Renamo Holds Mozambique Hostage to its Frustrated Ambition, But it Won’t Work

Afonso Dhlakama Renamo
Afonso Dhlakama

AFRICANGLOBE – On Monday, Renamo (the Mozambican National Resistance), the Mozambican political party and rebel group that fought a long and bitter civil war with the Mozambican government, unilaterally pulled out of the peace treaty which ended that war in 1992. “Peace is over in the country,” said spokesman Fernando Mazanga; an ominous threat bound to send shivers down the spine of anyone who remembers the conflict, one of Africa’s most devastating.

On Tuesday, Renamo followed this up with a pre-dawn attack on a police station in the central town of Maringue. There were no casualties as policemen fled their post.

In a statement, the group blamed ruling party and wartime foe Frelimo (the Mozambique Liberation Front) for their decision to return to a civil war footing (although they were careful to clarify they were not returning to war, per se), saying that Frelimo has failed to listen to Renamo’s grievances. Specifically, Renamo said Frelimo had re-started hostilities when government forces attacked a Renamo military base deep in the thickly-forested Gorongosa region, forcing Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama to flee further into the bush.

But this raises a more pertinent question: 21 years after the peace deal was signed, why exactly are armed Renamo fighters still holed up in bush camps?

Truth is, the post-civil war era has not been kind to Renamo. The veterans who made up the party’s leadership were woefully underprepared for multiparty democracy, more familiar with campaigns of the guerilla rather than electoral variety. At the same time, their traditional sources of cash and arms – first the Central Intelligence Organisation of Ian Smith’s Rhodesia, and then the White Apartheid military (unsavoury bedfellows both) – dried up as the threat from Communism waned.

Frelimo, meanwhile, has slowly consolidated its authority, to the point where it now has a two-thirds majority in parliament. Renamo, although still the official opposition, is an also-ran – its leaders cut off from any real power, as well as potentially lucrative resource deals. This marginalisation is ample motivation for the current crisis.

“Renamo wants resources,” explained Johannes Myburgh, southern Africa correspondent. “Over the past 20 years it has shown in aversion to true political engagement: questioning election results, attacking the government, never suggesting its own policies. Dhlakama also wants to prove he still ‘has it’, is still a force to be reckoned with…The movement wants to embarrass the Frelimo-government into giving in to its demands, which include more representation in the army and electoral bodies, and, importantly, a cut of new coal and eventual gas revenues.”

Over the past 21 years, Renamo has consistently failed to make any inroads at the polls. Wary of another drubbing in November’s parliamentary elections, Renamo has spent much of the last year distancing itself from the political process and resurrecting the fighting talk and imagery of the civil war era, a happier time for the likes of Dhlakama.

This has included re-establishing Renamo’s headquarters at the bush camp in Gorongosa and recalling a battalion of former rebels. It has also included a number of instances of military action against government targets, sparking a tit-for-tat conflict with the government that has seriously destabilished central Mozambique.

“The national North-South road (EN-1) and surrounding area have become a ‘no man´s land’, reminiscent of the days of civil war,” said Elisabete Azevedo-Harman, a researcher with think tank Chatham House. “The violence in the central region has already claimed several civilian deaths this year, as well as those of Renamo’s men and the government’s military personnel.”

Azvedo-Harman describes Renamo’s militarisation as “a desperate strategy of the party and its leader to remain relevant”, although she is quick to point out that Frelimo are hardly an innocent party: “Renamo is not the sole cause of this crisis. Frelimo needs to acknowledge some of the complaints raised by Renamo.

There is growing discontent with the hegemony of the party and suspicions of lucrative ties between some of the party’s members and spheres within the economy. In spite of growing electoral support for the party, which has increased its share of parliamentary seats, Frelimo should note the increase in abstentions, perhaps as a sign of discontent.”

But discontent is no excuse for threatening military action – if anything, Renamo’s strategy is further proof of how little they understand the democratic system. And, without their foreign backers, their threats are ultimately empty, with military action only likely to detrimentally impact their core constituency in northern Mozambique and drive the party even further into the margins.

“The thing is, Renamo has neither the resources nor the will to return to war,” said Myburgh. “Its war vets are old, its guns are old. There won’t be renewed nationwide conflict, but rather localised guerrilla-style insurgency.”

Behind all their bravado is an uncomfortable truth: Renamo is a spent force that has mismanaged Mozambique’s transition to democracy. Increasingly unpopular and irrelevant, it is trying to make a comeback the only way it knows how: down the barrel of a gun. But while Renamo hasn’t moved on much since the civil war, Mozambique certainly has, and the country’s tentative but very real progress should not be held hostage by a bunch of anachronistic Cold War Warriors. Nor will it be.


By: Simon Allison