Mozambique: is Renamo a real threat to Frelimo’s leadership?

Gustavo Placido dos Santos

Portuguese Institute of International Relations and Security – IPRIS

Since the return of Afonso Dhlakama to the foothills of the Gorongosa mountains, in 2012, and the resumption of Renamo’s armed insurgency, in April 2013, Mozambique’s political future has become uncertain and with few perspectives of stabilization in the short-term. As long as Renamo is motivatated to press the government towards obtaining further concessions,[1] the government and Frelimo – the ruling party – face a conundrum: cede further ground to Dhlakama, in a way to accommodate him, or refuse and thus risk new armed clashes?

Such a conundrum becomes even more relevant when considering Dhlakama’s demand to establish an autonomous management over the provinces where he got more votes than his adversaries in the October 2014 elections.[2] Such an already complicated situation aggravated with the assassination of Gilles Cistac, a known Mozambican constitutionalist who upheld the constitutional legality behind the creation of autonomous provinces. Dhlakama immediately accused “Frelimo’s radicals” of Cistac’s murder, something which was rejected by the ruling party’s leadership, affirming their intention to “hold the criminals accountable”.[3] Cistac was murdered shortly after defending the decentralization of power, the legal validity of provincial autonomy, and the need for President Filipe Nyusi to disassociated himself from Frelimo, as a way to become independent from the party’s upper echelons, namely from the country’s former President and then leader of Frelimo, Armando Guebuza.[4]

Regardless of Frelimo’s role in Cistac’s assassination, an outcome of this event is the strengthening of the popular perception that the ruling party not only enjoys a wide degree of impunity but also that it regularly abuses power. Conversely, the assassination serves to promote Renamo’s status as a political alternative. In fact, Renamo – which was widely regarded as a dying force –[5] made a strong comeback in 2014. Through the resumption of a strategy based on the threat to use armed action and boycott of electoral processes, Renamo managed to see some of its demands satisfied while recovering some of the popular support it lost over previous years.

Having said this, is the Mozambican government going to concede to Dhlakama’s demand to create autonomous provinces? Renamo has a clear sense that is possible using the threat of armed action. However, Frelimo is not going to easily abdicate of provinces, the likes of which are strategic[6] to the domestic finances and to the interests of the party’s elite, among which one can highlight the economic interests associated with Guebuza’s family. Given this conjuncture, i.e. considering Renamo’s intention to acquire greater power in the country’s north and centre, and the reluctance by the government and Frelimo to lose control over major sources of revenue, will we witness a dangerous rise in tensions?

Renamo has the game in its favour

It is usually said that Renamo does not have the resources nor the conditions to launch a large-scale offensive against Maputo. Even though that is probably true, one should not underestimate the ability of Renamo’s armed wing in destabilizing the country and inflict considerable damage to government forces. After all, in the summer of 2013, Renamo’s armed men managed, with relative success, to face up to Mozambique’s Armed Forces (FADM in the Portuguese acronym), virtually divided North from South by blocking the main road EN-1 – key to the domestic economy – and threatened to suspend rail traffic along the Sena railway – vital to the coal extraction industry.

The success of an armed insurgency is partly measured by the group’s levels of motivation. In what concerns to Renamo’s leadership, the recent government concessions, as well as the expectations related with the access to the coming natural resources boom (coal and natural gas),[7] represent two highly motivating elements. Curiously, Dhlakama’s return to Gorongosa took place shortly after the announcement of the discovery of large natural gas reserves. Furthermore, and regarding popular support, the poorest sectors of the population, especially rural communities, want to benefit from Mozambique’s natural resource wealth.[8] Renamo emerges in this context as an alternative to the status quo. In part, it is from the mobilization of those sectors of the population wishing for change that Renamo managed to come out rejuvenated in 2014. Adding to this, Gilles Cistac’s assassination is likely to increase that support. Also worth noting is that, despite a number of defections and relative protest on the part of some members, Renamo’s leadership is highly capable of exerting command and control.

On the other hand, one should take into account Renamo’s human and military resources. The party’s leadership, especially the older members, has not only vast experience in guerrilla operations but is also highly familiar with the country’s geography – namely in the center and north. In addition, Dhalakama’s return to Gorongosa and the establishment of a military base was accompanied by the provision of military training to war veterans. Although there is no concrete data on the number of Renamo’s fighters, estimates point to 1000 armed men. This reinforces the idea that Renamo may not have the capabilities to initiate an open war against a larger and better equipped regular army.[9] However, the success of some insurgencies in Africa shows that this logic is not entirely accurate.[10] Moreover, Renamo has two additional factors in its favour: a Mozambican army comprised of 13,000 soldiers and deliberately weak;[11] and the abundance of small arms across the country.

