Assessing the civil war threat in Mozambique

In 2013, Mozambique experienced the worst outbreak of political violence since the country’s civil war, which occurred between 1977 and 1992. Akin to the 15-year-long conflict, hostilities were a result of strained relations between the ruling Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) and the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO) party.

The recent cycle of violence stems from allegations made by RENAMO’s long-serving leader, Afonso Dhlakama, that the ruling party was undermining Mozambique’s post-war pluralist democracy and was seeking to centralise control over economic revenues garnered via the country’s burgeoning hydrocarbon industry.

Although Dhlakama’s rhetoric was by no means a new development, his October 2012 decision to disengage from electoral politics, and subsequently return to the party’s former rebel encampment within the Gorongosa Mountain Range, delineated the extent to which relations between RENAMO and FRELIMO had worsened. Moreover, Dhlakama’s so-called ‘return to the bush’, which was initially thought to be nothing more than a symbolic gesture, has precipitated a spiral of violent encounters between RENAMO and government forces.

This has subsequently raised concerns of a resumption of civil war in Mozambique. But do such concerns have any merit? Current evidence suggests not. Unlike what was experienced during the Mozambican civil war, RENAMO no longer enjoys the patronage of foreign governments upon which much of the movement’s operational and logistical structures were dependent.

Although the group continues to have access to arms which were not decommissioned in the aftermath of the 1992 peace accord, RENAMO’s fighting force has also dwindled considerably. The group is now dependent on a few hundred ageing guerrilla fighters who, while well-trained and experienced, are incapable of waging a full-scale armed campaign.

Attempts to recruit new fighters will also be stymied by RENAMO’s lack of political relevance among many Mozambicans due to the party’s inability to make the transition from a guerrilla movement to an effective political party with a resonating ideological agenda. Although the Mozambican Armed Forces (FADM) remains relatively small and weak, it is assessed to have the requisite prowess to nullify any attempted armed campaign launched by RENAMO.

Key dates in Renamo's recent insurrection.

Further mitigating the risk of civil war is political expediency. Ultimately a return to conflict favours neither party. From FRELIMO’s perspective, eradicating a movement that poses a minimal political threat may actually reinforce RENAMO’s ‘power-hungry’ narrative of the ruling party. With general elections taking place in October 2014, FRELIMO will be hesitant to undertake any actions that could see the party losing popular support at the ballot.

Moreover, conflict or even the threat thereof will undoubtedly also pose a risk to foreign direct investment which, up until now, has been central to the consolidation of political stability in the post-civil war era. From RENAMO’s perspective, the party is aware that it does not possess the capacity to challenge FRELIMO militarily.

It is also mindful of the fact that any attempts to do so may well catalyse the demise of the party. These factors suggest that a politically achieved resolution to the impasse will remain the primary goal for both parties.

Assessed military capabilities of the Armed Forces of Mozambique (FADM) and RENAMO

FADM: Currently it is assessed that the FADM has a 13,000-strong military, in addition to a fully functional naval and air force. Furthermore, the Mozambican army has access to offensive air, ground and maritime military vehicles, including tanks, attack helicopters and patrol boats.

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Nevertheless, should RENAMO become increasingly frustrated in its campaign, and should the diplomatic and political avenues to achieve its objectives remain limited, there is a possibility the group could increasingly resort to violence as a means of pressing FRELIMO into concessions.

To date, much of RENAMO’s rhetoric has been focused on disrupting strategic rail and road infrastructure, specifically the EN1 highway and SENA railway line, which are key in transporting coal supplies from Tete province to the port of Beira. Given that such transport corridors run through RENAMO strongholds in Sofala province, the possibility of these interests being targeted in insurgent assaults will remain a credible threat in 2014.

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