The Endless Fantasy of American Power
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On August 6, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi and Ossufo Momade, leader of the rebel group turned opposition party Renamo, signed a peace deal that ended the most recent flare-up in an intermittent civil conflict dating back four decades. Signed in the presence of foreign dignitaries in the capital’s Peace Square, the accord buttressed recent efforts by the ruling Frelimo party to decentralize power and established a process through which Renamo rebels can hand in their weapons and join more inclusive national military and police forces.
The deal was an important step in the southern African country’s halting march toward peace, but it was far from a guarantee of stability. By enabling general elections to go ahead as planned on October 15—but without ensuring they will be free and fair—the accord could end up triggering yet another round of conflict. If Renamo emerges from the election feeling thwarted by the political process, the party will likely revert to the one strategy that has worked for it time and again: violence.
The August peace deal is the country’s third since 1976, when civil war broke out between Frelimo, which came to power after leading the independence struggle against Portugal, and Renamo, whose support base consisted of traditional authorities and farmers who opposed Frelimo’s efforts to create a socialist, one-party state. Driven by local grievances as well as Cold War meddling—the Soviet Union backed Frelimo while Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa backed Renamo—the war claimed more than a million lives and destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure. The first peace accord, signed in 1992, laid out the terms for postconflict politics in Mozambique: equal participation by Renamo and Frelimo in a multiparty, representative democracy.
But that formula never held. Frelimo, which had dominated the state since independence, never loosened its chokehold on power. It consistently engaged in ballot stuffing, improper nullification of opposition ballots, and opaque vote tabulations to maintain its electoral advantage. Renamo responded with protests, election boycotts, and eventually, political violence.
For decades, Renamo has decried the lack of inclusivity in the political process and the unequal distribution of resource wealth—in particular, from the vast oil and gas reserves in the country’s north—claiming that it has no choice but to take up the gun. The party has lost every general election since 1994, though it almost won the presidency in 1999. And while Renamo, along with a breakaway opposition party, has won mayoral positions in some important cities, Frelimo has managed to curtail the power of these officials by imposing parallel municipal state representatives to mimic their responsibilities.
Renamo boycotted municipal elections in 1998 and accused the Frelimo-led government of fraud in the 1999, 2004, and 2009 general elections. Tensions escalated in late 2011, when Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama threatened to remobilize ex-combatants and stage large-scale demonstrations to “peacefully” overthrow the government. Frelimo’s special security forces responded by storming the Renamo party headquarters, where about 300 Renamo supporters had camped for weeks. Dhlakama and his men retreated to one of Renamo’s erstwhile military bases in the country’s heavily forested central region.
Violence erupted six months later. In April 2013, Dhlakama renounced the 1992 peace accord, and Renamo clashed with government forces in the central province of Sofala, setting off more than a year of fighting in which over 60 people were killed and several hundred injured. National and international mediators eventually brokered an agreement to end hostilities in 2014, paving the way for Renamo’s participation in that year’s general election.
Renamo won 89 out of 250 seats in parliament, its strongest showing since 2004, but it lost the presidency and once again alleged electoral fraud. The party demanded to be given autonomy over six of the country’s 11 provinces, in recognition of the majorities it had won in five of them. When talks with the government made little headway, Renamo threatened to take the six provinces by force. New clashes followed between May 2015 and December 2016, when mediators convinced Dhlakama to declare a ceasefire. This second bout of fighting was more intense than the first, resulting in about 100 deaths and the flight of over 10,000 Mozambicans to neighboring Malawi.
When Renamo realized it couldn’t get what it wanted through politics, it had its old battlefield strategy to fall back on.
Renamo’s perpetual exclusion from power and patronage supplied the motivation to return to violence. But ironically, it was the 1992 peace accord that supplied the means. Under the terms of that accord, Renamo was allowed to keep a transitional armed force to protect its leader. In addition, the United Nations–administered disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration process, which was intended to facilitate rebels’ return to civilian life, gave little attention to disarmament, allowing Renamo to keep arms caches throughout the country. When the group realized it couldn’t get what it wanted through politics, it had its old battlefield strategy to fall back on.
And that strategy has clearly worked. Each round of clashes has been followed by incremental but meaningful reforms that benefited Renamo. In the wake of the 2013 violence, Frelimo granted political parties more control over electoral bodies, increasing the transparency and credibility of the electoral process. These changes translated into electoral gains in 2014, when the party gained 38 parliamentary seats and Dhlakama won roughly a million more votes than he had in 2009. Likewise, the most recent round of negotiations led to greater decentralization of political power, including through direct election of provincial governors, and saw senior Renamo officials appointed to high-level posts in the military.
If Renamo doesn’t get what it wants in terms of increased political influence and patronage after the October 15 election, peace may again be in jeopardy. A key point of tension will be the provincial governorships, several of which Renamo now fully expects to win. Frelimo won’t give up power easily, though, and already there are signs, including irregularities in voter registration, that the ruling party will manipulate the ballot. For example, in Gaza Province, a traditional Frelimo stronghold, 300,000 more people registered to vote than were estimated by the 2017 census. When the head of the National Statistics Institute was pressured by Nyusi to admit a mistake in the census, he refused and resigned, leaving little doubt that the discrepancy was a result of electoral tampering.
Another threat to stability is growing fractiousness within both parties. Renamo is less cohesive now than it was under the leadership of Dhlakama, who died in 2018. The new Renamo leader, Momade, does not seem to control the party as well as his predecessor. One faction of the party, which calls itself the “Military Junta of Renamo,” elected its own leader in August, and threatened to disrupt the elections and boycott the planned demobilization of more than 5,200 Renamo fighters. The faction asserts that Renamo’s military wing was sidelined during the peace negotiations and accuses Momade of betraying Dhlakama’s legacy. This radical flank of Renamo could demand more political concessions and trigger a violent response from the government, re-escalating the conflict. To appease disgruntled fighters, the European Union has pledged 60 million euros toward the demobilization and reintegration process. While this assistance could ensure alternative livelihoods for former combatants, it will not solve the internal conflict within Renamo.
A strong election result for Renamo could strengthen the radicals within Frelimo and the bureaucracy.
Frelimo also seems fragmented and may well escalate a confrontation with Renamo when de-escalation is needed. Frelimo wants the peace deal to ensure economic progress, but it doesn’t want to lose power or be accountable to a powerful opposition. While Nyusi initially took a conciliatory stance, not all within his party agreed with that approach. A hard-line faction within Frelimo that is loyal to former President Armando Guebuza tried to eliminate the Renamo challengers instead of negotiating with them, attempting to assassinate Dhlakama in 2015 and Renamo’s secretary-general in 2016. A strong election result for Renamo could strengthen the radicals within Frelimo and the bureaucracy.
Regardless of the electoral outcome, tensions could end up building again. Even if Renamo makes big electoral gains, Frelimo can always use its favored tactic for diluting democracy: parallel institutions that negate the power of elected officials. Such a scenario would likely invite renewed conflict. As Renamo’s second-in-command, Raul Domingos, put it in a recent interview, “As long as Frelimo claims to be the sole legitimate representative of the Mozambican people, the risk that [peace] fails is high.”