Mozambique’s governance quagmire may bring down a promising economy: The unstoppable force of booming business collides with the immoveable object of the country’s dangerous political status quo

Violence has broken out again between government forces and the main political opposition party, with the top opposition leader twice escaping death in shootings. The time has come for the former civil war antagonists to lay down arms once and for all or risk scuttling an economic boom.


By Sandile Lukhele (1)

Faced with Mozambique’s political stalemate, most countries would muse that they should be so lucky. The head of government, finance minister or central bank governor of any country would salivate at the prospect of a 17.6% gross domestic product (GDP) growth rate, which on 8 October 2015 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicted would be Mozambique’s in 2020 once natural gas sales begin. Even the IMF’s news that Mozambique’s 2015 GDP growth would be the worst since 2009 was hardly tragic. A 7% growth is robust and is again the envy of most countries, including China, Russia and the US.

However, if not for a feud between an intransigent ruling party, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO), and a resentful opposition party, the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), GDP performance might have been higher this year. The low-level conflict between these groups is growing tiresome for the international community, which is also apprehensive when the often childish rhetoric and behaviour of both sides flares into violence. Both FRELIMO and RENAMO must abandon their reliance on the ‘Three Ps’: Prevarication, Pugnaciousness and Pride.

An artist’s interpretation: This Mozambican flag is fraying at the edges, much like the peace deal between its two rivals in government. Photo courtesy Nicholas Raymond/Freestock.ca/Flickr

Having emerged as one of the world’s poorest countries from a 16-year post-independence civil war in 1992, with territory strewn with landmines and people scattered as refugees throughout Southern Africa, Mozambique saw a startling economic comeback in the 2000s. After a dip during the global recession of 2008, the economy continued to boom to the present, with even better to come for the mineral-rich nation. Economic reforms and adroit exploitation of valuable mineral and flora resources has lured investors from the East and West. This can be upset by FRELIMO’s belief that as a liberation party it is entitled to rule Mozambique in perpetuity. Liberation movements-turned-ruling-parties are difficult to displace anywhere in Africa, but in Mozambique residual bitterness from the bloody, protracted civil war adds to FRELIMO’s animus against its former civil war opponent, RENAMO. RENAMO has some popular support, but is unable to win national elections and feels that only constitutional changes will allow smaller parties to participate more fully in governance. In 2013, frustrated by the lack of response from FRELIMO, RENAMO declared the 1992 peace accord null.

This article is extracted from the November 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM) and is authored by ACM analyst Sandile Lukhele.

Civil war was not a result, although RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama took to a secluded retreat in the central part of the country to rattle sabres again in the company of old cohorts from the civil war days. He looked isolated and ridiculous, which mitigated the legitimacy of RENAMO’s grievances against government. Some skirmishes ensued between police and the rebels reborn, but then RENAMO had second thoughts and again engaged government through regular channels. A boycott of October 2014 elections was called, and then called off. RENAMO appeared to chronically vacillate. Dhlakama’s persistent contradictory statements were intended to subtly intimidate, but sounded like teases, such as this one on 5 October 2015: “If I wanted, Mozambique would already be burning. But there’s no interest in this.”

While government seemed obstinate and RENAMO ineffectual, investors were rushing in – some legitimate and some, like Chinese lumber smugglers, adding to government corruption. Government’s hold on power was worrisome, but not an encumbrance to trade. Then assassination attempts on Dhlakama on 12 and 25 September and a clash between armed RENAMO supporters and the government army in Manica Province near the Zimbabwe border challenged the sustainability of the status quo. If FRELIMO was willing to assassinate its main opponent to secure perpetual hold over national wealth, the plot could backfire should instability sabotage the economy.


Assassination attempts and clashes with the army

The propaganda battle between government and RENAMO in which the credibility of both sides is a casualty requires independent monitoring of volatile developments. For instance, the independently verified assassination attempt against Dhlakama on 12 September would have been dismissed by government as not having happened at all. According to Sabado Malendza, a FRELIMO official who administers the Vanduzi District where the incident occurred, no gunmen opened fire on Dhlakama’s motorcade. Rather, he maintains that two of the cars collided in rainy weather. Although he arrived at the scene late, Malendza lined up ‘eyewitnesses’ who would say that Dhlakama’s men were the ones firing shots, into the air for some reason.

Journalists travelling with Dhlakama had a different version. The motorcade was fired upon from a hill to the left of the road, wounding a driver but not hitting the RENAMO leader. If Malendza’s eyewitnesses were correct, the presence of perforations on the car bodies that were the size and shape of bullet holes had to have had some other origin. Hailstones, perhaps?

