The Spirit of the Laws in Mozambique

Mozambique achieved independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975 and became a socialist state. Its FRELIMO rulers imposed a ban on the “customary” (p. 3), that is, the chiefs, traditional rituals and other institutions and beliefs that were seen as an unwanted legacy from precolonial and colonial times. In 1977 a civil war broke out between FRELIMO and the anti-communist RENAMO group, until in 1990 the country became a multi-party state. The UN subsequently monitored a transition to democracy, marked by elections in 1994. Juan Obarrio made his first research trip to the country in 2000, when the Mozambican state reversed the ban on the customary, a juridico-political reform recognizing so-called traditional authorities and incorporating them into contemporary local governance and development projects. The author had initially regarded the customary as marginally relevant to his analysis of the postcolonial state, but through subsequent research came to see the resilience of the customary, its centrality in the political trajectory of Mozambique, and the multiplicity of meanings that it held among the different sectors of the contemporary state.

Mozambique is conventionally viewed as having achieved a successful transition from postcolonial socialism to democracy and its adjunct, the rule of law, but the resilience of the customary manifests in differing, disjunctive materialities in urban, peri-urban, and rural localities. Obarrio’s book attempts to capture those differences, and thereby the dilemmas of citizenship and the multiple political meanings of “custom” (p.3) among the agents of the state and the people it seeks to govern. Insofar as it is an anthropology of the state, his study eschews dichotomous views of the state and society, arguing a Foucauldian position that the state is a relation rather than a structural apparatus. The state’s official institutions are interconnected with the contemporary manifestations of custom – chieftaincies, community authorities, religious institutions, rituals for example – and permeated also by the imperatives of global processes introduced through development agents and aid donors.

The titular phrase ‘spirit of the laws’ is derived from the influential 1748 two-volume treatise by the Enlightenment lawyer and political theorist Montesquieu. Obarrio employs it thematically in deconstructing the complex politico-juridical dynamics of the post-colonial African state, as well as playing with the associative meanings of ‘spirit’. Law is used in Mozambican governance as a ‘spirit of the times’ (p. 8), inasmuch as it serves a social reform program. At the same time state agents and development-aid donors see custom and customary authorities – through which traditional spirituality is manifested – as key components of a distinctly local form of democratization and decentralization. Consequently, in the context of a politico-juridical attempt to integrate the rule of law and an imagined customary, examining the ‘spirit’ of the law necessarily involves examining the ‘magicality of the mythological genealogies of the state itself’ (p. 8). The author argues that these mythological genealogies contribute to the nation-state’s appearance as a bounded, rational entity holding a legal monopoly on violence.

Obarrio has divided his book into two parts. The first part addresses the complexities of governance at the nation-state level. He analyses the “state of structural adjustment” (p. 10), experienced in its putative administrative capital, Maputo, conscious of development theory. In this location the state undertakes the work of juridical reform, the integration of re-valued custom, and neoliberal economic advancement in conjunction with transnational donor agencies. The second part takes readers to a more local manifestation, a ‘minor state’ (p.14) as it were, in a northern peri-urban district of the country. Here the administrative structure and its associated practices are shown to be far more ambiguous through an account of local politics and juridical processes, where the confluence of older forms of authority has a more visible effect.

A good ethnographic style makes the second part particularly effective. The author moves through descriptive vignettes of the community courts and the people who administer them and on to accounts of the place of kinship and custom, and a discussion of the people who move through the courts as citizen-subjects shaped by the complex interactions of custom and law in the hybrid sociality of a supposedly post-socialist state. Obarrio demonstrates here that well-written ethnography can draw the reader into the life of a community. In contrast the book’s first part, which has a Derridan character, reads awkwardly, and some major themes are treated elliptically. This is unfortunate, considering that the author states that he intends the book to contribute to the broader literature on the anthropology of the state. Oddly, he gives little attention to the abundant literature problematizing the concept of the state in non-Western countries even in his second chapter, which is focused on the Mozambican state. Similarly, legal pluralism, which is a sine qua non in the book, has been subject to much typological and representational debate since the simple definitions offered in the 1980s, but the literature is not incorporated to the extent readers might expect.

The book’s overall project is broad, traversing the linked themes of state governance, legal pluralism, the resilience of custom (incorporating the invention of tradition) and the influence of global development-aid agendas flagging democracy, the rule of law and human rights. I found this African study strongly resonant with a burgeoning field of contemporary anthropology of post-colonial states elsewhere, and particularly in the Asia Pacific region, which addresses the same themes, and in that respect I recommend it as a comparative resource. The complex history of Mozambique is referred to piecemeal through the book, rather than being covered fully and in detail in a dedicated chapter or section, and readers who do not have a ready knowledge of it would benefit from some preliminary reading on the subject.

Michael Goddard, Macquarie University

Obarrio. Juan. The Spirit of the Laws in Mozambique. The University of Chicago Press, 2014. Read more at University of Chicago Press. 

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