Disputed Elections Reignite Old Problems in Mozambique

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Blog Post by John Campbell

Ongoing negotiations between FRELIMO and RENAMO, which had resumed in 2016 following some armed conflict, have been suspended; the sticking point between the two movements appears to be the disarmament of RENAMO and the recent elections earlier this month, whose results RENAMO disputes.

Mozambique’s political life continues to be dominated by two political movements: FRELIMO, the ruling party, and RENAMO, the political and erstwhile military opposition. FRELIMO led the struggle for Mozambican independence from Portugal in 1975 and has been in power ever since, while RENAMO has been in opposition. The two movements have different ethnic bases, but the hostility between the two movements also reflected the liberation struggles elsewhere in southern Africa, especially in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and apartheid South Africa. The Soviet Union supported the nominally communist FRELIMO, while Rhodesia and South Africa supported the nominally anti-communist RENAMO. The two movements fought a bloody civil war from 1977 to 1992 characterized by gross human rights violations by both sides. It ended when the Soviet Union collapsed, stopping its support for FRELIMO, and apartheid South Africa became a “non-racial” democracy, stopping its support for RENAMO. Subsequently, FRELIMO prevailed, but RENAMO remained viable and its cadres did not disarm. Nevertheless, post-civil war, the country appeared to be on a positive development trajectory, with economic growth rates as high as 8 percent per year.

That ended in 2016 when the country defaulted on its loans because of irregularities in three companies allegedly controlled by the intelligence services. International financial institutions and donors suspended aid. The growth rate fell to little more than 3 percent. It is against this backdrop that elections took place.

Relieving this gloomy picture is the prospect of immense hydrocarbon wealth, primarily from natural gas. Major international companies, including Exxon Mobil (US), Eni (Italy), and SASOL (South Africa) are actively engaged, though actual oil and gas production is some years off.

There is also an Islamist extremist insurgency in northern Mozambique, along the border with Tanzania. There are reports of beheadings and that insurgents have links to al-Shabab. It is also believed that that the militants (or at least some of them) come from neighboring Tanzania. The Mozambican authorities are trying to keep the militants out of the areas of interest to the hydrocarbon companies.

There are reasonable chances that the party negotiations, led by President Filipe Nyusi and RENAMO’s Ossufo Momade, will get back on track, not least because it is in their mutual interest that they do so. Harder to predict is the trajectory of the Muslim insurgency. Is it driven primarily by local causes? Is it linked to al-Shabaab? How skillfully will the government respond? The latter question is particularly important. Elsewhere in Africa brutal and inept government responses—see Nigeria and Cameroon—have made insurgencies worse.