Last month, Mozambique and the international community celebrated an important achievement: The southern African nation was declared landmine-free. This took more than 20 years after the end of a civil war that ravaged the country between 1976-1992. And that conflict had followed an armed independence struggle against Portugal that lasted more than 10 years.
The clearing of the mines was the culmination of a post-war success story. Mozambique has held five peaceful national multiparty elections, most recently in 2014; there have been two changes in leadership, in 2005 and 2015; and expectations are high for significant foreign direct investment to extract and process gas off Mozambique’s northern shore.
However, recent events show that peace is precarious in Mozambique. Afonso Dhlakama, the president of the rebel-group-turned-opposition-party Renamo, has vowed to seize control of six northern provinces. Dhlakama’s success in winning the majority of votes in five of these provinces and documented irregularities in the 2014 presidential elections have encouraged the Renamo leader to take what he thinks is his. He pledges to control these provinces by March through peaceful means, unless he meets resistance.
The situation is unsettled elsewhere in the country, too. In January, Renamo’s secretary general was shot and his bodyguard killed in Mozambique’s second largest city, Beira. Recent clashes between the Frelimo government and Renamo in the central region have caused several thousand people to flee to neighboring Malawi. The new refugees accuse government forces of burning down their houses in searches for Renamo fighters.
This low-level armed conflict between Renamo and the Frelimo-led government began in early 2013, but has its roots in the civil war. Renamo, supported by Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) and South Africa, fought against the socialist Frelimo government until they signed a peace agreement in 1992. Frelimo won the first democratic elections in 1994 and has ruled since—although Renamo came close to winning in 1999 and has repeatedly accused Frelimo of electoral fraud (most recently in 2014).
The political violence in the past few years points to shortcomings of the peace process, which, mixed with new problems Mozambique is facing, challenge the success-story narrative.
1. Polarization has persisted.
Informal amnesties, traditional reintegration processes, and Mozambicans’ desire to return to peace have contributed to largely peaceful relations over the last two decades. My research shows that paramilitary groups, for example, quickly disbanded. In my conversations with residents in Renamo strongholds in 2011-2012, I learned that people saw themselves as victims of a war that they had not wanted. No one wanted a return to civil war.
Still, the war has left society extremely polarized. During Frelimo’s rule, the party has catered to its own supporters. Former Renamo combatants frequently complain about the lack of access to jobs, which has made them hope for support from the Renamo leadership.
Polarization is not just according to party but also region. In his political rhetoric, Dhlakama exploits the north-south divide for separatist ambitions. Although the new president, Filipe Nyusi, is from northern Mozambique, Frelimo’s elite is traditionally from the south and Renamo’s strongholds have been in the northern provinces.
2. Renamo has kept an armed force throughout the years, and its leader is frustrated.
Renamo successfully transformed from a rebel group into a political party after the civil war, but Dhlakama’s mentality has not shifted. He went to his rural wartime camp in central Mozambique in late 2012 and, after returning for a new cease-fire agreement and the 2014 elections, is back in his hideout. He has kept an armed group of roughly 150 men and a 10-man “presidential guard,” which he has repeatedly refused to disarm.
Dhlakama has never completely integrated himself into the political process, and Renamo leaders who sought integration were sidelined and ended up leaving the party. Many of them formed a third political party, the Democratic Movement of Mozambique (known popularly by its Portuguese abbreviation, MDM).
These departures have left Renamo weak in political terms, and Dhlakama’s small force is also weak when compared to the country’s military. Dhlakama’s claims to take over the northern provinces thus represent threats made out of frustration.
3. The country’s riches are up for grabs, while inequality is rising.
One reason why tensions have increased is Mozambique’s recently discovered natural resource wealth that has not been equally distributed. Dhlakama has accused Frelimo elites of not sharing the returns from natural resource extraction.
Supporting Dhlakama’s claims is a recent IMF report that shows income inequality has increased in Mozambique despite high rates of economic growth. Furthermore, income inequality is geographically concentrated in the central and northern parts of Mozambique, where peace is particularly tenuous. Riots in 1995, 2008, 2010, and 2012 related to increased food and transport prices show the youth’s frustration over access to resources and political power.
The youth participating in these riots did not experience the suffering of the civil war — a reason why older Mozambicans expressed concern in conversations with me that war may return. Recent reports of young armed men at Renamo rallies have contributed to the fear that Renamo may be able to recruit the young and discontented.
4. Repression is increasing.
Frelimo has not handled the simmering conflicts well. During and after the civil war, the government has been primarily occupied with promoting a notion of “national unity” — to the point of silencing opposition. A prominent example is the 2015 murder of the constitutional law professor Gilles Cistac. He had defended the constitutional viability of Renamo’s proposition of autonomous provinces — a serious challenge to Frelimo’s national unity refrain. (There is no evidence Cistac was killed by Frelimo sympathizers, but analysts have cited his opinions on provincial autonomy as the likely cause of his murder.)
Another recent example of the Mozambican government silencing its critics is the libel case against the prominent economist Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco and the journalist and editor Fernando Mbanze. Castel-Branco published an open letter on his Facebook page that started with “Mr. President, you’re out of control.” He accused then-president Armando Guebuza of suppressing all forms of opposition and criticized him for his involvement in the extractive industry. Both of these examples point to severe limits on freedom of speech in Mozambique.
While a return to civil war is unlikely, peace remains fragile. Recent violence is a symptom that the peace process that began with the signing of the peace agreement in 1992 is still the “subject and object of struggle”.
Corinna Jentzsch is an assistant professor of political science at Leiden University. Her research on Mozambique has been funded by the National Science Foundation. You can follow her on Twitter at @coboje.