A landmark peace accord to end decades of conflict in Mozambique is facing setbacks just a month after being signed, as splits form in the rebel-turned-opposition party that reached the deal with the government.
The renewed political uncertainty comes as Mozambique, a southern African country of roughly 30 million people, faces multiplying crises. A suspected Islamist insurgency is destablising the northern region of Cabo Delgado, and some 1.8 million are struggling in the aftermath of cyclones Idai and Kenneth, which made landfall earlier this year.
The self-styled Renamo Military Junta – a faction of the armed opposition movement Renamo – has rejected the new peace deal and threatened to derail presidential and provincial elections scheduled for October unless the governing Frelimo party agrees to renegotiate.
Frelimo party officials are meanwhile accused of torching the property of Renamo members just days after committing to the deal – raising tensions between the bitter rivals who have waged war on and off since the late 1970s.
Rights groups worry the agreement – the third attempt at forging peace in Mozambique – offers impunity to human rights abusers and little for the victims of past crimes, including those allegedly killed and disappeared by government forces during the conflict’s most recent 2013-2016 flare-up.
“This deal does not consider the injustice those communities have suffered,” said Zenaida Machado, a researcher at Human Rights Watch.
After gaining independence from Portugal in 1975, Mozambique collapsed into a 16-year civil war pitting Renamo – an anti-Communist guerrilla force backed by white-ruled Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa – against the Marxist ruling Frelimo party. More than one million people were killed and millions more displaced.
A peace deal in 1992 ushered in two decades of relative calm, but Renamo retained a military wing while Frelimo exercised an almost total grip on political power, winning election after election.
A new round of violence kicked off in 2013, when the marginalised opposition's now-deceased leader, Afonso Dhlakama, returned to his wartime base in the remote Gorongosa mountains of central Mozambique.
A report by Human Rights Watch blamed Renamo fighters for political killings and attacks on public buses and trains, and government troops for enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, and summary killings. Thousands fled their homes to neighbouring Malawi.
Under the latest deal, Renamo has agreed to disarm and reintegrate more than 5,000 fighters in exchange for contesting provincial governorships – which were previously appointed by the Frelimo-controlled central government – in October elections.
Unlike previous peace efforts – rushed through or thrashed out by negotiators in foreign countries – the new deal involved a protracted dialogue between top Frelimo and Renamo officials, according to Alex Vines, head of Chatham House’s Africa programme and the author of a new report on the agreement.
“It was more of an elite-level leadership conversation backed up by very lengthy negotiating,” he said.
Splits and tensions
But the deal is already facing considerable opposition from the Renamo Military Junta, a newly emerged, dissident Renamo faction led by Mariano Nhongo, a veteran guerrilla who once organised security operations for Dhlakama.
Nhongo’s group contests the authority of Renamo’s official leader, Ossufo Momade, who is from northern Mozambique and has been pivoting the party away from its central heartlands since taking over from Dhlakama.
“This pivot… has caused real tensions inside the party which are down regional and ethnic lines,” said Vines.
Though the size of the group remains unclear – as are its demands – analysts following the peace process say it could pose a significant threat to the agreement, with Nhongo’s men refusing to lay down their weapons, and threatening to assassinate Momade and kill anyone calling for elections.
“We know they are armed, in the bush, and don't want to be demobilised,” said Sergio Gomes, a Mozambican researcher at Saint Andrews University in Scotland.
Whether Momade sticks to the deal will depend on how Renamo performs in October’s elections, with the group hoping to win governorships in a number of provinces. If it fails and deems the electoral process unfair – as is common in Mozambique – many worry the agreement could collapse.
“Since 1994 Renamo has never recognised the fairness and justice of any elections,” said Gomes. “I don't know if this will change in October.”
Allegations of voter registration fraud have already begun, with high numbers of people registered in some government strongholds, while Renamo’s spokesperson has complained of local party members being attacked or prevented from carrying out “political activities” by Frelimo officials.
A proposal to demobilise more than 5,000 Renamo combatants in time for the October polls may also prove challenging, with only a handful of fighters laying down their weapons so far.
Despite previous demobilisation efforts, Renamo has always maintained an armed base and a weapons stockpile for when it runs out of political options. Its aging combatants have been joined in recent years by fresher-faced recruits.
“Without the military [wing], Renamo has no political power to force the government into anything,” said Gomes. “That's my concern about the success of this agreement: Renamo will not disarm because it is a militarised political party.”
Before the deal was signed, Mozambique’s parliament approved a new amnesty law exempting government and opposition forces from prosecution for crimes committed in the latest bout of violence.
The law is one in a long line of amnesty packages that Machado of Human Rights Watch said has helped create “a climate of fear and impunity” in Mozambique that is undermining prospects for peace.
The rights watchdog has called for a national database of missing people to be established for those arrested, killed, or forcibly disappeared in past conflicts.
“You cannot move on from a situation where your relatives left home one day and did not return,” said Machado. “These people deserve to know where there relatives are.”
For now it is hoped that reconciliation between Renamo and Frelimo will let Mozambique’s government – which, according to Vines, “is not good at [multi-tasking]” – deal will other pressing concerns, from the aftermath of cyclones Idai and Kenneth to the worsening insurgency in Cabo Delgado.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their livelihoods,” said Ursula Mueller, the UN’s deputy humanitarian chief in June.
Five people – four of them fishermen returning home from work – were reportedly beheaded by the insurgents in Cabo Delgado last week, the latest in a string of macabre attacks that have displaced thousands of people and complicated cyclone relief efforts in the north.
Though some suspect Islamist militants are behind the violence, no one has claimed the attacks, leaving Mozambique analysts and locals puzzled.
“Whereas the root causes… to the conflict between Renamo and Frelimo are understandable, you can't say that about the north,” said Vines.
(TOP PHOTO: A wall plastered with Mozambican presidential election campaign posters at the Xipamanine market in Maputo, Mozambique, on 3 September 2019.)