by Daniel Kaiser and Janne Rantala
At a recent press conference with the Mozambican president Filipe Jacinto Nyusi, German chancellor Angela Merkel demanded immediate action and a political solution for the resurgent armed conflict between state security forces and Renamo rebels. As a return to civil war seems not out of the question and profound information is scarce, we would like to shed some light on what is actually happening in Mozambique.
Though the country will celebrate the 24th anniversary of the General Peace Agreement in October, there is unlikely to be much festive spirit due to what is euphemistically called a ”political-military situation” by television news. In fact, it might be more adequate to call it a low-intensity armed conflict that is steadily escalating since last October.
While people are afraid to drive on the country's main highways and more than 10000 refugees have fled to neighboring Malawi, the ruling party, Frelimo, and the main opposition party, Renamo, continuously accuse one another of armed attacks, perpetrating kidnappings, torture and murder. Fighting has been particularly intense in remote areas such as Sofala, Tete and Zambézia provinces in central Mozambique. However, attempted and de facto assassinations, probably linked to the conflict, have occurred in the cities of Maputo, Matola and Beira.
Control of both state and private media has increased over the last years and prominent intellectuals appear increasingly reluctant to voice criticism. Only a few printed newspapers with limited distribution report sufficiently on clashes and atrocities, while the public and private TV stations only provide very limited information on the “political-military situation”.
On the other hand, access to information “on the ground” is scarce. For instance, nobody is actually able to tell the real dimension of the conflict or the military strength of Renamo. As most of the fighting is taking place in remote areas in the vast countryside of central Mozambique, journalists hardly get there at all. In clear contrast to an earlier phase of conflict in 2013–2014, information relating to violence, for example regarding the number of victims, is sporadic at best, with often contradictory information transmitted in a highly propagandistic manner.
This scarcity leaves an important role for social media. Twitter and Facebook accounts became main information sources for many. Though this information is mostly highly unreliable, social media works as a catalyst for free information. Nevertheless, some newspapers and agencies are working relatively independent and are doing an excellent job considering the circumstances.
State media report almost daily on Renamo attacking highways in Sofala and Zambézia. Hundreds of kilometers of the country's main highways are deserted, people are afraid to drive because of ongoing attacks, even though the government provides military convoys. Renamo claims that those attacks are on buses that transport government troops to the north. Main destination is Gorongosa, where Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama is supposed to hide in the mountains and coordinate Renamo’s actions. This echoes practices from 2013/14, when the government demonstrably used civil transportation to move soldiers around the country.
It is uncertain how many, but certainly buses transporting merely civilians have been frequently attacked, too. A journalist of the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle recently documented an attack on his bus full of civilians while travelling from Muxungue towards Maputo. At present, it is unclear who was responsible but it is generally presumed to have been Renamo guerrillas. Rumors have it that such attacks might be as well carried out by the government itself to legitimize their own actions against Dhlakama.
It is not just Renamo who are taking the offensive to Mozambique’s highways; last September, government troops twice attacked the convoy of Renamo president Afonso Dhlakama, with the probable aim of eliminating him. They seem to copy what is called the “Savimbi solution” of Angola’s ruling party MPLA: Securing power through the elimination of an opposition leader. Frelimo and MPLA traditionally have strong ties going back to the liberation struggle in the 1960s and 70s. Related to the attacks on Dhlakama, some newspapers have distributed a long interview claimed to be made with a member of a “death squad” inside the Mozambican police, eliminating political as well as military targets. Independent investigations indicate that those attacks were exercised by police special forces.
Refugees in Malawi
By now, more than 10 000 civilians have fled to neighboring Malawi, due to clashes between government troops and guerrilla fighters in Tete province. According to Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), international press and local media, refugees have mainly fled atrocities committed by the country's own troops and police. According to testimonials published by Human Rights Watch, soldiers were allegedly looting, beating, kidnapping, sexually abusing and executing people in summary executions in Tete province - because they were suspected to support Renamo rebels.
As a response, the Mozambican government disapproved all claims concerning human rights violations and in turn accused Renamo of atrocities which led to the refugee crisis. For a long time, the Mozambican government had been even denying the very existence of war refugees. When international organizations started to distribute first hand reports from Kapise refugee camp in February and March, several voices in the government tried to represent refugees as wives and children of Renamo gunmen (AIM News Cast 1/3/2016) or as people fleeing from the severe drought.
Natural Resources, Civil War and Reconciliation
The current conflict was preceded by one and a half year of clashes in 2013/14. In 2012, Dhlakama, more and more marginalized by the Guebuza administration, had left his city residence for a bush camp in the Gorongosa mountains. Renamo picked up their guerrilla strategy again and the army tried and failed to capture Dhlakama. However, Guebuza and Dhlakama finally managed to sign an agreement on ”a cessation of hostilities” in September 2014 that allowed Renamo to participate in parliamentary and presidential elections in October 2014.