According to a study by the Open Society Foundation, it is estimated that around 500,000 and 6 million weapons were imported during the civil-war, and that 3 to 4 million were in circulation by the end of the war. The study also remarks that despite the success of disarmament programmes there is still a high number of small arms available in Mozambican territory. Furthermore, this research highlights the ignorance on the part of government authorities regarding the exact amount of weapons possessed and stocked by national security forces, something which raises questions regarding the national authorities’ ability to tackle and stop the proliferation and illegal use of small arms in the country.[12]

The proliferation of weapons in Mozambique works in favour of Renamo’s armed wing. In addition to this, and also worth noting, is the sacking of weapons from governmental forces, which has contributed to the group’s greater military capacity. In January 2014, Renamo’s political advisor to Mozambique’s southern region, Rahil Khan, affirmed that the party did not dispose of the totality of the weapons inventory used during the civil-war, adding that there are weapons spread across the country.[13] However, those declarations were contradicted in September 2014 by Renamo’s spokesman, António Muchanga. According to Muchanga, the weapons currently held by the armed wing belonged to the FADM and were appropriated following attacks on Renamo men.[14] Muchanga also denied the existence of hidden weapons caches in Mozambique. Despite Muchanga’s denial, the veracity of Rahil Khan’s declarations ends up strengthened when considering situations when weapons of military calibre were found, increasing the possibility of the existence of further hideouts across the country.[15]

If on the one hand Renamo’s political wing has a regular source of revenue from the subventions related to parliamentary representation, the ways in which the armed wing finances itself are less clear. Given the uncertainty surrounding this matter, it is possible to say that one of those potential sources of financing is the illegal ivory trade. It has been reported that the majority of foreigners detained in South Africa under charges of poaching are Mozambicans. Moreover, it has also been reported that former military officials provide political protection to criminal groups involved in poaching, while weapons and uniforms used by the Mozambican armed and security forces were found in poaching areas.[16] Despite the fact that these allegations are apparently targeted at Frelimo members, could that also apply to Renamo? Part of the ivory passing through Mozambique is extracted and exported in the northern region, namely via Pemba airport, in the province of Cabo Delgado.[17] It is also of public knowledge that Renamo used poaching as a means of financing during the civil-war. In addition, Dhlakama’s return to Gorongosa coincided with a considerable increase in poaching.[18] Given the uncertainty regarding Renamo’s current involvement in poaching and ivory trade, it is possible to affirm that the party’s present campaign is in itself a strategy aimed at accessing greater financing, in particular Mozambique’s immense natural wealth.

External influence: a game changer

Dhlakama’s stronghold, the province of Sofala, is strategically located between the north – rich in natural resources – and the distant centre of economic and political power, Maputo – located in the south, considerably poorer in natural resources. The success of Renamo’s 2013 insurgency showed that Mozambique’s military and police forces do not have effective control over the country’s northern and central regions. That, simultaneously strengthens Renamo’s position and increases the risk associated with ceding to provincial autonomy. However, it does not serve the national interest, i.e. of the two political forces, to provoke an escalation of tensions and initiate armed clashes. The immediate outcome would be an interruption in the inflow of investment, in particular in the highly profitable extractive industries, as well as isolation and international and regional condemnation, especially from neighbouring countries and SADC.

In what concerns to nearby countries, roughly half of SADC member-states are landlocked, making them dependent on other countries to export their produce onto international markets. Such is the case of Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe, whose socioeconomic stability greatly depends on goods transportation routes crossing Mozambique. Also noteworthy are South Africa’s economic interests in Mozambique, the likes of which risk being seriously affected in a setting of instability in Mozambique. Moreover, these countries’ border regions with Mozambique are also likely to be destabilized due to incursions by Renamo armed men, with the consequences arising therefrom. Taking these threats into account, regional countries and SADC itself have already expressed their concern with the recent instability in Mozambique.

The most aggressive stance towards this matter came from Zimbabwe. Authorities in Harare are especially concerned with the economic consequences of potential disruptions in the pipeline and railway connecting Zimbabwe to the port of Beira, as well as with security in the Marange diamond fields – a major source of revenue located close to the border with Mozambique. Following Renamo’s decision to abolish the 2013 peace agreement, a member of Zimbabwe’s government stated that “[i]t will be misguided for Renamo to bring instability and expect Zimbabwe to watch”, adding that SADC “would consider sending troops to help the government if the security situation deteriorated”.[19]

It is however unlikely that Harare orders a unilateral intervention. Doing so outside SADC’s context, would complicate the prospects for any future regional intervention in the country, since it would undermine the legitimacy of SADC’s principle of collective action.[20] SADC’s Mutual Defense Pact calls for collective action whenever a democratically elected government is faced with a threat. Nevertheless, that principle is not immune to potential divergent positions – over when and how to take military action – arising when the time comes to discuss an intervention in Mozambique, as shown by the intervention in Lesotho and DRC.[21] Despite the difficulties associated with reaching a consensus within SADC, stability in Mozambique is of strategic interest to every single country in the region. Thus, it is highly likely that a deterioration in stability and security in the country lead to the mobilization of member-states towards an intervention. In sum, any large scale offensive by Renamo must have in consideration a possible SADC-mandated intervention.

