The Oasis Reporters
June 17, 2023
The Mozambican government recently signed a peace deal with the Renamo opposition party, in time for elections in October. This is the most decisive step so far towards ending a low-intensity yet persistent conflict that began in 2013.
But the peace deal is haunted by at least three important potential issues. These are a splinter group within Renamo, the willingness of the ruling Frelimo to devolve power to the provinces, and how clean the upcoming elections are.
This time, Renamo’s leader Ossufo Momade is on board. But not all of Renamo’s soldiers are behind him. Major-general Mariano Nhongo, claiming to be the leader of a faction called the Renamo Military Junta, has said the men under his command will not disarm until Renamo elects a new leader.
This splintering in Renamo has its origins in the unexpected death last May of Afonso Dhlakama, its leader of 39 years. He had led Renamo since the late 1970s, through more than a decade of civil war and tortuous negotiations in the early 1990s followed by 20 years of peace.
At the end of July this year some buses were attacked, reminiscent of what happened in 2013, although Nhongo has denied involvement. Four vehicles were shot at in early September on the borders of the Gorongoza district where Nhongo is operating.
Afonso Dhlakama and Renamo
So closely identified was Renamo with Dhlakama that even after he left Maputo, claiming not to be safe in the capital, and retreated to his wartime redoubt at Gorongosa in 2012, he was able simultaneously to command the loyalty of a small army of ageing guerrillas and the opposition bench in Parliament.
Groups of veterans from the 1976-92 war began to gather at sites across central and northern Mozambique. A confrontation with riot police in the central Mozambican market town of Muxúnguè in April 2013 triggered a wave of violence that began with Renamo ambushes on government vehicles. It escalated as government forces attacked communities suspected of harbouring Renamo fighters.
In successive rounds of peace talks, interspersed with periods of violence, Dhlakama made political demands including the devolution of power to provincial level. Party-to-party talks, first with local and then international mediators, proved too unwieldy to make any progress.
Then, when the situation appeared intractable, Dhlakama started talking to Mozambican President Felipe Nyusi, who is also the leader of Frelimo, by phone from his hideout in Gorongosa. Unrestrained by fractious party colleagues, in a matter of weeks, they made more progress than was made in months at the negotiating table.
Dhlakama’s death did not halt the peace process. Now his successor, Momade, has won the trust of the Renamo politicians, but not all of the old soldiers. Will they raise their weapons once more?
To understand the new peace settlement we have to consider its different components, and what they mean for the Renamo leadership, for the soldiers, and for civilians.
Renamo soldiers and leaders
First, there’s a process of granting posts in the police and army to a small number of Renamo soldiers. This only became an issue because two parties interpreted the 1992 peace accord differently, but in recent months have reached a consensus. As long as the officers who benefit in this way are chosen from among those who played an important role in the 2013-16 violence, then it makes a continuation of that violence less likely.
The next component of the peace agreement is disarming and demobilising the Renamo men who fought in the recent conflict. This is more complicated, because nobody knows how many of these men there are, or how many weapons they have.
The fighting forces were small and lightly armed – ambush tactics gave them a strategic advantage. Equally, there may be some ambiguities over who was a soldier and who wasn’t: some would travel back and forth between their home villages and the Renamo bases.
Nhongo and his self-styled junta make things still more unpredictable, because it’s unknown how many soldiers will do his bidding – though this is likely not more than 80, and they’re confined to one area. Even when the conflict was at its worst in 2013-14 and 2015-16, it was never certain to what extent the initiative was coming from the soldiers and to what extent it was from the leadership.
This brings us to the question of civilian support.
During the 2013 and 2016 violence there was a widespread feeling in central and northern Mozambique that Renamo was fighting for a just cause, namely a better distribution of power and wealth across the country.
Renamo kept this constituency onside by avoiding civilian casualties. Until there is any concrete progress in addressing regional inequality within Mozambique, there will still be some popular support for continued military mobilisation.
Given this combination of errant soldiers and sympathetic civilians, there should be no surprises if there are further sporadic attacks on government vehicles and installations. The government needs to accept the good faith of Momade’s leadership that Renamo as a party does not bear responsibility for such attacks.
The third element of the agreement is political: provincial governors will now be elected in each province, in contrast to the current system in which the central government appoints provincial governors.
Under the new arrangements, Renamo should be able to win some elections at provincial level. Most obviously, this is good for Momade: candidacies for provincial governorship’s will be his to dispense as favours, and provincial budgets will, in theory, be at Renamo’s disposal.
Devolved elections will help address a widespread complaint that central and northern Mozambique are neglected by a distant government in Maputo. The removal of the immediate political motivation for the conflict would make it harder for the soldiers to retain the trust that they have enjoyed in recent years.
However, Mozambican elections have always been tainted by fraud, and it is possible that this could be used to keep Renamo away from provincial government. Also, the lesson of municipal-level government, where there has been local devolution for many years, is that Frelimo can use its control of the centre to constrain the power of opposition parties that get elected locally.
Prospects for peace
In short, the political agreement may well keep Renamo’s leaders content for now, provided that Frelimo is wise enough to concede some substantive power to Renamo at provincial level.
Ultimately, age may be the decisive factor in preventing a repetition of the events of 2013-16. The recent conflict was waged by veterans aged 40 and older, some as old as 70. They’re not getting younger, and it’s unlikely that Nhongo can come anywhere near Dhlakama’s ability to mobilise such an unlikely army across much of the country.