Mozambique’s RENAMO Party: Walking On Thin Ice

If the leader of Mozambique’s second largest political party is to be believed, things are about to get serious. Afonso Dhlakama, the leader of RENAMO, has vowed to forcibly take over 6 of the country’s 11 provinces, essentially threatening to plunge the country into civil war. But can he really manage the feat? Considering that he has been threatening war for years, his threats should be taken with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, this is one of the most alarming reflections of an ongoing trend of increased tension between RENAMO and Mozambique’s ruling party, FRELIMO.

To provide some context, Mozambique is a nation located on the southeast coast of Africa. It borders South Africa, Swaziland, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania. Although it shows high levels of sustained economic growth, it has one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world. Many of its around 25 million people live in deep poverty. Rated by the Freedom House as “Partly Free,” Mozambique’s government is a deeply flawed democracy. Its elections are generally considered to be fair by international observers, but the government is rife with irregularities and corruption. Most of the power is concentrated in the hands of FRELIMO, which holds the presidency and a majority in the legislature, but RENAMO and another party, MDM, are unrestricted by the government and hold minorities in the legislature.

Mozambique, dark blue, in the African Union, light blue.
Mozambique, dark blue, in the African Union, light blue.

Now you may be wondering why RENAMO and FRELIMO have become so hostile that one is threatening civil war. Well, this isn’t the first time that they’ve disagreed. In fact, most of Mozambique’s first two decades in existence were marred by a civil war between the two groups. It was FRELIMO that fought for the country’s independence from Portugal in 1975, taking power and setting up a one-party Marxist government. Soon after independence, RENAMO was founded to oppose the communist government. A 15 year civil war ensued, finally ending when FRELIMO transitioned the country to a multi-party democratic state in 1992. At this time, RENAMO transitioned from a militant group to a legitimate political party and FRELIMO transitioned from a Marxist group to a democratic-socialist political party that has ruled the country ever since.

Considering the history of Mozambique’s government, the current resurgence of tensions may seem bizarre. The country has already emerged from a civil war, transitioned from a repressive authoritarian state to a partial democracy, and incorporated the opposing parties into a multi-party system under which each is represented. The problem, I believe, is that RENAMO has come to understand that it cannot gain power through the democratic system. FRELIMO has won every election since the end of the civil war, and RENAMO has repeatedly cited electoral fraud as the reason. While there have been electoral irregularities, international observers believe that FRELIMO’s sustained governance does, in fact, represent the will of the people. Dhlakama, the leader of RENAMO, unwilling to accept his party’s failure to gain power democratically, has begun to search for alternatives.

As a result, Dhlakama has become increasingly violent in recent years. He withdrew from his government posts and founded a new base of operations. He is now training soldiers who have, since the resurgence of violence began in 2013, attacked government forces and motorcades. He often threatens to bring destruction to the country and to restart the civil war. When the Mozambican government raided one of his military camps, he declared void the peace accord that ended the civil war. Thus his recent vow to take over much of the country, which he declared in retaliation to an assassination attempt on one of RENAMO’s leaders, is not as serious as one might expect. If he had the resources to move beyond the low-level insurgency that his party has been waging for the past few years, it is likely that he already would have done it. Thus it is unlikely that Mozambique is going to plunge into a full-blown civil war in the next few months, although the country will likely face a sustained low-level insurgency that will undermine rule of law and cause suffering among civilians. Therefore, both RENAMO and FRELIMO must work to resolve this escalating conflict.

RENAMO has put itself in a fragile situation by returning to its roots as a militant group. It now exists simultaneously as a legitimate participant in a multi-party democratic system and a rogue insurgent militia trying to destroy that system. It cannot continue to be both at the same time. If power is what Dhlakama and RENAMO seek, they must choose to seek it democratically. In order for this to happen, FRELIMO must reassure them that it is willing to commit to the pursuit of a more inclusive and effective democracy. But they will not do so if RENAMO insists on continuing its insurgency and thereby directly threatening the country’s people and integrity. Therefore, RENAMO must lay down its weapons in exchange for a promise from FRELIMO that the government will be bilaterally reformed. Achieving a compromise like this must be a priority, or else this escalating conflict may have time to evolve into something much uglier than it is now.


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