Why Renamo leader’s death could have a major impact on Mozambique

The funeral of Renamo leader, Afonso Dhlakama. EPA-EFE/Ricardo Franco

The unexpected death of Afonso Dhlakama, the former guerrilla leader and president of Renamo, the main opposition party in Mozambique, might lead to the political cards in Mozambique being reshuffled significantly.

The Renamo leader’s death could affect the progress that’s been made in negotiations to end hostilities between Renamo and the Frelimo government. It could also affect the outcome of municipal elections due to be held in October and national elections in 2019.

A great deal will depend on who succeeds Dhlakama. There is no clear successor as he centralised power and went to great lengths to prevent the emergence of one. Some analysts have argued that this would pose a problem for transition in the party. But the smooth and frictionless nomination of Ossufo Momade as transitional leader four days after Dhlakama’s death, suggests that the final succession might be smooth.

The peace negotiations to end the simmering war between Renamo and the Frelimo government were still ongoing when Dhlakama died. They had become very personalised, with Dhlakama and Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi mostly talking on the phone.

Dhlakama’s death should not put an end to negotiations, but it might delay them and lead to changes to the form they’ve taken. The secret one-on-one negotiations have been criticised. And since his death there have been calls for the negotiations to be re-institutionalised and opened up to civil society to enable a broad based sustainable peace agreement to be reached.

Renamo succession

Momade’s appointment as interim head of Renamo is only temporary and two groups will be competing for the top job – the civilian and the military. The civil branch of Renamo is dominated by its parliamentarians, with Ivonne Soares, Dhlamaka’s niece, at the helm. She is the head of the party in parliament. Should this group win the upper hand it might strengthen the civilian structure of Renamo and possibly help its electoral chances.

The military branch comprises of soldiers and generals from the time of the civil war (1976-1992). It also includes former combatants who resumed fighting in what’s become known as the small war – or “proto-war” – of 2013-16.

There are risks either way. There is concern that a civilian might not be able to control the military wing of the organisation. But a military leader as president of Renamo risks keeping it weak as an electoral machine, with consequences for peaceful electoral politics.

As a general cum parliamentarian cum negotiator Renamo’s interim president, Momadecould be an ideal compromise. One could also imagine a double ticket with a military as president and a civilian, such as Ivone Soares or Manuel Bissopo, the acting secretary-general, as number two.
Alternatively, some have advanced that Renamo dissidents such as Raul Domingos and Daviz Simango could have a chance as outsiders. Domingos, at one point seen as Dhlakama’s successor, was expelled from the party in 2000 in the middle of difficult negotiations with the government. Simango was elected for Renamo as mayor of Beira in 2003, but not put forward for reelection in 2008 as he was becoming too independent and influential. He seceded and created his own party, the Democratic Movement of Mozambique, which now controls several important cities.

More realistically, Renamo might reintegrate these dissidents and their party, or at least align with them, making Renamo a broader church. This could help the party get the electoral victory it has been seeking since 1994. Renamo has come second in all elections since the end of the war in 1992. It almost won in the 1999 elections, possibly only losing then because of fraud.

What next for peace negotiations

Dhlakama’s death could tempt both sides to change or withdraw from the negotiations. On May 5, two days after he died, Frelimo’s all powerful political commission, the party’s supreme organ, issued a statement saying that all that remained to be done now was “the disarmament and demilitarisation” of Renamo. It failed to mention the decentralisation agreement which would introduce a system of elections for provincial governors and create district assemblies. The agreement is facing difficulties in parliament where Frelimo is arguing that it needs to be amended and put to a national referendum.

Responding in kind, Momade declared that his party would be doing nothing else than finalising the agreement on decentralisation, as if the reintegration of Renamo soldiers into the Mozambican military was not an issue anymore.

A crowd displays the portrait of Afonso Dhlakama at his funeral service. EPA-EFE/Ricardo Franco

If not kept in check these kinds of dynamics could undermine, and even lead to the collapse, of the negotiations.

Political analyst Alex Vines has argued that Dhlakama’s death could, however, also be an opportunity for peace, recalling that the two sides were close to an agreement before he passed away. He has appealed to the goodwill of Renamo and Frelimo and called for greater engagement from the international community and investors.

Implications for Frelimo

Dhlakama’s departure could potentially weaken Nyusi, and as a result cause problems for Frelimo. The party fractured under Nyusi’s predecessor President Armando Guebuza. And Nyusi took over at a time of both economic and political crises in the country.

The country’s economic crisis is related to massive secret debts supposedly contracted to fight Renamo. The IMF and the Western international community have suspended cooperation and some investors have withdrawn.

On the political front, Nyusi staked his presidency on the resolution of the conflict with Renamo. At the time this was much against the will of his own party. Negotiations are therefore very important to him.

In a strong presidential system, a weakening of the president could lead to more internal divisions. In turn this would weaken him, the party and the government’s hand in negotiations with the IMF, the international community and Renamo.

The elections in October 2018 and in 2019 are looming large in people’s minds. Nobody is sure how they will play out. Renamo might align with other opposition parties while Frelimo might try to use the Renamo leadership transition to undermine its rival, with unknown consequences. There are also fears Frelimo might resort to harsh tactics to win and remain in power.

On the other hand, Dhlakama’s successor could ally more strongly with Nyusi and help him assert his peace agenda. They could work together to ensure a peaceful and constructive environment for the elections as well as widen the negotiations to reach a wide based agreement for a sustainable peace.