- An intensification in the conflict between the RENAMO opposition group and FRELIMO-led government since the beginning of the year has led to a deterioration in the security environment in central Mozambique.
Efforts to launch peace negotiations have so far had little success due to the groups’ unwillingness to agree on terms, and a cessation of the conflict is unlikely in at least the next six months.
- As the conflict continues and possibly intensifies with a government offensive expected in the coming weeks, there is a high risk of further violence, with the potential for disruption to infrastructure projects and cargo movements in the northern and central parts of the country.
Political tension and violence have escalated in Mozambique since the beginning of 2016 due to growing clashes between the FRELIMO-led government and the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) opposition group, led by Afonso Dhlakama. The violence has concentrated in the six provinces where RENAMO has a strong presence: Manica, Zambezia, Nampula, Niassa, Sofala, and Tete. The fighting is reported to have been especially fierce in Tete, Mozambique’s main coal mining hub, from where 11,000 civilians have fled into Malawi since January, according to the UN High Commission for Refugees. It is likely that high numbers of people are also being displaced in RENAMO’s principal strongholds of Inhambane and Gorongosa, though both are too remote and too far from an international border to be properly detected.
The escalating conflict poses a serious threat to freight movements and civilian transport in Sofala, where RENAMO fighters have repeatedly opened fire on buses and private vehicles along the EN1 highway, Mozambique’s main north-south arterial road. On 25 February, Renamo launched two attacks along the EN1, the first against a 90-vehicle convoy travelling under armed escort near Zove, and the second between Maringue and Caia, wounding one person and damaging vehicles. Further shootings were reported on 6 March, when gunmen opened fire on a bus near Catandica, in Manica province, killing two people and injuring eight others. Two days later, RENAMO staged a new attack along the same route near Nampula. On 8 February, RENAMO threatened to set up checkpoints on the EN1 and EN6 highways, posing a further threat to vehicles travelling along those routes. In response, the UN has implemented travel restrictions on all field missions in Sofala, Manica, Tete and Zambezia provinces, limiting travel for only essential tasks. Meanwhile, some bus companies suspended services on inter-provincial routes in Sofala province on 10 March.
The latest spell of violence began after a peace deal between RENAMO and FRELIMO that was signed in August 2014 broke down following Mozambique’s disputed general election in October of the same year. The peace agreement was signed after 18 months of low-level insurgency, when RENAMO declared it had rescinded the Rome Peace Accord that ended Mozambique’s 1977-1992 civil war between the two groups. As with the latest violence, the 2014-2015 conflict saw repeated shootings on the EN1 highway and small-scale attacks in central and northern Mozambique. Although the government managed to convince RENAMO to re-join the peace process with promises that Dhlakama would be able to campaign freely in the 2014 election, the deal broke down shortly after the vote when the group accused the government of electoral fraud and rejected the outcome of the election in which President Filipe Nyusi won. RENAMO has since declared it would rule by force in the six provinces where it claimed victory, intensifying tensions between the government and opposition.
Resolution to conflict unlikely in medium term
Despite tentative steps towards peace talks, there is little prospect of a resolution to the crisis in at least the next six months. RENAMO has refused to join peace talks offered by the government without mediators from the EU, the Catholic Church and South Africa, a demand that was rejected by the government on 13 March. Moreover, even if the terms of the talks can be agreed, the possibility of a breakthrough is remote. RENAMO has shown little willingness to give up its claim to ruling the six provinces, as this underpins its fundamental assertion that it has a right to share power. Recognising this, Nyusi has increasingly shifted from a more conciliatory position at the beginning of his presidency to one focused on a military solution to the insurgency, particularly after an earlier round of peace talks broke down in October 2015.
It is possible that the recent violence will continue, although this is unlikely to escalate into another civil war. RENAMO lacks the support and resources it had during the 1977-1992 conflict and there is little doubt of the government’s military superiority. The Nyusi administration’s aim appears to be to weaken RENAMO’s bargaining position ahead of possible future peace talks by surrounding RENAMO’s positions in the central highlands. This has already been seen in the deployment of some 4,500 military and police forces in preparation for a possible offensive in the central provinces of Manica and Sofala, combined with the transfer of 2,000 troops to the district of Gorongosa, where Dhlakama is based. Such an offensive could lead to an escalation in fighting in the coming weeks, although it is unlikely to eliminate RENAMO, which has a long history of operating in the remote mountains of central Mozambique from where it can carry out frequent hit-and-run attacks on government forces.
As the violence continues, attacks on transport and disruption to road travel will remain key security considerations in parts of northern and central Mozambique, particularly the EN1 and EN6 highways. The Zimbabwean and Malawian borders are at particular risk of disruption, where large numbers of refugee movements are likely to continue in the coming months. As the conflict develops, there is potential for disruption to mining activities in Tete province, as well as to infrastructure projects along the Nacala logistics corridor, which links Tete with the port in Nacala via Malawi. Any offensive launched by the government will increase the likelihood of further disruption, particularly in Manica and Sofala.