On October 15th, Mozambican citizens will head to vote in general elections across the country. As in all democracies, this is an important political event which can shape the future of the country; however, Mozambique has been plagued by periods of violence since the end of Portuguese colonisation and occupation in 1975. Such violence makes the political situation in the country all the more tense in the lead-up to elections.
The tensions have come to an apex this year, following the death of long-term RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama in 2018. While the political wing of the organization, led by Ossufo Momade, supports peace and the upcoming elections, the chief of the armed wing of RENAMO General Mariano Nhongo has been quoted by Deutsche Welle as saying: “We, the military junta of RENAMO, will prevent the elections scheduled for October until the government renegotiates the peace treaty with us. We do not acknowledge the recently signed peace treaty. An election will not take place. Anyone who makes calls for elections should know: We will kill him.”
To understand the nature of this threat, it is necessary to see how FRELIMO and RENAMO both came to be and how they fit historically into the demographic and political nature of Mozambique.
Following the war of independence (a guerrilla conflict which took place between 1964-74), FRELIMO, the primary resistance group during the war, successfully obtained an independence agreement from the Portuguese colonizers. They largely adopted the Portuguese administrative structure, including the use of government at a national, regional, and local level based on colonially-demarcated territory. However, the removal of the colonial class and associated persons meant that the newly-empowered government struggled to create an efficient and inclusive system and was constantly threatened with economic collapse. During the conflict FRELIMO obtained various support from both the Soviet Union and China, and this relationship continued post-independence when they took over government.
It was in this context that RENAMO was formed. Largely instigated and funded by the neighbouring Rhodesia and South Africa, RENAMO originated as a movement aiming to destabilise the communist-supported government, and drew together various factions which were excluded or disadvantaged by the FRELIMO-led government. From 1977 to 1992, the country was wracked by a civil war between the two groups, and while it has maintained democratic elections since 1992 there has been a low-level continuation of violence up to the present day. The two organisations have retained their dominance of politics until the present day; while FRELIMO has won all subsequent elections, RENAMO remains the main opposition political party, and also retains an armed wing which functions outside the government military apparatus. However, FRELIMO’s hegemony over government structures, inherited from the Portuguese, is regularly called out by critics, as well as its dominance over economic and political resources.
Violence began to flare again in 2013 after RENAMO leader Dhlakama reassembled some of his erstwhile forces. Dhlakama demanded that FRELIMO both reform the electoral system to prevent alleged fraud and further redistribute the economic benefits coming from the sale of coal and gas (among others), which he claimed were unfairly concentrated within a particular section of the Mozambican population. Relations were not helped by government raids on the camps of RENAMO during the lead-up to the declaration; the two parties were unable to come to an accord, with Dhlakama threatening to “destroy the state.” Scattered clashes have occurred since then, with a second peace process in 2014 breaking down following the election in the same year.
Following Dhlakama’s death in 2018, RENAMO struggled to elect a new leader; eventually, in January this year, interim leader Momade became the new head of the political organization. In August, Momade and Mozambique’s (FRELIMO-affiliated) President Filipe Nyusi signed a peace agreement calling for disarmament and setting the date for elections in October. Until General Nhongo’s statement, this was heralded as a return to peace; now, however, the situation looks much less certain.
This history, then, points to three important ideas when interpreting how the contemporary politics of Mozambique are shaped by the continuing legacies of Portuguese colonialism. The first, of course, is the structure of the state itself; FRELIMO still dominates politics through the same offices created by the Portuguese, which allows it to control political and economic capital. The second factor is based on the legitimacy of certain actors; namely, FRELIMO led the independence movement which thus gave them the legitimacy to take on government in Mozambique. RENAMO, according to some histories, can further be understood as less legitimate due to its partially foreign origins and ties. However, when their government mirrors the colonial system and recreates a ruling class, are the criticisms levelled by RENAMO illegitimate? The third and final factor, of course, is democracy; can a democracy function effectively in such an unequal and historically fractured political environment? Violence, of course, is not the answer; but to understand why Nhongo has threatened such, looking into history provides valuable food for thought.