Mozambique's dangerous game of "cat and mouse" is entering a critical phase


If an audacious statement by Mozambique’s opposition leader, Afonso Dhlakama, is to be believed, troops loyal to his Renamo opposition grouping will attempt to take over the administration of six provinces in the country come 1 April 2016. How, when and even whether they do, remains unclear, but it will need to be done with force and will amount to an overthrow of each of the various provincial governments.

The statement reflects the increasingly tense and polarised political climate which has come to characterise Mozambique in recent months. Since the turn of the year in particular, negative news emanating out of Mozambique has become the norm. Aside from a number of clear economic stresses facing the country, of particular concern is the dramatic uptick in political violence which is threatening to plunge it into crisis.

The intensification of violence and deterioration of the security situation in many parts of the country following the 2014 election, has prompted serious questions around what this means for the country’s political and economic trajectory. Indeed, The International Crisis Group flagged the country as being on “conflict risk alert” following the escalation of tensions in February. Importantly, foreign investment, upon which the country is hugely reliant, has sharply declined as a result of the climate of fear and instability that has consumed the centre of the country. The continued failure of political leadership of both Frelimo and Renamo to deal with political stand-off at a national level is now threatening to permanently puncture the outlook for Mozambique in what is set to be a crucial year for the economy – particularly with regards to investments in the nascent gas sector.

But how exactly did Mozambique get here and what has caused a country previously touted as one of Africa’s rising stars to experience such an alarming change in trajectory? At the core, the combination of political opportunism by Dhlakama, and weak and fragmented leadership within Frelimo, has created the opportune climate for the current stand-off.

The lead-up to Dhlakama’s specific threat, issued in February, was characterised by a steady increase in tensions between Renamo and the ruling Frelimo administration. The most obvious catalyst for this was the outcome of elections in October 2014, in which Frelimo retained control of all provincial governments, including those where Renamo enjoy the most support. The result was disputed by Dhlakama’s party.

With little to no legal political recourse to address his allegations of vote rigging, Dhlakama became increasingly militarised in his statements, as did his gunmen in the frequency with which they engaged government troops. In response, the Frelimo government intensified military operations against the group.

According to Renamo, the government’s strategy to suppress them has included assassination attempts against some of the group’s hierarchy, including Dhlakama himself. It was this alleged attempt on Dhlakama’s life in September 2015 that prompted his retreat in the Gorongosa mountains – a rural Renamo stronghold – and a further militarisation of the group.

By February this year, Renamo felt compelled to counter what they felt was an ongoing attempt to forcibly disarm them. (According to the opposition group, they have a right under the 1992 peace agreement to protect themselves).

Renamo’s strategy in this regard involved establishing road blocks on main highways in central Mozambique. In time, this came to mean armed ambushes on vehicles they believed were transporting government troops to the north of the country, including passenger buses. The armed activity since has been almost solely limited to stretches of the EN1, EN6 and EN7 highways, and attacks against police outposts, are all in the provinces of Sofala, Tete, Manica, Inhambane, Niassa, Nampula and Zambezia.

Attacks have continued despite – and even in the presence of – military escorts along particularly targeted stretches of the EN1. In a seeming self-fulfilling prophecy, the government has sent reinforcement troops to the north of the country, particularly to Sofala, Manica, Tete and Zambezia. To date, only rural areas and small towns have been affected, with larger urban centres spared Renamo militant activity, but the group has threatened protests in provincial capitals in the coming weeks.

Furthermore, the country’s new president, Filipe Nyusi, has struggled to consolidate his leadership in both the Frelimo and government structures, which has emboldened the opposition. This has also led to general paralysis in government decision-making, something which has generally dismayed foreign investors. It has also exacerbated the problem of assessing whether or not the current brinkmanship ends in a negotiated settlement or so-called “forcible disarmament” of Renamo. Importantly, the factionalism within the ruling party around the best approach to dealing with the Renamo has further complicated the situation.

Whilst the president is an advocate of dialogue, an approach favoured by former President Joachim Chissano, a different faction favours a more heavy handed approach which involves the elimination of Dhlakama, described as the “Angolan approach”, with reference to the killing of Jonas Savimbi in 2002. The third element favours the use of a more forceful approach, even if only to get Dhlakama to the negotiating table. The lack of clear and decisive plans in addressing the situation raises questions around the extent of the president’s political power and his ability to manage the agendas of these competing factions.

From both a military perspective, and in terms of countrywide electoral support, Renamo remains significantly less powerful than the 40-year-incumbent Frelimo movement. So why would the opposition engage in such high-stakes rhetoric and militant action? The answer depends on who you ask and is likely to be a combination of all the relevant responses.

Those sympathetic to Renamo support the group’s grievances that economic development has been centralised in the southern parts of the country, where Frelimo has traditionally enjoyed its support, and that central and northern provinces of the country have been ignored by the Maputo administration. There is some truth to this, but much of the distorted development has come about due to southern Mozambique’s proximity to South Africa and its favour with international investors.

Frelimo supporters would counter that Renamo’s renewed interest in seeking control of the north of the country is a response to recently proven coal and natural gas reserves. With little political control over the allocation of these resources and their payload, Renamo is resorting to familiar insurgency. The group has no doubt been motivated by figures suggesting investment of as much as $30-billion in the region over the next five years.

Meanwhile, neutral sceptics have tended to point to Dhlakama’s politicking as the chief motivator for Renamo’s militarisation. Some analysts would argue that his position of influence within Mozambique is contingent on perpetual low-level conflict, used principally as a bargaining chip for (at times personal) concessions from the government.

Yet direct conciliatory dialogue between Dhlakama and President Nyusi remains elusive. The game of “cat and mouse” between Frelimo and Renamo has gradually increased in intensity over the past year, but has now entered a critical phase.

Despite the steady escalation in armed incidents between rival armed groups, it is unlikely that there will be a return to full-scale conflict of the nature witnessed during the civil war. For one, Renamo lacks the military capacity to challenge Frelimo; although not as small as some analysts suggest, the militant group essentially remains a guerrilla outfit. A further consideration is the war-weariness of the population, with even Renamo voters unlikely to advocate a return to extensive warfare. However, allowing the March deadline to pass without any form of offensive will result in a loss of credibility for Dhlakama and Renamo. By the same token, by doing nothing, the Frelimo government will appear weak and sets a dangerous precedent by Renamo to continue unchecked.        

The current stalemate is now at key juncture and has many wondering whether it’s merely a speed bump or the start of something more sinister. With the economy already under immense pressure, and global sentiment deteriorating, the question around the “end game” needs to be answered sooner rather than later.

While dialogue remains the most likely route for a permanent solution, for the time being, the conflict will simmer at its current level, while certain economic and political concessions are granted to Renamo in central and northern provinces. Ultimately, a high stakes conflict for Mozambique is in no one’s interests.

Ronak CRonak Gopaldas is the Head of Country Risk at Rand Merchant Bank


Nick CNick Piper is a Director at Signal Risk