Is Mozambique Sliding Back Toward Conflict?

Mozambique might not be on U.S. President Barack Obama’s itinerary for his Africa trip that begins this week, but the country has still been making headlines. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been for the right reasons.

Just over two decades ago, one of Africa's most brutal civil wars ended in Mozambique, and the country today is regarded as having passed through a successful post-conflict transition. Indeed, despite its handicaps and the country's brutal military past, the country’s informal amnesty, traditional healing and forgiveness processes played a significant role in moving the country forward, enabling the two major parties – the Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) and the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) – to compete peacefully at elections.

But the legacy of peace is now under threat from the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the center of the country. About a dozen soldiers and police and three civilians have been killed in armed attacks since April in central Mozambique following threats from Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama to initiate a campaign of violence unless the party’s demands on electoral reform were met.

A new round of talks on the issue started Monday, but with six rounds of talks in recent months with the Frelimo-led government failing to resolve the differences between the two sides, the Mozambican government and main opposition Renamo look to be on a collision course that could ultimately see renewed conflict.

The ongoing confrontation has been sparked by Renamo's rejection of electoral laws approved in parliament as registration continues for this November’s municipal elections. These frustrations have been compounded by Dhlakama’s continued isolation from credible strategic advice, the success of splinter party MDM in winning control in local elections of key cities Beira and Quelimane, and some patronizing behavior among the elite in capital Maputo.

Dhlakama has led Renamo for more than 30 years, but seems to have concluded that he can only obtain concessions from the Mozambican government through armed action. Yet while he has certainly succeeded in securing international attention through violence, he looks like he may have badly miscalculated.

Southern Africa is not what it was in 1992 when the civil war ended, and despite continued deep inequality and poverty, Mozambique has also changed. Renamo has demonstrated that it can pull off sporadic attacks with small numbers of armed men, but it lacks the resources or support to return the country to civil war.

For a while, Renamo was actually the largest opposition party in Africa and in Mozambique's 1999 elections Dhlakama came close to winning the presidency. But support for Renamo has been in gradual decline since the mid-1990s, not least due to Renamo’s precarious financial situation and the party’s poor record in delivering services to the communities it represented. Now, its decision to turn to violence has further undermined Dhlakama’s democratic credentials and may actually help its splinter party, MDM, to prosper further.

Meanwhile, Mozambique’s international partners and investors have at times been complacent, listening only to reassuring government statements and discounting Renamo’s threats because the party has previously failed to act on them.

Regardless, it is Mozambicans who are most likely to suffer in all this. Development and foreign direct investment requires a predictable, stable investment environment, but Renamo’s attacks on police stations and road traffic, and threats to target the rail line that carries world-class coal out from the Moatize region of Tete province, have left investors questioning overall security. And recent attacks have also demonstrated that in the center of the country at least, the government is not in full control.

The difficulty now is for President Armando Guebuza to calculate an appropriate response to armed violence by Renamo, while also looking for some common ground with the party’s demands – Mozambique is not at war, and this should be treated as a police matter.  Ultimately, the president needs to rein in Frelimo's firebrands and find a formula to allow Dhlakama and his supporters to save face. Yes, the attacks and killings over the last few months make compromise through negotiation much more difficult, but continued bloodshed in central Mozambican would make it even more so.

And Dhlakama, for his part, needs wise counsel beyond his Renamo advisers:  they served him well during the 1991-92 peace negotiations to end the civil war, but recent events have shown how insular Renamo has become.

The last thing Mozambique needs is to slowly slide back towards the kind of violence that it fought so hard to escape from two decades ago.

By Alex Vines. Alex Vines is head of the Africa Program at Chatham House and author of ‘Renamo: from terrorism to democracy in Mozambique.’ He is also a Senior Lecturer at Coventry University. The views expressed are his own.


Originally published on CNN World.

Photo by Sparky the Neon Cat.