The recent disappearance of the historic leader of the Renamo resistance movement (Resistência Nacional Moçambicana), Afonso Dhlakama, which took place on May 3 in his mountain refuge in the Gorongosa mountains, shocked the whole of Mozambique and caused ripples throughout Southern Africa.


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Dhlakama died aged 65 of a heart attack after leading the national resistance movement for duration of the fifteen years of civil war wages against Frelimo (Frente de Libertação de Moçambique), which ended in October 1992 with the Peace accords signed in Rome.

Then, at the end of the conflict, which caused over a million casualties, Dhlakama transformed his Renamo movement into the country's main opposition party, which in October 1994 took part in the first ever multiparty democratic elections in the history of the former Portuguese colony.

However, in 2013, the undaunted government opponent took to the hills once more and engaged in a new bout of armed fighting against Frelimo's domination with a series of attacks on barracks and police stations, in addition to a number of ambushes by snipers against means of public transport, mainly along the N1 route in the provinces of Manica and Sofala (a major trunk road that connects the north and south of the country). According to a recent report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), Dhlakama was also involved in kidnappings and the assassination of political figures working for the government, while according to some local commentators, he was still harbouring guerrilla fighters within the ranks of his opposition party.

The HRW report also mentions the abuses committed by the Frelimo's government's security forces during the armed clashes, involving murders, forced disappearances, kidnappings, arbitrary arrests and the destruction of private property. And the New York NGO also explains how over the years the violence on both sides has forced thousands of people to leave Mozambique and take shelter in Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Dhlakama's demise has come at a very crucial stage because it could call into question the entire peace process with the government which had started in December 2016, two months before the Renamo leader surprisingly announced a truce so a final peace agreement could be reached.

To achieve this objective, the deceased leader of the opposition held a number of secret meetings with the Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi in his hideout in the Gorongosa mountain range. Everything seemed to be running smoothly, so much so that in recent months the talks had made major strides in the right direction.

Further progress was made even at their last meeting in February to discuss the disarmament and reintegration of the fighters. The two leading figures of Mozambique's political landscape reached an agreement to introduce constitutional reform in favour of decentralisation.

The reform currently being discussed in parliament would enable the electorate to vote their own provincial governors in directly, whereas they are currently appointed by the head of state.

With Dhlakama's death however, progress has been stalled by the fact that the negotiations between the two leaders were taking place on a strictly personal basis, without anyone else present.

Another unknown factor affecting the future of the negotiations is the name of who will replace Dhlakama at the head of the party, which on 5 May last unanimously elected the former secretary general Ossufo Momade as interim President in the run up to a National Congress which will then appoint the president.

After his appointment, Momade announced that "the party will move ahead with the work Dhlakama had begun". But many doubts still linger over the negotiations tabled by his predecessor. For now, the one sure thing is the fact that Renamo is in urgent need of solid leadership, capable of capping the differences between the party's political wing and the movement's former fighters.

But more importantly, he will have to take on the same challenges faced by Dhlakama, which in addition to reaching an agreement on the decentralisation of power, also involved the integration of Renano's armed faction into the Mozambique army and the organisation of an electoral campaign for administrative and presidential elections to take place in October 2019.

All this, while this Portuguese speaking country also has very pressing economic challenges to deal with, which can only be addressed if some level of external trust can be recovered, especially after the discovery in 2016 of a hidden debt of two billion dollars with Russian and French banks accrued by three state run companies.

This complex issue has led to the suspension of all development aid from western donors with extremely negative repercussions on Mozambique's financial situation, now weighed down by a public debt that has reached 120% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). And in order to restructure it, the government will be forced to turn to international aid, to access which it will have to introduce new and more transparent accountability mechanisms.

A few of the priorities which must be addressed in order to revive Mozambique's economy can be found in the Bertelsmann Foundation's (BTI) Transformation Index, which last May noted that the African country would be strongly advised to diversify its economy, reduce the rate of inflation and consider targeted policies to provide incentives for agricultural production and fighting poverty.

One further complication is the jihadi threat posed by the local group known as Swahili Sunna (the Swahili path), that aims to set up an Islamic State among the coastal Swahili speaking populations. Last October, the Group simultaneously attached three police stations (PRM) in the north-eastern district of Mocimboa de Praia, in the province of Cabo Delgado.

The clashes, which caused 17 casualties among the assailants and the police, left the town completely isolated. From that moment on the Islamic extremists have continued to carry out the occasional ambush against PRM patrols and assault on villages in the area and in the Palma district.

A recent report by the African Centre for Strategic Studies (ACSS), with offices in Washington, reports that the jihadi offensive has triggered a reaction by government forces, which last November bombed the village of Mitumbate in the Mocimboa de Praia district, where the Group had set up its stronghold. During the raid the security forces killed fifty people, including women and children, and arrested two hundred more.

Nevertheless, Swahili Sunna seems to be attracting new recruits, driven to join the jihadi forces by factors such as marginalisation and the social and economic distress that affects the entire northern part of the country.

The project of setting up an Islamic State is very attractive to the young unemployed in the region, who often don't have enough to pay for a wife's dowry. As a result, they are not entitled to become adults, which according to the local traditions can only achieved by marrying and setting up a family. These youngsters become an easy pray for recruitment by the armed militias.

Finally, it should be noted that the violence is starting to have an impact on the country's economy, because it has caused the evacuation of employees of a number of multinational oil and mining companies operating in a region where the institutions have never had complete control and where the population feels betrayed and marginalised. And where Islamic extremism can easily take root.

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