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Overlapping Sovereignties and the Politics of Legal Pluralism in Mozambique

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The concept of legal pluralism has ceased to be the purview of anthropologists and socio-legal scholars in describing the plurality of normative orders and laws within a political organization. It is today an explicit ‘policy concept’ used by international development agencies and by some governments. Mozambique is a strong example of this: the country’s 2004 Constitution has as one of its principle articles the ‘state recognition of legal pluralism’. This is supported by a patchwork of laws, decrees and projects that confer authority upon an increasing number of community-based and traditional structures to police and resolve disputes in society. In practice there is nothing peculiar about this pluralism. In fact historically it has been the norm. Not the exception. What is new is an official acknowledgement that state law and its institutions do not – and ought not necessarily to have – a monopoly on ordering society. A normative as well as a pragmatic move away from legal centralism and a fixation on the exclusivity of state institutions seems to characterize legal pluralism as an emerging ‘policy field’. Yet the question remains: how is the concept of legal pluralism actually applied in national policies and, importantly, how is it appropriated in practice? This lecture will draw on two empirical examples – one urban and one rural – to address these questions. One focuses on the state-initiated community policing program as it unfolds in a low-income suburb of the capital city of Maputo. The other looks at the state recognition of traditional authorities and community leaders in a rural former war zone of Manica Province. Based on these cases, I argue, that the ideal-typical notions of pluralism as harmoniously co-existing ‘legal orders’ clash with an empirical reality of overlapping sovereignties. State officials apply legal pluralism policies as a means to assert exclusive state sovereignty by trying to redefine and control the jurisdictions and violence of the ‘informal sovereigns’. Yet because the state never really succeeds, its authority remains contested and ambiguous. In the process new forms of violence and legal meanings are produced, which defy any neat classification into any one specific ‘legal order’ or ‘system’. The politics of legal pluralism lends itself to comparison with colonial forms of indirect rule, yet this co-exists with new forms of party political contestations and human rights discourses, which influence the (re)positioning of actors. Current conceptual developments in the policing and justice fields highlighting ‘hybridity’, ‘nodes’, ‘networks’ and ‘assemblages’ rather than distinct systems, capture some of these dynamics. However, they fail to adequately explain the political contestations and forms of violence that overlapping sovereignties give way to.

This talk is part of the Centre of African Studies Michaelmas Seminars series.

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