With their dying breath, Mozambique’s rebels lash out

Published: October 25, 2013

Threats of a return to one of Africa’s most brutal civil wars came to a head this week when government troops in Mozambique overran the mountain forest base of opposition Renamo rebels.

Afonso Dhlakama, 60-year-old leader of Renamo, the Mozambican National Resistance Movement, escaped with several hundred of his followers into the surrounding forest of the Gorongosa mountains, which have been the group’s headquarters and sanctuary since their founding in 1975.

The following day Renamo fighters attacked a police station in the nearby town of Maringue. Dhlakarma also announced that Renamo will no longer honour the 1992 peace deal, which ended the civil war and brought the rebel group into a multi-party political system.

This climax has been brewing for a year amid Dhlakama’s growing frustration with the political system, which he says favours the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) of President Armando Guebuza.

There have been numerous attacks and acts of sabotage by Renamo fighters on infrastructure and government outposts in the last 12 months. The escalation of petty violence has sent a frisson of apprehension coursing through the boardrooms of the companies involved in Mozambique’s economic boom, fuelled by the natural gas, coal, tourism and agriculture industries.

Those anxieties are natural. Mozambique’s 17-year civil war was one of the most bitter and deadly in recent African history. At least a million people died, and millions more were left destitute or fled into exile in neighbouring countries.

However, the reality is that Renamo’s threats of a return to war are largely empty. The true significance of the events of the last few days is that this is probably the dying gasp of Renamo, which has failed to establish itself as an effective opposition to the undoubted authoritarian and kleptocratic instincts of Guebuza and Frelimo.

The demise of Renamo will simplify the political playing field in Mozambique. Presidential and parliamentary elections next year will be a straight fight between Frelimo and the emergent opposition party, the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM).

MDM is led by Daviz Simango, a disenchanted Renamo member, who founded the party in 2009 with a following of others who had either been purged or tired of Dhlakama’s ineffectual and paranoid leadership.

There is a looming test for MDM in municipal elections next month. At the moment MDM has control of only two municipalities, Beira and Quelimane, but it is fielding candidates in all 53 cities.

If Simango’s candidates do well in the cities, it will give the MDM momentum going into next year’s national elections. However, Frelimo’s grip on power, which it has held since the Portuguese colonial authorities abandoned the country in 1975, is firm and substantial. Frelimo will not be easily defeated, even in truly free and fair elections.

Nevertheless, the impending demise of Renamo marks a potentially positive moment in Mozambique’s transition to a representative and accountable political system.

It has been a long time coming. Portugal’s abandonment of Mozambique and most of its other colonies in Africa and Asia in 1975 marked a turning point in the so-called liberation war in neighbouring Zimbabwe, then called Rhodesia and led by the white minority government of Ian Smith.

The new Frelimo regime in Maputo played willing host to the fighters of the Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU), which came to be led by Robert Mugabe.

To try to disrupt the ZANU machine and destabilise the Marxist Frelimo government in Maputo, then led by Samora Machel, the head of Smith’s Central Intelligence Organisation, Ken Flower, formed and funded Renamo.

To give some credence to its anti-communist credentials, Renamo espoused a crude form of Christianity, which later brought it support and aid from right-wing evangelical church groups in the United States.

But Renamo was always more feared for its brutality than loved for any Christian charity. Cutting off the lips, noses and ears of suspected opponents, or anyone whose support was deemed insufficiently enthusiastic, was a favourite obscenity.

When white rule ended in Rhodesia in 1980 and Zimbabwe came into being, Flower handed control of Renamo over to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

It was under Pretoria’s handling, with the help of America’s puritanical Christian Taliban, that Renamo reached the zenith of its military potency. However, that too came to an end with the release from prison of Nelson Mandela in 1990 and the start of the transition to majority rule.

Dhlakama saw the writing on the wall and in 1992 signed a peace treaty in Rome with Frelimo.

In the 1994 elections it looked as though Renamo might make a credible opposition party, and perhaps even win at the ballot box what it had failed to achieve on the battlefield. In that first post-war election Renamo won 48 per cent of the vote and 112 of the 250 seats in parliament.

In the years since then, however, Frelimo has used its position to amass a substantial fortune from the profits of state assets, create an effective patronage system, and twist the electoral system in its own favour.

Dhlakama, meanwhile, has taken the political low road. While he has legitimately questioned the quality of Mozambican democracy, he has become better known for his purges of his followers. In the last elections in 2009, Renamo won just 16 per cent of the vote and 51 seats.

Dhlakama probably has about 1,000 ageing guerrillas remaining in his army. They can cause some disruption, as they have done with their sabotage attacks in the past year. They have little popular support, however, no outside backers, and cannot mount a full-blown civil war again.

There is, though, deep dissatisfaction among Mozambique’s 25 million people at the growing disparity between the wealth of senior Frelimo officials and their own poverty. The political and administrative systems remain deeply flawed and the fundamentals of the economy are rickety.

There is much on which the MDM can challenge the Guebuza government, if it has the stamina. 

Contact: Jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Copyright © 2013 Jonathan Manthorpe