After a short, more or less stable period, tensions started to rise again after elections. Renamo and other opposition parties accused the ruling Frelimo party of large scale electoral fraud, political oppression and attacks on party offices. Although the fairly younger Nyusi replaced Dhlakama's personal enemy Guebuza as president, the conflict started to escalate again in the second half of 2015. Since then, attacks and shootings have become almost daily routine.
Why is this conflict resurging after such a long period of seemingly sustainable peace? Roots and causes seem quite diverse and hard to detect. Nevertheless, some historical and economic aspects can be clearly identified as crucial factors and might serve as a starting point to end the hostilities.
Not only the sociologist Carlos Serra has mentioned how discoveries of natural gas, oil and charcoal reserves might have provoked the idea that the country has now more natural resources to share and hence struggle for. Frelimo traditionally dominates the southern parts of the country with the political and economic capital Maputo. Renamo has its strongholds in central and northern Mozambique, where most of the natural resources can be found.
Another reason for growing discontent is the ongoing acquisition of state institutions by the ruling party and the centralization of political power through jobs and business opportunities for members of the dominant nomenclatura. It reached its record high during the two mandates of president Armando Guebuza from 2005–2015 and is most represented by the EMATUM scandal. During this time, political tensions and generally felt dissatisfaction were rising again and open conflict broke out in 2013.
Historically, the conflict has its roots already in the liberation struggle that ended officially with formal independence in 1975. In 1976, Dhlakama and some other former members of the liberation movement Frelimo that were against the new ruling party’s revolutionary ideology formed the rebel movement Renamo (National Resistance of Mozambique). It was logistically and financially (heavily) supported by the white settler regime of Rhodesia and, particularly after the latter’s independence as Zimbabwe, by the apartheid regime in South Africa and through this by NATO members (e.g. USA, Portugal and West Germany). This conflict developed into one of the most severe civil wars ever. It lasted 16 years and is commonly referred to as a classical proxy war of the Cold War.
The Civil War ended with the peace agreement of Rome in 1992. From this moment on, Mozambique has been widely celebrated as a political and economic success story. The transition from a Marxist-Leninist one party regime to a liberal multiparty democracy led by Frelimo, with Renamo as a newly established civil opposition party, seemed to have worked out perfectly smooth.
What is clear today is that the agreed upon security sector reform and the demobilization and integration of Renamo forces into the Forcas Armadas de Moçambique (FADM) has not worked out as intended. Renamo asserts that Frelimo has deliberately marginalized Renamo’s demobilized guerrillas. In turn, Frelimo asserts Renamo have repeatedly proved to be unwilling to disarm their fighters.
Such dissonance has long been a feature of Mozambican politics. According to one long-term observer, the British academic Joseph Hanlon, both Frelimo and Renamo have continually defied the Rome General Peace Accords. This has amounted to a tacit agreement between the opposing sides: Renamo continues to maintain military training camps and the Frelimo government refuses to integrate former Renamo guerrillas into its armed forces.
The lack of demobilization, reconciliation and reintegration can still be felt in the ongoing conflict. These claims were reflected in the August 2014 ceasefire agreement (Declaração da Cessação das Hostilidades). A key issue was the demobilization of Renamo guerrillas and their integration into the Mozambican army and police forces. However, subsequently, despite over a hundred rounds of negotiations, little progress was made, leading to frustration on both sides.
The anthropologist Victor Igreja has recorded how defamatory verbal accusations between warring parties have formed a continued part of post-civil war parliamentary debates. Similarly, both Frelimo and Renamo have utilized war memorials as tools to main hostilities against one another. Igreja’s proposed partial solution advocates the formation of a Mozambican version of South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The idea is that by exploring the history of Mozambique’s civil war in a non-accusatory manner the country may be able to come to terms with its past and thus also its present.
Historian Mota Lopes recently claimed that the current conflict in Mozambique represents a resumption of a civil war many hoped was over. Despite almost 24 years of ‘peace’, there are continued deep divisions within Mozambican society, with two armed groups once again in conflict over the country’s wealth. Such a situation is perhaps unsurprising; neither side has seriously sought to reconcile with the other.
Unfortunately, with the missed opportunity of true and lasting reconciliation, the historical situation is not as opportune as in post-apartheid South Africa. However, genuine and lasting reconciliation can only be achieved with a renewed and immediate peace agreement. At present, both sides continue to wage war on the basis of a sense of historical and continued grievance. Sorting out what has happened in a neutral manner is thus essential to peacefully manage competing claims to Mozambique’s burgeoning mineral wealth.
Special thanks go to Benedict Singleton (Örebro University) and Jenni Koivisto (Karlstad University).