with much of the conflict now being focused on the country’s central region. Due to the increased fighting in Tete Province, the region was designated as a special military region, which resulted in increased activity of the Portuguese army. Portugal also launched Operation Frontier in 1971 in another attempt to cut FRELIMO’s access to Tanzania. The operation attempted to improve local infrastructure to support Portugal’s ongoing operations. Roads were resurfaced with asphalt, and new airfields were constructed. Social initiatives were also launched in rural areas in hopes of retaining the support of local Mozambicans (Opello, 1974).


FRELIMO proceeded with its guerilla tactics, attacking convoys and launching ambushes against the rail and road links between the key port city of Beira and the border with South Rhodesia. A number of trains were also successfully derailed on the Trans-Zambezia line.


Throughout the war, Portugal committed numerous atrocities and war crimes against the Mozambican people. Portuguese forces routinely detained and tortured civilians in an attempt to extract information on FRELIMO. Young men who were suspected of being FRELIMO members were killed extrajudicially. Arbitrary killings, rape, and mass murder also occurred frequently. On December 16, 1972, Portuguese forces entered the village of Wiriyamu and accused them of sheltering FRELIMO fighters. It is estimated that 400 innocent villagers were massacred (Dhada, 2014).


Another cruelty of Portuguese operations was the establishment of “aldeamentos,” which were fortified relocation camps. Portugal used them to resettle Mozambicans living within FRELIMO-controlled areas in an attempt to diminish civilian support for the movement.


Estimates suggest that over 750,000 Mozambicans were forced into the camps, which were poorly constructed. It is believed that between 6 and 8% of the camp’s population died of starvation or disease (World Peace Foundation, 2015).


The Carnation Revolution & Freedom for Mozambique 

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Portuguese civilians celebrate the Carnation Revolution atop a tank, 1974. Source: Portuguese American Journal


Despite the Mozambican’s hard-fought struggle and sacrifice for their liberation, it would ultimately be events within Portugal that would directly ensure their freedom.


Civilian discontent had been growing in Portugal for some time. The Estado Novo regime had been in power since 1933. It was a fascist dictatorship under whose leadership many civil liberties and freedoms had been repealed. By the 1970s, worsening economic issues had undermined the regime’s popularity.


The ongoing fighting in Portugal’s colonies also contributed to the revolution. Portugal had been fighting three simultaneous colonial wars in Angola, Guinea-Bisaau, and, of course, Mozambique for 13 years, which had exhausted the country. The Portuguese people especially had become opposed to the continued fighting and supported the colonies in their struggle for independence. Equally, a significant number of soldiers in the Portuguese armed forces, especially those who were conscripted, had become disillusioned with the war.


On April 25, 1974, supporters of recently dismissed General António de Spínola overthrew the Portuguese dictatorship led by Marcelo Caetano in what is known as the Carnation Revolution.


One of the first actions of Spínola, now the new president of Portugal, was to end the violence in Africa and discuss the independence of the African colonies. On September 7, 1974, Portugal and Mozambique signed the Lusaka Accord, which formally recognized the independence of Mozambique and conferred the transfer of power to FRELIMO.


June 25, 1975 marked the official independence of Mozambique, with Samora Machel rising to president of the nation. After years of perseverance, struggle, and sacrifice, Mozambique was liberated.



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Mozambican women in front of the Mozambican flag. Source: Peace Reflections


As the jubilation of independence settled, FRELIMO set about the task of governing the nation. However, Mozambique was a fragmented country. The vast majority of the Portuguese settlers, many of the country’s highly educated and trained, fled the country, taking their expertise with them. It is believed that around 98% of the native Mozambican population was illiterate by the end of the independence war. Furthermore, FRELIMO still faced continued hostility from some African neighbors and the international community.


FRELIMO officially adopted Marxism-Leninism as their doctrine and pursued drastic reforms to revitalize the country. Land, healthcare, and education were quickly nationalized. These radical changes did achieve some early success. The number of children enrolled in primary school increased from 70,000 in 1974 to 1,376,000 by 1981. The annual budget for public health increased threefold within four years, which resulted in infant mortality rates falling by 20% (Waterhouse, 1996). Mozambique received widespread international praise for its success in improving healthcare and literacy.


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President Samora Machel (center-left) meeting US state officials during a visit to the United States, 1985. Source: Wikimedia Commons


However, FRELIMO’s lack of experience in governance soon showed. An elaborate agricultural policy failed and was compounded by a severe drought. Nationwide economic hardship soon followed as both production and growth slumped. Furthermore, FRELIMO consolidated power, transforming the country into a one-party state, and was quickly becoming increasingly authoritarian.


In 1977, merely two years after independence, a civil war erupted between FRELIMO and an insurgent anti-communist force named RENAMO. Lasting for 15 years, the war would claim the lives of over one million people.


Mozambique’s fight for independence was slow and arduous against an uncompromising European power desperate to cling to its colonial possessions. Ironically, it was this commitment to retain its colonies that would lead to the downfall of the Portuguese regime. Though Mozambique’s independence was ultimately achieved through events in Portugal, it should not diminish its people’s sacrifice and struggle. Unfortunately, for the people of Mozambique, freedom would not lead to peace.




Dhada, M. (2013). The Wiriyamu Massacre of 1972: Its Context, Genesis, and Revelation. History in Africa, 40(1), 45–75.

Diaz, S. B., & Alejandro, J. (2022). Through Armed Struggle: Colonial Occupation, National Liberation War and Independence in Mozambique. Brazilian Journal of African Studies, 7(14).

Israel, P. (2020). The Mueda Massacre Retold: The ‘Matter of Return ‘ in Portuguese Colonial Intelligence. Journal of Southern African Studies, 46(5), 1009–1036.

Opello, W. C. (1974). Guerrilla War in Portuguese Africa: An Assessment of the Balance of Force in Mozambique. African Issues, 4(2), 29–37.

Roberts, G. (2017). The assassination of Eduardo Mondlane: FRELIMO, Tanzania, and the politics of exile in Dar es Salaam. Cold War History, 17(1), 1–19.

Shore, H. (1992). Remembering Eduardo: Reflections on the life and legacy of Eduardo Mondlane. Africa Today, 39(1/2), 35–52.

Waterhouse, R. (1996). Mozambique: Rising from the ashes. Oxfam GB.

World Peace Foundation. (2015, August 7). Mozambique: War of Independence | Mass Atrocity Endings. https://sites.tufts.edu/atrocityendings/2015/08/07/mozambique-war-of-independence/

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By Thomas BaileyBSc GeographyThomas is currently studying for an MA in International Relations at the University of Portsmouth, England, and holds a BSc in Geography from Bangor University. He is passionate about African history and politics, having written his master’s dissertation on the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.