The same logic applies to those multinationals who are currently investing, or intend to do so, in the vast natural resource wealth in Mozambique. In recent years, largely due the potential of its natural gas reserves, Mozambique has positioned itself at the centre of world’s attention. However, to take the Mozambican natural gas onto international markets is a complex and expensive process that requires a stable government and, above all, risk-taking investors. Investment is key for the construction of infrastructures essential for the industry’s efficient operation. This, in turn, requires a relatively limited level of political risk. Despite the instability in Mozambique, natural gas discoveries appear to be so promising that international investors and buyers of liquefied natural gas are willing to sign long-term deals in order to kick-start these projects.[22] Notwithstanding, it is still uncertain up to what point are these international investors and buyers willing to tolerate a spiral of instability.

It is also worth to take into consideration those which are set to become the major players in the Mozambican natural gas market: the Asian countries. The resource-hungry Asian countries have shown particular interest for Mozambican resources, not only by the size of the reserves but also by the strategic location in the Indian Ocean – making it more attractive than other African energy giants, such as Angola and Nigeria. The main Asian actors in Mozambique’s natural gas are India, Japan, South Korea and, of course, China. In fact, as pointed out by Loro-Horta, “China is fast emerging as the most important economic and diplomatic player in Mozambique, bringing billions of dollars in investments and asking no questions”.[23]

In this setting, the instability generated by Renamo is an obstacle to Beijing’s authorities. Recent developments, such as the mediation efforts undertaken by China in South Sudan and the contribution of 500 military personnel to the UN peacekeeping mission in Mali, point to Beijing’s strategic shift in what concerns to Africa: founded on a more active commitment in supporting peace and security in the continent – contrary to the traditional stance of non-interventionism and relative indifference. While this shift has as its essential foundation the protection of China’s interests in Africa, it has also allowed for a deepening of multilateral cooperation not only with the UN but also with regional organizations such as the African Union.[24] Having said this, and considering the changes in Chinese strategy, as well as Beijing’s intent to establish Mozambique as a major natural gas hub, one should not exclude the possibility of Beijing starting to make further demands regarding its investments and also exerting more diplomatic pressure – potentially in coordination with the African Union and/or SADC – as a way to push for an understanding between Frelimo and Renamo. One thing is clear: it is highly unlikely that China will stand by idly while watching Mozambique’s power games threatening Beijing’s interests in the largest natural gas reserves in sub-Saharan Africa.


The next few months promise to be exciting for fans of political thrillers. The investigation into the murder of Gilles Cistac is currently underway and the outcome will tend to benefit Renamo’s position. Meanwhile, the issue pertaining to the establishment of an autonomous management in the provinces won by Dhlakama is still uncertain. As we have seen, Renamo is aware of the leverage it has in this process, while Frelimo has little leeway. Unconsciously, the two historical rivals of Mozambique have entered a situation in which both are in a collision course. Time will tell which one will eventually give in. In the unlikely case that none does so, the resulting collision will have repercussions reminiscent of the civil-war.

Frelimo and Renamo clearly know that a spiral of armed conflict will bring with it negative consequences to the promising exploitation of natural resources. Inescapably, the investments planned for the coming years are highly likely to be suspended, ultimately benefiting other countries in the region with natural gas reserves, such as Tanzania. To watch international markets, especially the Asian one, shifting attentions to Mozambique’s northern neighbour will be a harsh defeat for Frelimo and Renamo, as well for the economy and the Mozambican population – who regard the energy boom as an opportunity to improve their socioeconomic situation.

Thus, conflict is not an inevitability. If, on the one hand, natural gas exploitation in Mozambique has only to benefit from China involvement, on the other it serves Beijing intention to guarantee new supply markets, among which Mozambique arises as one of the most attractive. Hence, the dynamic between Beijing’s strategic shift towards Africa and the need to protect its interests and investment, has the potential to become a key factor in guaranteeing stability. Moreover, not only do neighbouring countries have every interest in deterring a new civil-war in Mozambique, but also SADC has mechanisms that may be activated for that purpose. Awareness of the consequences deriving from an eventual regional intervention should suffice to act as a deterrent for both parties.

