How serious is Renamo’s pro-war rhetoric?

One mitigating factor: The Mozambican opposition movement is weak—in terms of political impact, financial resources, popular support, and military resources.

Afonso Dhlakama. Image credit Adrien Barbier via Flickr.

On October 4th, the peace accord between the opposition Renamo and the party in power, Frelimo, signed after more than a decade and a half of civil war, celebrated its 21th anniversary. After several violent incidents over the past year and an attack by Frelimo on Renamo’s current base in the country’s central region this week, Renamo canceled the peace deal and armed men attacked a police station. Several media outlets made it sound as if Mozambique is back on the brink of civil war, and the US has demanded dialogue between the leaders to deescalate the situation. How serious is Renamo’s pro-war rhetoric?

Renamo has threatened to return to war many times over the last years. “Canceling the peace deal” is the newest version of a threat that Renamo has used in the past to put the Frelimo government—in power since independence—under pressure. This threat is frequently withdrawn, as happened this time, and Renamo leaders keep reassuring the people that they do not want to wage another war against the government. As Joseph Hanlon, scholar and author of several books on Mozambican history and politics, has noted in a commentary on recent developments, history has to be taken into account to evaluate what’s currently happening in Mozambique. This is not a sudden escalation of Renamo-Frelimo relations, but needs to be seen in the context of Renamo’s difficult transformation into a political party after the end of the civil war in 1992 and Frelimo’s strong grip on power.

Renamo was a serious competitor in post-war elections, and almost won the presidential ticket in 1999. While international observers declared the electoral process to have been free and fair, Renamo claimed that Frelimo had rigged the elections. Since then, Renamo repeatedly accused Frelimo of election fraud and pursued a strategy of maximalist demands, threats and boycotts to try to influence politics outside of electoral processes. Renamo’s major concern has been Frelimo’s growing strength and power, and its own decreasing resources and influence. While Frelimo developed into a strong political party, similar to European parties in structure, Renamo’s leadership is detached from its popular base and lacks resources. Many of Frelimo’s party leaders are successful businessmen and—in contrast to Renamo’s leaders—have benefitted from Mozambique’s discovery of vast natural resource wealth and steady economic growth. Moreover, Frelimo has recently made efforts to control the media more closely and has put pressure on two independent media outlets to replace editors that had been critical of Frelimo.

In protest against his party’s increasing marginalization after the 2009 elections, during which Renamo lost a large number of votes, Dhlakama retreated to the northern province Nampula. After some time off the political stage, Dhlakama returned in 2011 with threats to reassemble demobilized combatants in camps and stage large-scale demonstrations to “peacefully” overthrow the government, so that the country no longer “belongs to Frelimo” and can be “returned” to the people. After a clash between Renamo and Frelimo security forces at Renamo’s headquarters in Nampula in March 2012, where hundreds of Renamo supporters had assembled and presumably waited for money for a “second demobilization,” Dhlakama moved to the central region, district of Gorongosa, close to where the central base was located during the war. A couple of hundred war veterans still lived in the area and had been waiting for Dhlakama’s orders. Since his return to Gorongosa, the tensions between Frelimo and Renamo have risen, and several violent incidents occurred in surrounding areas over the past year. In April, three people died when armed men attacked a bus in Sofala province in the central region and five more people died in clashes between Renamo and Frelimo in the same area; in June, two people died when armed men blocked the main North-South highway and attacked trucks and a bus, for which Renamo assumed responsibility.

Renamo’s recent activities focus on the local elections scheduled for November 20 this year. Dhlakama demanded changes to the electoral legislation that currently gives an advantage to Frelimo, but Renamo’s proposals weren’t accepted in parliament. Since then, Dhlakama decided to boycott the local elections, and his and other Renamo leaders’ rhetoric sometimes even implies that they want to disrupt the elections and make it impossible for people to vote at all. Several rounds of high-level talks between Renamo and Frelimo did not bring solutions that could be accepted by both parties, as Frelimo is not willing to meet Dhlakama’s maximalist demands. Thus relations have clearly deteriorated. Renamo’s spokesman Fernando Mazanga said that the government’s attack on Renamo’s base this week equaled a declaration of war, as the attack was not conducted by the Rapid Intervention Forces (those previously involved in actions against Renamo), but by the army.

These tensions suggest that violence is likely to escalate. However, Renamo is weak—in terms of political impact, financial resources, popular support, and military resources. Dhlakama prevented the rise of talented party leaders, who then left the party and joined the new opposition party MDM. Dhlakama did not use the parliament to reach his goals or accepted offers from Frelimo, always trying to get a better deal. Renamo has lost the control of municipalities, has no mayors, and only 51 members of parliament left. This also means that it has fewer financial resources, as parties receive financial support depending on the number of members in parliament. There is limited communication between the party leadership and its base in the rural areas, and thus not much mobilization to support Dhlakama’s extreme positions. During interviews I conducted in 2011 and 2012, former Renamo combatants told me they had never heard of Dhlakama’s plans to stage massive demonstrations and that they don’t want another war. Some people say though that the young people who haven’t seen the hardships of war might be willing to take up arms. Renamo could exploit grievances arising from resettlement through the exploitation of natural resources, rising inequality, and rising prices for basic necessities. However, Renamo’s demands don’t speak to young people’s concern, there is no mobilization, and the party is militarily weak—Renamo no longer has the foreign support from South Africa that kept the war going. The same is true for Frelimo: no one wants to return to war, and the small national army has few resources (however, Frelimo is in negotiations with France to buy trawlers and patrol boats for over US$300 million).

In the end, therefore, it’s unclear what will follow from Dhlakama’s threats. Carlos Serra, professor at Mozambique’s national university Eduardo Mondlane, can think of four scenarios: low-intensity warfare, medium-intensity warfare, a “Savimbi-style” renewal of Renamo’s party without Dhlakama (Jonas Savimbi, leader of the opposition force UNITA in Angola, died in 2002), or a fragile peace. The editor of the Mozambican @Verdade, a newspaper which has repeatedly criticized Frelimo’s authoritarian tendencies, accuses Frelimo of seeking to kill Dhlakama by attacking Renamo’s base, as he is the “only stone left in [President] Armando Guebuza’s shoes.” In @Verdade’s eyes, Dhlakama’s death—or even his removal from the party’s leadership—would mean an end to any real opposition to the ever more powerful Frelimo party.

Several analysts claim that what Dhlakama really wants is not power, but money and a “piece of the cake” of the natural resource wealth. As long as Dhlakama puts Frelimo under pressure and Frelimo refuses to share the spoils, a deescalation is unlikely. Skirmishes and attacks are likely to continue to disrupt people’s lives, especially in central Mozambique. Frelimo’s security forces closely monitor Dhlakama’s movements, and Renamo does the same with Frelimo’s forces, which provokes the other side. This tit-for-tat can easily get out of hand, and criminal gangs might take advantage of the fragile situation. As Alex Vines, long-time observer and author of several books on Renamo has stated, Dhlakama’s strategy is risky, as it is a breeding ground for miscalculations by both Renamo and Frelimo security forces.

What’s really needed is a mediator who has the trust of both Dhlakama and Mozambique’s President Guebuza to prevent further misperceptions. Until Frelimo is willing to make concessions and Renamo willing to accept them, however, there is a long way to go.

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