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Analysts See Little Threat of New Civil War in Mozambique

  • Anita Powell

Fighters of the former Mozambican rebel movement Renamo receiving military training in the Gorongosa's mountains, Nov. 8, 2012.

Fighters of the former Mozambican rebel movement Renamo receiving military training in the Gorongosa's mountains, Nov. 8, 2012.

Mozambique is on edge again about a possible return to civil war after 21 years of peace. The former rebel group Renamo says it will no longer honor a 1992 peace deal following small skirmishes between its fighters and government forces. Renamo has long complained that the civil war's victors - the ruling Frelimo party - have rigged elections to hold onto power.

The Mozambican former rebel group Renamo said this week it was pulling out of a 1992 peace deal. The deal ended a 15-year civil war that battered the southern African nation and killed an estimated 1 million people.

On Tuesday, gunmen thought to be with Renamo attacked a police station in central Mozambique, just a day after the group’s leader declared the end of the cease-fire.

Renamo has long expressed frustration at being an opposition party. The former anti-communist rebel group has claimed that the ruling party, Frelimo, has rigged elections and has marginalized the opposition.

Britain-based academic Joseph Hanlon has been writing about Mozambique and Southern Africa for three decades. Hanlon saud he’s not too concerned about a return to war, primarily because so many things have changed in 21 years.

“It’s not a return to war because neither side could wage a war. If you go back to the 1990s, Renamo was supported extensively by apartheid South Africa and informally by the United States; they had substantial military capacity. ... Now, Renamo is composed of aging guerrillas who are now in their 50s and 60s and Mozambique opted after the civil war to have a very small military, so it does not have strong military capacity either. So neither side can go back to war," he said.

Researcher Elisabete Azevedo-Harman, from the London-based policy institute Chatham House, said the roots of this latest conflict went back decades and involved the usual suspects: money and power.

Renamo, she said, has been sidelined in politics, partially because of the way the political system was set up. But, she said, the group also never successfully transitioned from guerrilla fighters to political operators, and have lost popular support because of it.

Mozambique's increasing wealth from natural gas, she said, has also been a sore point.

“And Renamo feels excluded not just from the political power but also the economic power. And they’ve been accusing some ruling party members [of having] political control, but also economic control. And of course if the country’s now rich, they feel they’ve been excluded also from this access to the resources of the country,” said Azevedo-Herman.

Hanlon said he expected leaders to look to the past to settle today’s problem. Maybe, he said, the ruling party should throw money at the problem literally.

“A face-saving buyoff is the way out of it. It will happen, but not in the immediate future. … It would be sinecures on government boards, but it would also be cash in suitcases. That’s how the war was settled 21 years ago. It was cash in suitcases,” said Hanlon.

Azevedo-Harman proposed a different solution. She said that community leaders and religious leaders should try to hammer out an agreement. After that, she said, they needed to take a hard look at the constitution.

“The two main political parties, they should involve these people and engage these people for an immediate dialogue and debate now. But giving them a voice and actually also capacity of deciding, not just the two main parties. Long term, the country needs to be rethinking the constitutional design that they have, the presidential system that doesn’t have checks and balances,” said Azevedo-Harman.

Both analysts predicted that the current skirmishes may continue, which could have worrying long-term effects. But war, they said, may not yet be on the horizon.

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