In conclusion, Renamo does represent a real threat to Frelimo. However, the cards on the table show there is more at stake than the ambitions of the two major political forces of Mozambique. Pressure by international actors with immediate interests in Mozambique will dictate up to what point the two sides of the political spectrum can continue on a collision course. Until then both will likely stand their ground and small scale clashes, either armed or merely political, will most probably be inevitable. In the end, one of them will have to give in.


[1] Noteworthy among them the electoral law reform and the integration of Renamo’s fighters in the armed and security forces. The latter, which has not yet been materialized, was made in the eve of the October 2014 elections.

[2] The provinces of Sofala, Manica, Tete, Nampula, Zambezia and Niassa. Cabo Delgado, the north-easternmost Mozambican province. Would stay under Frelimo’s control. See” Afonso Dhlakama quer ser Presidente do centro e norte de Moçambique” (Deutsche Welle, 11 January 2015).

[3] “Indignação e acusações em Maputo devido à morte de Gilles Cistac” (Voice of America, 5 March 2015).

[4] Guebuza resigned as leader of Frelimo on 29 March 2015. As head of Frelimo, Armando Guebuza held substantial powers over the country’s presidency. “Gilles Cistac sugere que Filipe Nyusi se “desvincule” da Frelimo para ser soberano” (Verdade, 4 February 2015) and “Nyusi Named Mozambique Ruling Party Leader as Guebuza Steps Down” (Bloomberg, 29 March 2015).

[5] A consequence of bad planning and strategy. In the 2008 elections, Renamo lost control over every municipality it controlled, even losing the important Beira municipality to Daviz Simango, a former Renamo member and founder of MDM – the current third political force in the country.

[6] Namely Tete, due to the large coal reserves, and Nampula, for the abundancy of precious stones and access to the sea, rich in natural gas.

[7] Mozambique is set to place itself among the 10 largest global producers of coal and also among the 20 largest producers of natural gas. See “Mozambique to become one of biggest coal & gas producers” (Mozambique Political Process Bulletin, 15 Feburary 2013).

[8] Despite the enormous natural wealth, Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world: placed at the 178th position, among 187 countries, of the Human Development Index.

[9] “Armed Forces for the Defence of Mozambique” (Defence Web, 23 August 2013).

[10] As in the case of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in the 1990’s and, more recently, Boko Haram in Nigeria.

[11] The 2014 national budget allocated a mere 2.2% of the GDP to the FADM. The average in today’s Africa averages 8%. FADM’s apparent weakness can be justified by the burden it represents in public finances and also by the perceived threat to the established order represented by powerful armed forces. However, investment in the armed forces has been increasing, in large part due the necessity of developing a navy capable of protecting and monitoring the maritime territory.

[12] “Avaliação do crime e violência em Moçambique” (Open Society Foundation, 2012).

[13] “Assessor da Renamo garante que homens do partido têm armas em todo o país” (Lusa, 10 January 2014).

[14] “Que garantias há de que RENAMO entregará todas as armas?” (Deutsche Welle, 9 Setember 2014).

[15] “Polícia descobre 39 armas de fogo enterradas em Cabo Delgado” (Verdade, 13 November 2014).

[16] “Obama Urged to Sanction Mozambique over Elephant, Rhino Poaching” (Inter Press Service, 2 July 2014).

[17] “Home-grown corruption is killing Africa’s rhinos and elephants” (Daily Maverick, 28 November 2014).

[18] “Poaching Peace and Security” (Atlantic Council, 28 October 2013).

[19] “Zimbabwe warns Mozambique’s Renamo not to resume war” (BBC News, 23 October 2013).

[20] “Why Zimbabwe can’t invade Mozambique” (Mail & Guardian, 8 November 2013).

[21] “Renamo – The Next Battle” (The Southern Times, 15 November 2013).

[22] In 2014, U.S. oil giant Anadarko announced having signed long-term natural gas supply agreements with Asian buyers. See “Anadarko Signs Supply Contracts With Asian Buyers, Defining Clearer Investment Plans For Mozambique LNG” (Forbes, 31 March 2014).

[23] “East Africa eyes the race for LNG exports” (Office of the Federal Coordinator for Alaska Natural Gas Transportation Projects, 27 May 2014).

[24] One example is the African Union’s admission as a full member in the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation and the launching of the AU-China Strategic Dialogue for Peace and Security in Africa. See “Drawing in the dragon: China’s involvement in Africa’s peace & security” (Strife, 29 January 2015).

Article originally published in portuguese. Available here.


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