War to peace to war to truce: what next for Mozambique?

by Justin Pearce

Mozambique has begun 2017 with three months of calm. This wouldn’t be worth mentioning, but for the fact that government and opposition forces have been attacking each another, on and off, for more than four years now. More seriously, from the last quarter of 2015 and throughout last year, reports from some provinces began to look like the worst of civil wars: arbitrary killings, disappearances, rape, torture, the burning of homes and crops, soldiers choosing their civilian victims on the basis of suspected political loyalties.


The truce was agreed on 26 December 2016 in a phone conversation between President Filipe Nyusi, and Afonso Dhlakama, the leader of the opposition movement, Renamo. The two leaders had their chat only days after an unwieldy team of international mediators had packed up and gone home, following six months of talks in which the adversaries had made next to no progress towards a settlement. The Christmas ceasefire has endured despite the lack of clear modalities for its implementation. Both sides have expressed a commitment to a negotiated settlement, without the slightest hint of what the next step might be. People in conflict-affected areas of central and northern Mozambique remain fearful: no surprise considering events of the past 18 months.


None of this has received much attention outside Mozambique. This could be because what has happened since 2012 has been so dissonant with the dominant international narrative on the country. In 1992 the Rome Peace Accord between the government and Renamo ended a 16-year war that had been implanted by apartheid South Africa’s hostility to Frelimo, but which acquired local roots among a Mozambican peasant class dissatisfied with Frelimo’s policy of agricultural collectivisation. Since the 1990s, Mozambique has been the poster-child of post-Cold War liberal peace and neo-liberal economic restructuring alongside the judicious use of foreign aid. Understanding the events of the past four years requires attention to what was agreed upon in the Rome Accord, and to the economic changes of the subsequent years.


The accord bequeathed to Mozambique a multiparty parliament with, in theory, regular competitive elections, alongside a highly centralised administrative system, in which the party that wins at national level appoints provincial government and rural local government. (City administrators are elected locally.) Frelimo entered into competitive democracy at an advantage, because it had been synonymous with the state during the one-party era. The post-war constitution served only to entrench this advantage. Meanwhile, political centralisation was accompanied by an extraordinary non-monopoly of the means of violence. In order to appease Dhlakama’s presidential ambitions, he was permitted to keep a bodyguard of former guerrillas under his personal control. The agreement also promised jobs in the police and army to former Renamo fighters who, when the state failed to deliver on this promise, remained loyal to Dhlakama. Once all this is taken into account, the question starts to look not so much like one of why the 1992 peace accord broke down, but rather one of why it took as long as 20 years to do so.


Here I’d suggest two sets of reasons. One has to do with elite interests: in this case, the interests of Dhlakama on the one side and the Frelimo party elite on the other. The other reason has to do with the potential for popular mobilisation. First, Dhlakama. During the decade following the peace accord, the Renamo leader’s political fortunes seemed to be on the rise. The 1999 election result was so close that some credible analysts suggested that fraud alone kept Frelimo in power. At the next election, in 2004, Renamo’s share of the vote plummeted, as voters in previously pro-Renamo provinces abstained or voted for splinter parties. Opposition parties never do well in systems where the state is synonymous with the ruling party, and however disillusioned people may have become with Frelimo, Dhlakama and Renamo failed to articulate a credible alternative.


But the 2004 election marked a turning point for the government too, after President Joaquim Chissano reached the constitutional two-term limit. The Armando Guebuza presidency defined the next ten years, reorienting the state towards the needs of an increasingly wealthy party elite that benefited from preferential access to contracts during a decade when rising global energy prices saw the revival of coal mining and the exploration of offshore gas reserves. The little fiefdoms that had been conceded to Dhlakama in 1992 began to look paltry by comparison.


While economic change created an incentive for Dhlakama to demand a greater stake in power, it also created social conditions in which Renamo could begin to mobilise as a paramilitary movement: a constituency with little to lose, and persuadable that it had something to gain, by a return to conflict. Following a further disastrous election defeat in 2009, Dhlakama and his entourage left Maputo for the northern city of Nampula. In 2012, former Renamo soldiers exchanged fire with the police at Dhlakama’s Nampula headquarters, whereupon Dhlakama retreated to his remote wartime redoubt at Satungira in Sofala province.


What only became clear later is that Renamo soldiers were simultaneously establishing bases across the central provinces. It was at one such base that the next phase of the crisis began. In March 2013 several hundred Renamo men gathered to conduct marching drill in Muxúnguè, a town on the country’s north-south arterial road. Eyewitnesses recalled that the men were all at least 40 years old: Renamo, peculiarly, relies heavily on ageing combatants from the civil war. On 3 April, police dispersed the men. The next day, Renamo retaliated, attacking the police station, and then retreating to the bush where later in the year it launched a series of ambushes on the main road. Civilian casualties were few, but the threat to the economy alarmed the government, and the Mozambican Armed Forces began counterinsurgency operations against farming communities that it suspected of supporting Renamo.


