Renamo leader's death a 'game changer' for Mozambique peace process

Beira (Mozambique) (AFP) –


The death of Mozambique's former rebel supremo turned opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama has piled pressure on his Renamo party ahead of local elections and ongoing peace talks with an increasingly authoritarian government.

Dhlakama died last week in his hideout in the Gorongosa mountains aged 65 without nominating a successor.

Two days after his death, the party picked Ossufo Momade, a Renamo general as its interim leader until the next party congress whose date has not yet been fixed.

"It's a provisional leader to close the ranks until the congress," said researcher Michel Cahen. "This choice clearly shows that the generals are the guardians of power".

Dhlakama for 39 years kept a tight grip on Renamo, which waged a 16-year civil war against the formerly Marxist and Soviet-backed Frelimo rebel group. Frelimo took power when Mozambique gained independence from Portugal in 1975.

The conflict ended in 1992 after killing an estimated one million people.

The problem for Renamo is that "no potential successor has Dhlakama's stature," said Ed Hobey Hamsher, an analyst with Maplecroft.

Whoever succeeds him "will struggle to unify Renamo's factions," Hamsher said.

- 'Game changer' -

With local elections due in five months and a general election scheduled next year, Renamo is racing against time.

"His party is significantly weakened by his death and unlikely able to fully recover but needs to try and reach consensus quickly on a successor, as it will also compete in municipal elections in October and was expecting significant gains," said Chatham House's analyst Alex Vines.

"The unexpected death... is a game changer for Mozambique?s politics and an almost-completed peace process," Vines said.

"The local elections will be the real testing point for ...(Renamo) to what kind of support they have without him," said Johanna Nilsson, another expert on Renamo.

The choice of a new leader will also weigh on the future of the peace talks that had been taking place between Dhlakama and President Filipe Nyusi.

After a 20-year hiatus and following a slew of election defeats, Renamo supporters took up arms again and began a low-level insurgency in late 2013, attacking buses and cars on the main north-south highway after government forces raided Dhlakama's bush hide out.

Dhlakama declared a truce in 2016 and opened talks with President Nyusi that appeared close to a successful conclusion.

An agreement was announced in February to amend the constitution for reforms that will allow voters to directly elect the 10 provincial governors who at present are appointed by the president, a move that Renamo had repeatedly lobbied for over a number of years.

The last outstanding point in the peace talks before Dhlakama died concerned the thorny reintegration of Renamo fighters into the state security forces.

But many said internal succession debates would not necessarily torpedo the peace talks.

- Uncertain future -

"I know the people in Renamo, they will first seek to respect the wishes of and honour president Dhlakama - and that means respecting the ceasefire," said Daviz Simango, the mayor of Beira, the capital of Dhlakama's home province.

But some experts said it could be the government which will withdraw from negotiations.

"Renamo's weaknesses can also embolden Frelimo hardliners to seek a return to the unilateral domination of Mozambique's political landscape and to undermine the peace process," said Vines from Chatham House.

"The ball is in the government's court," said Beira mayor Simango, warning that "the ruling party must not take advantage of the circumstances to fulfil its whims."

In recent years, the government has often appeared to prefer aggressive tactics to arm-twist its opponent.

Weakened by the country's economic woes and the so-called "hidden debt" scandal, the government could be tempted to crush Renamo, 18 months ahead of the next presidential and legislative elections.

"For Frelimo, it is inconceivable to lose power. They consider the country as theirs," said Cahen.