The Portuguese news agency Lusa reported that police had attacked the motorcade. RENAMO blamed the administration of Mozambique’s President Felipe Nyusi for ordering the ambush. The police force denied involvement. Two weeks later, Dhlakama’s motorcade was again attacked, at Zimpinga in Manica Province en route to Nampula province. RENAMO General Secretary Manuel Bissopo called a press conference to declare that the Commander of the Army, General Eugenio Mussa, had “planned, organised and gave the order for the plan to assassinate the President of RENAMO,” carrying out “higher orders that he brought from Maputo.” In a wildly divergent account, government accused RENAMO of staging the 12 September incident and of opening fire on government forces on 25 September.

Clearly, an independent investigation into the incidents is required, but by whom? Only an outside mediator like the regional 14-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) or the African Union (AU) would have jurisdiction. Neither of these bodies has shown interest in the FRELIMO-RENAMO spat, and SADC is a leadership- rather than people-driven organisation where heads of government look out for one another and opposition groups are both sidelined and despised.


The prospect for civil war

Initial reports of the 25 September clash between the army and Dhlakama’s motorcade were followed by alarming casualty figures. Some 21 people were killed in the shootout, and six were injured. Dhlakama went into hiding, as he did in 2013. Police opened a criminal case against everyone in Dhlakama’s convoy, and on 9 October raided Dhlakama’s home in the seaside city Beira to arrest his personal guard. As a member of the Council of State, Dhlakama may escape arrest until such time as government prosecutors decide to open a murder case against him.

Such a prosecution will ensure some armed response from RENAMO, if only a reversion to the limited guerrilla warfare carried out in 2013. A return to full-scale civil war seems unlikely. To conduct a war, a faction requires an army and in Mozambique only one side, government, truly has one.

RENAMO does have a political base of some popular support but fails to harness that support in a way that might prove profitable in a democracy. Instead, leadership frets and pouts, although not without reason. FRELIMO rules with a sense of entitlement that is parcel to being a liberation party but which is at odds with democracy’s requirement for compromise and reconciliation. Liberation parties are difficult to oust in Africa. Their playbook is to portray opposition as disloyal traitors who will sell the country back to its pre-liberation masters. Once installed, they become insulated, imperial and corrupt. FRELIMO has shown that it is loathe to share power.

If RENAMO has displayed fecklessness in statements made and then retracted – even attempting to nullify a decade-old peace accord without any legal means to do so – and half-hearted scheming at guerrilla warfare, FRELIMO has been inept as well. It is probably unlikely that government has fomented an actual policy to assassinate Dhlakama. However, FRELIMO’s governance often displays a left hand that is unaware of what the right hand is doing. Corruption and lack of accountability in government will cause such disconnect. Seeing itself as a ruling party for all time, as liberation parties in Africa do, FRELIMO has become obstinate. Underlings in government and the military might be aggressive, even deadly, toward RENAMO, perhaps expecting to be rewarded by higher ups if they can offer their superiors plausible deniability. RENAMO’s conduct has been to act in self-defence or to act as though it is acting in self-defence; in other words, RENAMO displays a belief that its aggressive acts are conducted defensibly against premeditated attacks by government forces.

This article is extracted from the November 2015 edition of IOA’s Africa Conflict Monitor (ACM) and is authored by ACM analyst Sandile Lukhele.


Time for meaningful talks between antagonists

For some FRELIMO and RENAMO officials, the nation’s long civil war is a source of nostalgia. Call it the Mugabe Syndrome after the Zimbabwean autocrat who is never happier than when rousing crowds with revolutionary rhetoric against imagined enemies to rekindle the fervour of the Rhodesian War. Actually, if FRELIMO would open up the political arena instead of restricting the opposition, they would find this arena an exciting battlefield of another type, one requiring engagement, wit and strategy. As for actual war, there is nothing to be gained from such a costly, disruptive and deadly option for FRELIMO, other than to silence what to them is a gadfly in Dhlakama.

The rivalry between obstinate, arrogant FRELIMO and tantrum-prone RENAMO is a violent one and as such has no place in a democracy. Once blood has been shed, time has come to jettison the Three Ps of Prevarication, Pugnaciousness and Pride practiced by both sides. The antagonists will no doubt engage in talks to reduce tensions, but such talks have not yielded permanent solutions to greater power-sharing in the country’s governance. SADC and the AU are the appropriate organisations to broker meaningful talks, but neither group has shown interest in doing so and the West has shown no inclination to intervene diplomatically. China has a financial stake in Mozambique but does not engage in such mediation efforts in Africa to avoid irritating governing powers. Other outside actors have a financial stake via investment and trade in an economically resurgent Mozambique, and as such will regret not putting governance on a more stable footing if unresolved political rivalries upset what appears to be imminent prosperity.



(1) Sandile Lukhele is an analyst for ACM and author of political and social commentary for African and international publications.