Dhlakama: Mozambique rebel leader turned politician

Beira (Mozambique) (AFP) –


Afonso Dhlakama lived in a secret location and led armed fighters against the Mozambique government -- but on Wednesday he was given an official memorial service and praised by the president.

He died of a suspected heart attack last week among his Renamo troops in his Gorongosa bush hideout, marking the end of his decades of opposition to the Frelimo-led government.

Having transformed himself from a guerrilla fighter into an opposition politician, he had been pursuing peace talks with President Filipe Nyusi.

But he always kept his rebel forces on hand and retained his warrior image.

"Believe me... I am not going to die from Frelimo bullets, they will never kill me. I will die of malaria or illness, on a day that God will choose," Dhlakama once told a reporter.

His group -- Renamo -- evolved alongside him from militant rebels fighting in a bloody civil war to an opposition party with lawmakers in parliament while also maintaining guerillas.

"He has been the identity for Renamo for almost 40 years. Dhlakama is Renamo and Renamo is Dhlakama," Johanna Nilsson, a Swedish academic specialising in Renamo, told AFP.

"Renamo has lost a figure who had the ability to rally the votes. It will put a lot of pressure on Renamo to now try to convince people from a political point of view rather than a personal point of view.

"His death is iconic in itself. I think that regardless if you are Frelimo or Renamo, he had that kind of status."

- Notorious war atrocities -

The son of a traditional chief, Dhlakama was born on New Year's Day 1953 in the small Magunde village of the central province of Sofala.

He served in the Portuguese colonial army from 1971 to 1973 before joining Frelimo in 1974 to fight Portuguese rule that ended the following year.

After rising through the ranks, in 1977 he abandoned Frelimo and joined, along with other rebels, a rival outfit called Renamo (Mozambican National Resistance).

Renamo, backed by apartheid South Africa, launched a bitter war against Frelimo and its Marxist-Leninist ideals and fought for control of its strongholds in the north and centre of the country.

He took over Renamo aged 26 in 1979 following the death of the movement's leader Andre Matsangaissa, who was killed in battle.

Dhlakama led the guerrilla movement until the signing of a peace agreement in Rome in 1992 ended a 16-year war that devastated the economy and left one million dead.

During the conflict, he gained notoriety over atrocities committed by his troops and his use of child soldiers.

Dhlakama then transformed Renamo into a political party and it took part in Mozambique's first multi-party democratic elections in October 1994.

He later retreated to his wartime bush camp in central Mozambique's Gorongosa mountains, claiming the government had reneged on the 1992 peace agreement.

After waging a low-level insurgency between 2013 and 2016, he recently opened peace talks with the government.

He leaves a disoriented party and deep uncertainty about the future of the peace process.

President Nyusi hailed him on Wednesday as a man who was working "in search of lasting peace."

Dhlakama will be buried on Thursday in his home village.