Remembering a warlord democrat
Afonso Dhlakama, the Mozambican rebel leader, was a quixotic, charismatic figure
Ifirst spoke to Afonso Dhlakama — who died last week, aged 65 — in 1992 by satellite phone. We spoke for 30 minutes about his objectives and vision for Mozambique. At the time I was researching a book on his guerilla force, Renamo. My first edition of Renamo was published in 1991 and I aimed to challenge the assumption that these rebels were simply “armed bandits”, exclusively puppets of apartheid South Africa’s destabilisation. My field research in Mozambique convinced me that there was an opportunity for peaceful settlement in Mozambique, because the Cold War and apartheid were ending.
Although I was Renamo’s fiercest critic of its human rights record during the last years of the civil war, I always appreciated that, at its core, Renamo was a response to injustice and inequality in Mozambique as much as it was about being an instrument of Rhodesian and later apartheid South Africa destabilisation.
Nonetheless, Renamo was addicted to covert support from Rhodesia and South Africa. It was only in the late 1980s that Dhlakama really started to define Renamo’s own political identity — as the grip of apartheid South Africa weakened, it had to survive largely on its own.
At about the same time, Renamo began to lose its main tactical advantage. South Africa had provided Renamo with specialist radio equipment, which neither the Mozambican nor the Zimbabwean governments could intercept. But, by 1989, the batteries and handsets had degenerated and this compromised Renamo’s military effectiveness. Communications became so difficult that, in 1991, the provision of a satellite phone by Italian mediators was enough of an incentive to persuade Dhlakama to sign a key protocol that led to the Rome General Peace Accord.
It was this very satellite phone that he used for our conversation.
Later in 1992, Dhlakama and Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano signed the accord, ending the 16-year civil war. A transitional process of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration kicked in, along with the creation of a new national army.
I spoke to Dhlakama many times during that period but only met him for the first time in 1994. He was preparing for the country’s first multiparty elections and I was an election observer.
I remember him telling me that the election result would show that my book was wrong, and that Mozambicans loved him. He was partly right: those 1994 election results proved that Renamo had a strong following in some regions of Mozambique. They also showed that post-conflict Mozambique was fragmented and voters prioritised regional loyalties and war experience.
Dhlakama visited London only once, in 1998. I chaired his speech to the Royal African Society, to which only three people turned up because of a boycott over his human rights record.
My view was that, despite his reputation for brutality and multiple human rights abuses during the war, he had signed a peace agreement and kept to it. He reminded the audience that I had co-authored a report that had also documented government abuses.
By the late 1990s, Renamo became an opposition party and Dhlakama almost won the 1999 presidential elections (some believe he did). The 1999 election result focused Frelimo’s attention on the threat that Renamo posed, and it responded by more aggressively countering Renamo while also seeking to contain it, including offering Dhlakama provincial governorships in 2000.
Frelimo hardliners and Renamo’s internal incoherence undermined this particular effort. After Armando Guebuza was elected president in 2004, he embarked on a strategy of total Frelimo domination across the country, which was rewarded in the short term by a landslide victory over Renamo in the 2009 elections.
Longer term, this humiliated and marginalised Renamo, and convinced Dhlakama that Frelimo was disingenuous and would always
thwart Renamo at the ballot box.
Back to the bush
The last time I met Dhlakama was at his home in Nampula in 2012. I spent a late afternoon with him and we reflected on past battles.
He seemed deeply troubled about the future, stating that Frelimo was trying to “destroy him”, and warning that Renamo was “on life support” and that he was going to fight for his survival. When I left, he ordered his rag-tag presidential guard of eight armed men to line up and give a salute of honour. I remember that several had broken boots and that their AK-47s were poorly maintained.
My meeting with Dhlakama convinced me that he was dangerously isolated and could miscalculate, and I warned Guebuza that he needed to communicate with him and make him central to Mozambique’s 2012 celebrations of the Rome accord. This advice fell on deaf ears.
But no one predicted that Dhlakama, cornered and isolated, would return in 2013 to his central Mozambican bush stronghold to shore up his core support, and order a return to targeted armed violence, which would prove economically disruptive for Mozambique.
That violence lasted until July 2014, and Dhlakama signed a new agreement in September 2014.
Renamo was rewarded by an increased share of the vote in the 2014 national elections.
Frelimo’s new leader, President Filipe Nyusi, sought direct dialogue with Dhlakama but his efforts were initially compromised by his attempt to consolidate power inside Frelimo and the disjointed approach towards negotiations with Renamo.
A new, more violent phase of armed conflict followed from May 2015 to December 2016, and five rounds of internationally mediated peace talks failed until Nyusi and Dhlakama started speaking to each other directly, cutting out intermediaries.
Finally, in late December 2016, Dhlakama announced a unilateral truce that has subsequently become indefinite.
He and Nyusi also began new talks led by the Swiss ambassador and, in August 2017 and February this year, impressed many Mozambicans for their bravery by meeting in central Mozambique to build up mutual trust and discuss the details of the emerging peace deal.
A new peace deal of indirectly elected provincial governorships in exchange for the repositioning of Renamo’s officers for a better balance in the armed forces and a full reintegration of Renamo’s remaining gunmen was close to agreement when Dhlakama died on May 3.
Some media reports have suggested that Renamo will now pull out of peace talks, following Dhlakama’s death. But Renamo officials have told me that it was the dying Dhlakama’s last wish that the peace talks continue. Renamo’s new interim leader, Ossufo Momade, has, in fact, committed to continue the talks.
Dhlakama was born in Mangunde, Chibabava district, Sofala, the son of a traditional leader, Chief Mangunde, who married Rosária Xavier Mbiriakwira Dhlakama and had eight children.
He was buried in Magunde, Chibabava, on May 10, after an official state funeral in Beira on May 9.
For 38 years Dhlakama led Renamo. He proved to be an accomplished guerrilla leader, building a rebel group from 76 members in 1977 to almost 20000 in 1992. His peacetime achievement was also impressive, growing Renamo to be one of the largest opposition parties in Africa by 1999. Although he regularly claimed to be Mozambique’s father of democracy, he never allowed pluralism in Renamo or permitted any succession planning.
Dhlakama was also quixotic, prone to changing his mind and often influenced by the last person he had spoken to. Reports that he deliberately wore glasses to look more intellectual were untrue and he had an impressive forensic memory right up to the day he died, especially for the Mozambican Constitution and Renamo’s rights.
Peace-time politics was difficult for him but, in the last few years, he had shown political agility that surprised many. Dhlakama’s lasting legacy is political pluralism in Mozambique and hopefully greater political devolution with elected provincial governorships.
Legacy: Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama built a rebel movement, initially backed by South Africa and Rhodesia, and an opposition party after the civil war. Although uneasy in peacetime he ensured political pluralism and possibly devolution of power to the regions. Photo: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP