The untimely death of Afonso Dhlakama

Mozambicans feel the death of the former leader of Renamo could put a wrench in the path towards a peaceful, democratic future.

Afonso Dhlakama. Image credit Adrien Barbier via Flickr.

“He died at the worst time.” This seemed to be the dominant feeling among Mozambicans I talked to on the streets of Maputo on May 3 2018, the day Afonso Dhlakama, the longstanding leader of the opposition party, Renamo, passed away. Arguably, death is never timely, one’s last breath seldom accurately foretold. Yet, the “untimely” death of Dhlakama may put at risk the peace talks he was brokering with incumbent President Filipe Nyusi, the leader of the ruling Frelimo party. “It will be a miracle if the peace process doesn’t stall,” argued a middle-aged security guard. Others fear that there is more to worry about than the return to armed conflict alone. They fear what Frelimo may have in store for them—politically, socially and economically—now that it finds itself unencumbered by the mythical presence of Dhlakama in public life.

For sixteen years after Mozambique’s independence (1977-1992), Dhlakama led Renamo fighters in a brutal civil war against Frelimo. This was a war that profoundly affected Mozambique, not just by the level of destruction of infrastructures and rural areas, but also for the casualties it inflicted on the population—an estimated 100,000 deaths and 4 million refugees or internally displaced people (roughly a third of Mozambique’s population at the time). The motivations behind this civil war were part an anti-independence/anti-colonial struggle, and part a regional proxy to the Cold War. Now at the helm of independent Mozambique, Frelimo was politically aligned with the Soviet Bloc and had long provided support to the independence movements against white rule in neighboring countries, including the ANC (South Africa), SWAPO (Namibia), and ZANU and ZAPU (Rhodesia). On its end, Renamo first emerged from the support provided by Ian Smith’s Rhodesia to a group of Mozambicans of Portuguese descent intent on sabotaging Frelimo. They recruited its members from black soldiers who had formerly fought for the Portuguese in the liberation war and, later on, by kidnapping boys and young men in rural areas. After Smith’s fall in 1979, Renamo picked up support from Apartheid South Africa and, indirectly, the United States. Renamo was thus first and foremost a military group that struggled to have a political program for Mozambique other than opposition to communism.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissipation of the Cold War, the Frelimo-Renamo civil war came to an end with the 1992 Rome Accord. Since then, Renamo has struggled to develop its political program and to access government positions across the country. As Frelimo maintained its grip on power and access to newly discovered natural resources, Renamo went back to the “bush” in 2013. It began attacking police stations, buses on busy routes, and the railways in Central Mozambique. Frelimo and Renamo agreed to a truce in late 2016, with President Nyusi personally undertaking talks with Dhlakama. It is this peace process that Mozambicans are now afraid will come to a halt.

Miracles and magic have played a key role in crafting the image of Dhlakama as a strongman leader for the last 40 years. The New Yorker journalist, William Finnegan, in his book A Complicated War, recalls stories he heard about Renamo fighters’ supernatural powers. He tells of the work of curandeiros (witchdoctors) in engaging the spirits to make Renamo fighters bulletproof and invisible to Frelimo troops. These magical accounts may have been a way to instill fear and respect for Renamo’s fighters during the harrowing civil war. However, they have lived on since the conflict ended. Someone once told me that, if he so wished, Dhlakama could turn into a partridge (the bird on Renamo’s flag) and hide in the “bush” to avert Frelimo’s purported assassination attempts.

Since the end of the civil war, Dhlakama added other dimensions to this fabled persona. He crafted for himself a place in Mozambican history as a unique voice in defense of freedom and democracy. This view seems to have purchase among some Mozambicans. Another security guard I spoke to lamented with great sadness the “death of the Father of Mozambican democracy.” A young street-seller maintained that Dhlakama was “the politician who defended many things, many Mozambicans.” He did not know whether “there [would] ever be another leader like him.”

As a charismatic leader, Dhlakama was the glue that held together the military and political wings of Renamo. Shortly after Dhlakama’s death, the party announced Ossufo Momade, a former soldier, as its interim leader. Yet, in Parliament, it is Ivone Soares, Dhlakama’s niece, who is commanding Renamo’s political strategy. How they will square their differences into a coherent and appealing narrative going forwards remains to be seen. Dhlakama’s passing leaves a gap in the party that will be hard to fill. A housekeeper I spoke to offered an ironic comparison between Dhlakama and late President Machel: “Samora was unique. There was none like him in Frelimo afterwards. There won’t be a replacement for [Dhlakama] either. Those that remain in the party are only concerned with [themselves].”

The dominant feeling among the people I spoke to was that Dhlakama’s death might result in a worsening of living conditions for Mozambican people. One of them offered this view in a telling way: “He was the only one who looked after us. Who is going to do that now that he is gone? We’re going to get roasted by Frelimo now!” In a similar vein, another worried that “the Mozambicans are going to suffer.” Most are disenchanted with Frelimo and voiced pointed complaints about its government and leadership: “Frelimo is not governing well. They don’t look after the people.”

After fighting the liberation war against Portuguese rule, Frelimo had strong popular support in the first years of independence. However, as the civil war with Renamo became more entrenched and Frelimo’s political project for the country began to falter, the regime became increasingly more authoritarian and lost popular support. Post-1992, Frelimo embarked on a program of economic liberalization that saw the expansion of a business class well connected to the party leadership. Mozambican economist Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco characterizes this new capitalist class as a key mediator between the government and donors and foreign investments. In his view, Mozambique’s economy has become porous, hallowed from the inside, without much capacity to address the country’s poverty and growing inequality. An example of this is the economic crisis spurred in 2016 by the disclosure of (and subsequent default on) an undisclosed loan sanctioned by government officials worth upwards of USD$2bn. The widespread belief that no one will take a fall for this loan leads many to perceive Frelimo’s leadership as corrupt and self-serving.

This is why Frelimo is said to be very nervous, especially as the country prepares for municipal elections in October 2018 and national elections a year later. Splitting differences with Dhlakama over decentralization and power sharing was a means by which Frelimo preserved its nationalist narrative and its legitimacy as “the party of all the Mozambican people.” This much comes through in Frelimo’s public efforts to treat Dhlakama’s passing as a momentous happening for the country. At Dhlakama’s public wake ceremony, held in the city of Beira on May 10, President Nyusi exhorted Renamo to continue the peace talks in the interest of the country. A week earlier, Nyusi had given a very emotional speech on the passing of his opponent, who he referred to as a “brother.” Some of my informants felt this response had been adequate, but others doubted the President’s candor. “I think they ended the night drinking champagne,” a taxi driver assured me. Either way, during the wake speech, Nyusi promised to continue the work initiated with Dhlakama towards “the construction of peace, the intensification of democracy, through the perfecting of decentralization and deconcentration.” These words may provide some measure of comfort to those who thought Dhlakama’s death could stir popular upheaval.

Had he not passed away of illness, all my informants assured me, then confusão (turmoil) may have ensued among the population. Yet, confusão may arise anyway, as recently predicted by the media. A Mozambican on the streets of Maputo summed it up thus: “Dhlakama had to die at the worst moment. Couldn’t he have waited for the [municipal] elections, to see if he would win?”

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