Re­mem­ber­ing a war­lord demo­crat

Afonso Dhlakama, the Mozambican rebel leader, was a quixotic, charis­matic fig­ure

Mail & Guardian - - Africa - Alex Vines

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.

Un­likely demo­crat

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

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