The unexpected death of opposition and ex-rebel leader Afonso Dhlakama on 3 May is a game changer for Mozambique’s politics and an almost-completed peace process. The 65-year old Dhlakama, who died of a heart attack, had led Renamo for 38 years and had totally dominated his party. Dhlakama regularly boasted that he was Mozambique’s ‘father of democracy’, despite not allowing competition within his own party, and he leaves a legacy of more than 30 years of struggle, through both armed action and peaceful politics.
A long war
Originally Renamo had been a tool for the white minority regimes of Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa to challenge the socialist Frelimo political party that took power in Mozambique in 1975. But under Dhlakama’s command, by the late 1980s Renamo had become increasingly independent and rooted in Mozambique. After Renamo’s long war with Frelimo ground to a hurting stalemate, a transition led to Mozambique’s first multiparty elections in 1994, and the creation of a new joint army. A ‘pay and scatter’ programme successfully dispersed and reintegrated many thousands of ex-combatants.
But early post-election gains did not translate to lasting peace. Disarmament was a time-limited, technical process, and devoted declining resources and attention to clusters of ex-combatants that failed to disperse. In addition, Dhlakama was allowed to maintain an armed militia under the guise of a presidential guard.
Mounting economic inequality, notably in opposition strongholds such as central Mozambique, saw Renamo made political gains and Dhlakama nearly won the 1999 presidential elections. (Some believe he did.) The result focused Frelimo’s attention on the threat that Renamo posed and, ultimately, a strategy of pursuing total Frelimo domination across the country, culminating in a crushing Frelimo victory at the 2009 elections.
This humiliated and marginalized former Renamo rebels, resulting in Dhlakama ordering their return to targeted armed violence in 2013. Frelimo’s new leader, President Filipe Nyusi, took power in 2015 and sought direct dialogue with Dhlakama. Five rounds of internationally mediated peace talks took place from July to December. Finally, in late December 2016, Dhlakama announced a unilateral truce, which was extended twice and subsequently made indefinite.
New peace talks also started and, in August 2017 and February 2018, President Nyusi and Dhlakama showed the courage to meet in person, near Renamo’s base in central Mozambique, to build up mutual trust and discuss the details of the emerging peace deal – including the demobilization or integration into government security forces for Renamo’s now mostly middle-aged gunmen.
Dhlakama the ‘Big Man’
Dhlakama’s sudden death has fundamentally changed the negotiation dynamics. He never allowed for any serious succession planning, and ensured all key decisions were his and his alone. Renamo had already decided that he would be its presidential candidate for the 2019 national elections.
His party is significantly weakened by his death and unlikely able to fully recover – but needs to try and reach consensus quickly on a successor, as it will also compete in municipal elections in October and was expecting significant gains. There will be a number of contenders to succeed him including from the parliamentary wing, led by his niece Ivone Soares, its secretary general, Manuel Bissopo, and a few others.
But Renamo’s key leverage for now remains some 1,000 middle-aged gunmen in central Mozambique who have been stoically loyal to Dhlakama since the 1980s and who have little respect for the younger generation of professional politicians based in Maputo. Some may be bought off by government offers, others integrated into localised organized crime groups and others into internal Renamo sectarianism. The risk of fragmentation is real.
Renamo’s weakness could also embolden Frelimo hardliners to seek a return to unilateral domination of Mozambique’s political landscape, and to undermine the peace process. That would be a serious tactical mistake by Frelimo, as a lasting deal is close and the death of Dhlakama could actually assist in making this settlement lasting. Dhlakama was quixotic and prone to changing his mind, often influenced by the last person he spoke to – his death potentially introduces greater predictability in negotiations and in any post-deal implementation.
President Nyusi is clearly aware of this as he hailed on state television TVM that Dhlakama was ‘a citizen who has always worked for Mozambique’ and said he was distraught at the news of his death. He stated, ‘I hope that we as Mozambicans can continue to do everything so things do not go down.’ He also addressed Renamo’s support base by saying that ‘[Dhlakama] did everything so that there would be peace. The last time he spoke to me, he said he was not going to miss out anything in peace negotiations.’
Renamo’s gunmen are fatigued and want to retire with dignity but are vulnerable to manipulation and political miscalculation by Mozambican’s positioning politicians. International partners and investors can engage, by emphasizing that sustainable peace is the only pathway to poverty reduction and inclusive economic development.
This includes assisting development and reconciliation projects in areas impacted by the renewed conflict since 2013. Long-term investment for development in Renamo’s key constituencies could help avoid fragmentation at a critical time – faith groups and NGOs may also have a key role to play.
If Mozambique’s politicians continue to act in good faith, the death of Dhlakama may constitute a significant opportunity to finally draw a line under Mozambique’s long war.