A cycle of ambushes and reprisals was halted by a truce in time for national elections in October 2014. The election saw Renamo regain the votes in the central and northern provinces that had been draining away since 1999: the violence seemed to have convinced voters that that Renamo was worth taking seriously. The election was followed by a year of talks in which Renamo demanded reforms in electoral conduct and a better deal for its veterans. However, the talks remained deadlocked over the issue of provincial autonomy. Renamo insisted on the right to be able to form the provincial government in those provinces where it had gained a majority in the national elections.


In the last quarter of 2015, the conflict became more violent than ever before as the government resumed its counterinsurgency measures. At least 10,000 Mozambicans sought refuge in Malawi. Although some complained of violence by Renamo, most of the abuses they reported were perpetrated by government soldiers. The refugee exodus forced the government to admit that the conflict was a political problem and, eventually, to accept Renamo’s demand for international mediation. Talks in the second half of 2016 got stuck once again on the issue of provincial devolution. But since the mediators went home and Nyusi and Dhlakama began their phone chats, the peace has held. Nyusi apparently represents a dovish tendency in Frelimo, prepared to make a concession on devolution – which would not threaten Frelimo’s hold on central government – in return for peace. Nyusi has left it to Dhlakama to update media on the progress of the truce. So the informal dialogue has proved simpler than the mediated talks, which demanded that every new position on the government side reconcile divergent opinions within Frelimo.


Yet even if the conflict has been driven by elite interests, there’s no denying that Renamo’s return to arms has enjoyed popular support: witness how the insurgency reversed the decline in Renamo’s fortunes at the ballot box. People I interviewed in conflict-affected areas in 2015 and 2016 spoke of Renamo’s actions with tacit approval and sometimes active support. Such acceptance of violence points to a crisis of legitimacy in a state that has been controlled by Frelimo since independence in 1975. The resource boom widened the poverty gap in all parts of Mozambique. However, Renamo offered a reading of the situation in which the centre and north of Mozambique were the victims of discrimination by the south. Renamo has garnered support for its aims by framing grievance in a regionalist discourse: creating a sense of “us and them”, the “them” being the government. The economist Frances Stewart has observed that while inequality itself does not predispose a society to conflict, a better predictor of strife is “horizontal inequality”: that is, when economic disparity coincides with non-economic lines of cleavage, such as race, language, religion or, in this case, regional origin. But cleavage lines may be a matter of perception, and shaping perceptions – as Renamo has been able to do – is the stuff of politics.


Renamo backs up its version of the present by offering a preferred reading of the past. It adapts popular stories about history, concerning the marginalisation of central and northern Mozambican leaders during the anti-colonial struggle, and Frelimo’s policy of agricultural collectivisation after independence. It presents Renamo as the heir to a tendency in Mozambican nationalism that was grounded in the centre-north, and as a movement that after independence fought against unpopular Frelimo policies. Given that Frelimo, like many postcolonial ruling parties, has staked its legitimacy on a narrative of united struggle against colonial rule, a Renamo counter-narrative that resonates with local popular memory as well as with sentiments of present-day socio-economic exclusion is sufficient to disrupt the authority of the state to the point that violence against the state is thinkable.


Events of recent years have lessons for peacemakers. The 1992 peace agreement was a product of a post-Cold War moment, when multiparty democracy seemed the solution to all ills. What has happened since then does not necessarily rubbish the idea of democratic peace, but it does illustrate the contradictions of imposing it from outside, and the dangers of botching it. Hopes that 20 years without fighting would provide the seedbed for a united national narrative appear, with hindsight, naïve. The 1992 settlement pacified the elites but disregarded the conflict’s social roots. Democracy, conducted along the lines of wartime cleavage, proved to be the continuation of war by other means, with the incumbent holding the advantage. War configures access to resources and determines who can cash in on the peace. While donors and diplomats embraced Mozambique as a success story of reconstruction and reform within the ambit of a neoliberal world order, Mozambique’s insertion into a global economy both raised the stakes in the battle for the control of the state, and also widened social inequality in a way that Dhlakama was able to exploit as he activated his best political asset: the guns and men bequeathed by the Rome Peace Accord.


From Dhlakama’s point of view, a stake in provincial government may prove to be a more useful asset than armed men. A constitutional concession aimed above all at pacifying Dhlakama might be the outcome of the ongoing phone conversation between President Nyusi, and the opposition demagogue who remains in his mountain redoubt. An inclusive dialogue to address social grievance is unlikely. And maybe the two leaders will just keep talking over that crackly mobile connection, leaving Mozambique as it is now, neither at war nor at peace.

About the author

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Justin Pearce is a lecturer in African politics in POLIS, University of Cambridge, and researches opposition politics and violence in Angola and Mozambique. He is on the editorial board of the Journal of Southern African Studies. Twitter: @drjustinpearce.

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