Mozambique’s Rising Tensions

President Armando Guebuza of Mozambique speaking at an event. Photograph by Chatham House.

Renamo’s road block could have deeply negative impacts on the country, but it remains to be seen how the political impasse will be broken.

By Gustavo Plácido dos Santos

President Armando Guebuza of Mozambique speaking at an event. Photograph by Chatham House.

Over 20 years since the end of Mozambique’s brutal civil war, tensions appear to be on the rise again between Renamo, the country’s main opposition party, and Frelimo, the ruling party. This antagonism has been brewing for some time but seems to have come to a head in the past few months.

In the latest chapter of hostilities between the two parties, Renamo, on 20 June, followed through on its threats to block road traffic between the Save river – which cuts across Mozambique, virtually dividing North and South – and the town of Muxúnguè. The next day, gunmen attacked vehicles along the targeted route, resulting in two fatalities, five injuries and two burned out trucks. Renamo’s Information Chief was arrested for inciting violence and civil disorder. And a few days later, Renamo members targeted a bus and a transportation truck which were part of a convoy under military escort.

Frelimo eventually responded by proposing negotiations, but these quickly fell apart after the two sides failed to agree on the demilitarisation of Renamo, one of Frelimo’s conditions for talks. Meanwhile, some of Renamo’s demands are also being discussed in parliament, though given that parliament is heavily dominated by Frelimo members – Frelimo holds 191 of the 250 seats – it remains to be seen if the political impasse will be broken.

Rising tensions

Tensions between Renamo and Frelimo have increased significantly over the past few months, especially since October 2012, when Renamo’s president, Afonso Dhlakama, along with 800 ex-guerrilla fighters decamped to their former civil war base in Gorongosa Game Park. Explaining his motives, Dhlakama cited the Mozambican government’s failure to meet Renamo’s demands, which ranged from electoral reform to the broader distribution of wealth from mineral resources.

Relations did not improve and on 4 April, government security authorities raided Renamo’s headquarters in the central town of Muxúnguè. This move was purportedly carried out in order to disperse 250 Renamo members allegedly doing military manoeuvres, and 15 people were arrested. Some hours later, Renamo gunmen attacked the police command where the 15 were being detained, resulting in 4 deaths and 8 injuries. Then, in May, further clashes between government forces and Renamo members erupted a few kilometres from Dhlakama’s base.

This June, things heated up even further with Renamo’s road blockade. In the words of Renamo’s Information Chief, Brigadier Jerónimo Malagueta, this move was aimed at “impeding any vehicle carrying people or goods, since the government uses those same vehicles to secretly transport weaponry and army men, and concentrate them near Satungira [close to Gorongosa Game Park] and attack Renamo’s president”.

However, while Renamo may see the road block as necessary to protect itself, the action could undermine the country’s domestic economy and have disastrous effects on its social and economic conditions. Cutting off North and South restricts the free movement of people and basic goods. Meanwhile, disruption of the railways carrying coal from the central Tete province to the port in Beira could seriously destabilise the 7% GDP growth that Mozambique has been reporting, and scare away investors.

Renamo’s grievances

With presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for 2014, one of the issues causing friction between Renamo and Frelimo is electoral reform. Since Mozambique’s first multi-party elections in 1994, two years after the end of the devastating civil war, Frelimo has won every single presidential and legislative ballot. And every time, Renamo has complained of electoral fraud.

With elections again on the horizon for 2014, one of Renamo’s main demands today is electoral reform. One particular point of contention is representation in the National Electoral Commission (CNE). According to Mozambican electoral law, political parties are awarded fewer representatives in the electoral watchdog than civil society, and parties with more seats in parliament are allocated more representatives.

Seeing this as unfair, Renamo has demanded that more power is given to political parties and that all three major political forces in the CNE are given equal say under the principle of parity. Renamo has threatened to boycott the two upcoming elections if these demands are not met.

The government has responded by saying that although the request may be “legitimate and urgent”, electoral law is parliament’s exclusive competence – i.e. it must go through a whole legislative process and cannot be amended unilaterally by the executive – and has insisted that the principle of parliamentary proportionality should be maintained. Renamo demands are now being discussed in parliament, though given Frelimo’s overwhelming majority of seats, whether electoral reform goes through depends almost solely on Frelimo’s political will.

Another Renamo grievance with the government regards natural resources and funding. According to some estimates, Mozambique could have the world’s fourth largest reserves of natural gas, and the opposition party has been calling for greater access to the benefits of this booming resource wealth. In a letter addressed to the Mozambican cabinet this April, the Renamo leadership said that “it does not understand why it remains excluded from enjoying the wealth which resulted from the peace it helped to achieve and maintain during the past 20 years”. The letter also states that Renamo needs access to more wealth if it is to peacefully complete the transition of its military branch into a political force.

The government replied to these demands in a somewhat evasive manner, stating that the equitable distribution of wealth – political parties included – is already part of the government’s programme. The government also denied that Renamo has officially requested more funds to complete its transition from a military to a political force.

Regarding funds, it is also worth noting that political parties are partly financed by the state, and that funding is allocated according to the number of seats in parliament a political party holds. In part due to the emergence of the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM) – a breakaway group from Renamo – Renamo went from holding 90 seats to just 51 in the 2009 legislative elections, dramatically reducing Renamo’s state income. This could be one reason behind Renamo’s current demands.

What next for Renamo?

Renamo’s recourse to undemocratic activities – such as the recent road blockade – to get its voice heard appears to stem from a realisation that, under this status quo, Renamo is increasingly unlikely to rise to power through democratic and peaceful means, whether due to a lack of finance, political strategy or popular support. But while Renamo’s political power may be dwindling – especially with the emergence of the MDM – the road and rail blockade demonstrates its ongoing ability to disrupt Mozambican affairs.

Frelimo is highly unlikely respond with a full-scale offensive – with the brutal civil war still in many Mozambicans’ living memories, few are willing to entertain a return to hostilities – and Frelimo has indeed attempted to appease Renamo by proposing talks. But with Frelimo in such a dominant political position, it remains to be seen if a political compromise will be reached. In the meantime, if Renamo continues to employ undemocratic methods, it seems that it will be ordinary Mozambicans that will suffer the most.

Written by Think Africa

Tanzania’s Islamist Militants: A Domestic Threat from a Domestic Context

DRC: Who are the Raïa Mutomboki?