The Stalemate: Precarious Peace in Mozambique

Why one of the 50 most peaceful countries in 2012 is on the brink of civil war
People gather on June 16, 2015 to watch actors re-enacting the 1960 Mueda massacre during a commemoration marking the 55th anniversary of the event, during which Portuguese colonial forces opened fire on unarmed Mozambican farmers who were peacefully protesting the arrest of independentists, in Mueda. AFP PHOTO / ADRIEN BARBIER

Mozambique is back in the news, and has been for the last couple of months, but unfortunately not in the most positive way.

Recently, the news coming out of Mozambique has been rather concerning and hints at an intensification of the simmering conflict between the government and the opposition. Not long ago, the UN’s refugee agency released an update on the situation just across the border in Malawi. Thousands of Mozambicans have sought refuge there in order to escape ransacking government forces looking for opposition fighters – there are around 11,500 registered Mozambican asylum seekers so far. The refugees tell stories of houses being burnt down and abandoned, villagers tortured for information they did not have and general fear of escalating violence. Malawi has welcomed the Mozambicans, but the local communities are struggling to keep up with the growing numbers and have had to open new camps for them.

So why is this happening to the country that in 2012 appeared on a list of the 50 most peaceful countries in the world according to the Global Peace Index? And why now?

To understand the current unrest one has to know the county’s recent history, namely what happened after the country became independent from Portugal in 1975. The governing party is the ‘Front for the Liberation of Mozambique’ (Frelimo), which formed during the struggle for independence in the early 1960s to early 1970s. After independence was gained in 1975, it ruled under a single-party system until the constitution was amended in 1990 to allow multiple parties to be established (with the first multi-party elections in 1994). This post-independence transition was not smooth, however, as Mozambique was wracked by a civil war between above-mentioned government party Frelimo and the now opposition party Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo, initially formed and led by rebels) for 16 long years. The conflict left at least one million dead and prevented the country from developing and progressing as was expected after the liberation struggle. Finally, in 1992, fighting ended after a UN-brokered peace deal was agreed to by both sides.

This new peace prevailed for slightly more than two decades, a great success, until armed conflict erupted yet again between Renamo’s former fighters (the party denied any responsibility) and government troops in 2013. Dozens were killed and it caused many civilians to flee their homes – it seemed like the precious ceasefire and harmony was on the brink of collapse. Various rounds of negotiations between the two opposing factions failed many times until a peace deal was finally signed, however, the municipal elections in November of that year were boycotted by Renamo. The results of the general elections that were held a year later in 2014 were similarly contested by the main opposition party because Frelimo candidate Filipe Nyusi emerged as the winner, even in provinces most supported by Renamo backers. Consequently, the party continued its grip on power, and has been leading the country for more than 40 years.

Conflict between the two main parties, Frelimo and Renamo, thus goes back a long time and it resurfacing does not come as a complete surprise. It is not completely sure, though, what the government’s reasoning behind the described attacks is, although it most likely relates to the continuous, intermittent incidents caused by Renamo individuals such as road blocks and other armed activity. The government responded, and in late March the BBC reported that police had raided and seized “47 weapons from the headquarters of the main opposition party, and the home of its leader, Afonso Dhlakama”. They claim that the weapons were used to commit violent crimes in Maputo, the country’s capital. Afonso Dhlakama, unsurprisingly, countered that the raids were an invasion and accused the police of stealing money during the search.

The raids happened in the same month that Dhlakama announced that “troops loyal to his Renamo opposition grouping will attempt to take over the administration of six provinces in the country come 1 April 2016”. This statement again goes back to the general elections and Renamo’s claim that it is entitled to govern six of the ten provinces in Mozambique (Manica, Sofala, Tete, Zambezia, Nampula and Niassa). If this was to take place, it would mean using force and overthrowing each of the provinces’ governments, which is hugely concerning and would seriously threaten the fragile peace deal that has been more or less observed in the last years.

Things were looking up at the beginning of the new century: after a massive amount of natural gas was found in Mozambique in 2011, the country was expected to grow and take advantage of these resources, with both international donors and investors being hopeful about its future. Another success was celebrated in September 2015 when the government officially announced the great news that it was finally mine-free. This was fantastic news for Mozambique, which was “once one of the most heavily mined countries in the world”.

The recent upsurge in violence and the prevalence of threatening statements is a step backwards for Mozambique, and it can only be hoped that this stand-off between Frelimo and Renamo will not escalate and be resolved soon through dialogue and cooperation. The other two possible options cited in a recent article on this topic are much less peaceful: eliminating Dhlakama (the “Angolan approach”) and using a more forceful approach towards the leader of Renamo.

Again, this stalemate is a lose-lose situation and needs to be settled for good sooner rather than later in order to avoid further escalation of conflict.

Sarah Bialek

Sarah graduated from Maastricht University’s Graduate School of Governance/UNU Merit with a M.Sc. in Public Policy and Human Development, specialising in Trade and Development Law. After working at the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) External Relations department in Geneva she now lives in London and works in the Higher Education sector. She is passionate about International Relations and Development, as well as Trade Law and (forced) Migration.
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