Africa Watch

Who is destabilising Mozambique?

President Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique
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A new approach in Mozambique might be needed to protect the delicate political truce in that country after recent shooting incidents.

Two such incidents in quick succession, one involving the convoy of Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama, require strong leadership and perhaps a new approach by President Filipe Nyusi to prevent an escalation into armed conflict.

At first glance it might have gone unnoticed or at most only received a passing comment, particularly from those not directly affected by the incident. However, the long-term repercussions, if left unattended, could be negative, also for the neighbours and particularly for South Africa.

On 12 September 2015 a convoy transporting Dhlakama, leader of the official opposition, was shot at. In the skirmish that followed, the second of its kind in recent weeks, 13 people, mostly from Dhlakama’s entourage, lost their lives.

Almost instantaneously, tension increased noticeably in the country still under strain after almost two years of low-level conflict and with Dhlakama again refusing to recognise the results of the 2014 elections and threatening to seize power by force in the northern half of the country.

As if on cue, an intense war of words with accusations and counter-accusations erupted between Renamo and the government.

Background

The true facts of the incident are shrouded in mystery and will most likely remain so.

As is the norm in such cases, unsubstantiated and wild rumours started circulating almost immediately. Contradictory and accusatory explanations levelled in the media encouraged more speculation and suspicion.

Dhlakama’s convoy came under fire near Chimoio, the capital of the Manica province in central Mozambique. What followed, is unclear and open to different explanations and interpretations.

The Mozambican police claimed the bullets fired were not aimed at the Dhlakama convoy, but at a motorist who had refused to stop at a police road block just as the convoy drove past. Some of the Renamo members, presumably armed bodyguards, fired back and a gun battle ensued.

Another police account claimed a gunfight erupted after members in the Dhlakama convoy opened fire on a minibus carrying civilians, killing the driver and injuring three passengers.

According to the official police report, “It seems the minibus came too close to Renamo’s convoy, who thought it was attacking, so they (Renamo) opened fire. When police arrived on the scene a gunfight erupted and nine deaths were reported among Renamo’s ranks.”

The police report also stated: “It’s been a big effort to contain the population. They were furious at Renamo and set fire to their cars which the gunmen had abandoned before fleeing into the bush.”

Challenging police reports, a journalist from the Portuguese news agency Lusa, travelling with the Dhlakama convoy, claimed it was a premeditated and planned operation by members of the Mozambican riot police’s Rapid Intervention Unit (UIR).

This claim was denied by the Manica provincial police command and by the general command of the Mozambican police in Maputo.

Obviously, in an attempt to score political points, the ruling Frelimo Party declared that it believed the incident was a “simulation”, organised by Renamo itself.

Reconciliation remains elusive

Frelimo’s response is another illustration of what is wrong and lies at the root of why reconciliation in Mozambique remains elusive.

Frelimo and Renamo, the two main antagonists, are primed to score political points at every opportunity and do not shy away from altering facts and bending the truth the truth.

The opportunistic Dhlakama is also a past master in distorting facts and it was inevitable that he would seize the incident to vindicate his often irrational and confrontational actions over many years.

Unsurprisingly, he was quick to retaliate, claiming in a press interview it was a deliberate “attack” and that “the communists of Frelimo” had always attempted “to eliminate me physically” in order “to destroy democracy”.

He warned that, if they were to succeed, somebody “much worse” would take over Renamo.

Contradicting himself, Dhlakama then threatened with retaliation after he had earlier pledged that there would be none.

It must be said that most Renamo threats ring hollow as Dhlakama never followed through on numerous promises of retaliation in the past, lacking the means and knowing that any action that would really pose a threat to the Frelimo government or destabilise the country would result in a response that could even include foreign intervention.

Such an occurrence would have only one outcome - the end of Renamo as a political and military force.   

Renamo was, however, exploiting the situation. At a press conference in Maputo, Renamo general secretary Manuel Bissopo threatened that Renamo “will react, because this kind of state terrorism cannot be tolerated.

“Renamo will use everything within its reach to take revenge for this direct attempt to assassinate the person most dear to Mozambicans, who has dedicated his life to returning dignity to the Mozambican people. The people will react to restore justice.”

Renamo, he continued, believed that those orders came directly from President Filipe Nyusi, and that Defence Minister Atanasio Mtumuke and the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces (FADM) Gen Graça Chongo were also complicit.

Nobody except Nyusi would authorise an attempt against Dhlakama's life, Bissopo claimed.

He did hasten to add, “this is not a declaration of war, but let it be clear that we shall react politically and intelligently”.

Time to respond

The shooting incidents came at an awkward time for President Nyusi.

New in the job, replacing former President Armando Guebuza in October 2014 after he had served his two presidential terms, he is still in the process of cementing his position as Mozambique’s new leader.

For him to ward off the often disruptive exploits and tricks of Renamo and Dhlakama in particular, means less time and opportunity to consolidate his own position and, more importantly, tackling the pressing challenges facing Mozambique.

As former Minister of Defence, President Nyusi should be well informed and experienced with Renamo and Dhlakama antics and therefore well suited to approach and convince Renamo and its leader to follow a less confrontational and more constructive role as official opposition in a country that has so much to offer its mostly impoverished people.  

by Garth Cilliers

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