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Is the death of a military junta rebel leader in Mozambique the curtain call for Renamo resistance?

Mariano Nhongo, leader of Junta Militar da Renamo, was killed by Mozambican security forces in the Gorongosa forest in the central province of Sofala. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Mariano Nhongo’s death has sparked questions. The Mozambican military claims it wanted him alive, but others say it was torture.

On 11 October, Mariano Nhongo, leader of Junta Militar da Renamo (RMJ), was killed by Mozambican security forces in the Gorongosa forest in the central province of Sofala.

The precise circumstances of his death are somewhat disputed. The General Commander of the Mozambican police force, Bernadino Rafael, told journalists in Maputo that Nhongo died in combat at about 7.30am in the bush of the Njovo area after he and other fighters opened fire on a government patrol.

Mozambican national news agency AIM quoted Rafael as saying that Mozambican forces had hoped to take him alive so that he could be held accountable for the crimes he committed. But former Unisa international law professor André Thomashausen says Junta Militar claims that Nhongo was captured at about 7am on 11 October, tortured for several hours and then executed with a single bullet at about noon. Thomashausen advised Renamo during the 1992 peace talks with Frelimo.

Mozambique security forces were determined to get Nhongo one way or another. They had got close a week before when they found his hideout in the Zove hamlet deep in the Inhaminga district. But he was gone.  

On 8 October, President Filipe Nyusi told graduates from a police special forces training course that it was unacceptable that the country had to fight two wars, and urged the defence and security forces to “neutralise” Nhongo. The other war, of course, is the bigger one against Islamic State-affiliated insurgents in the northernmost province of Cabo Delgado.  

“I have already given Nhongo the opportunity to surrender voluntarily. I’m not going to speak much about this. I demand that you end this dossier,” AIM reported Nyusi as saying.  

Nhongo and the Junta Militar had broken away from Renamo when its new leader Ossufo Momade signed a comprehensive peace deal with Nyusi in August 2019. Momade was elected as president of Renamo after the death of its long-time charismatic leader Afonso Dhlakama, who died of natural causes in 2018. Nhongo and his band of die-hards denounced Momade as a traitor and continued the fight from August 2019 to December 2020. They killed about 30 people, according to Mozambique expert Alex Vines, Africa director at Chatham House.

But will his death really close this fat “dossier” – the bitter, protracted but intermittent military resistance of Renamo to Mozambique’s ruling Frelimo party, which dates back to 1977?

Vines believes that Nhongo’s death was the final curtain call for Renamo resistance. “This is the end of the RMJ,” he told DM168.

Veteran Mozambican journalist Paul Fauvet wrote this week that: “There is no obvious successor to Nhongo, and so his death may signal the end of the Military Junta. Over the past few months, members of the Junta have been surrendering, including some of Nhongo’s close aides, and have applied for demobilisation pay.”

But others disagree, including the remnants of the Junta Militar who vowed to fight on under a new leader, Lieutenant-General Augusto Faindane Phyri, better known as Massiaphfumbi.

Thomashausen says: “The cause of decades of internal instability in Mozambique has never been and is also currently not the insurgency of single people or small numbers of troublemakers. The instability is the result of decades of blind centralist and command economy policy that concentrate all development and wealth in the South and a southern minority ethnic group.”

Vines says Nhongo joined Renamo in 1981 (aged 11). He came from central Mozambique (N’dau) and was in charge of Afonso Dhlakama’s security. “He was, I think, preliterate. When I spoke to him on a mobile he had never read the 2019 agreements that were signed by Momade with Nyusi and had no sense of the detail. He just ranted to me that Momade was illegitimate and that Dhlakama’s spirit had spoken to him to save Renamo – hence the JMR.

“He self-promoted himself also to lieutenant general and wanted a new agreement with himself and his supporters and the defrocking of Momade. Some in Renamo nicknamed him Pineapple – I think because he was thick and prickly – but not sure. Another long-time Renamo activist described him as a jihadist…

“He initially attracted around 80 men to follow him in July 2019 and at peak probably had several hundred in mid-2020 [he claimed 500]. He represented a part of the Ndau core of Renamo, unhappy that Momade [from Nampula] was filling all key positions with his own people. Key folk did not follow him out. General Timothy Mackenzie [one of Dhlakama’s closest followers], for instance, stayed loyal to Momade.

“A de facto truce ran for much of this year, but there have been a couple of armed incidents and it looks like President Nyusi lost patience and ordered action – after several final offers of accommodation.

 “Two years on from the accords with Renamo, 2,699 former Renamo fighters had been demobilised out of a recognised list of 5,221 [52%],” Vines said.

“This has also included 62 deserters from the RMJ – most this year. I have also heard that the soothsayer who had supported him died earlier this year, which weakened him in the rural areas.”

Despite Nhongo’s claim that he received direct instructions from the ghost of Dhlakama to continue the military resistance to Frelimo, Dhlakama himself seemed to have finally made peace with Frelimo and laid the foundations for the definitive peace agreement, which was signed on 6 August 2019 by his successor, Momade, and Nyusi.

Renamo has been clouded by controversy from the start. It was formed in 1977 by those opposed to Frelimo’s Marxist ideology or those who had collaborated with the Portuguese colonial power. From early on, Renamo was backed by Ian Smith’s Rhodesian government in retaliation for Frelimo imposing sanctions on Rhodesia and providing support and a haven to Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF forces. After Rhodesia became independent as Zimbabwe in 1980, the SA apartheid government took over as Renamo’s patron because Frelimo was also providing support to the ANC. Pretoria increased support and the civil war intensified. In 1984, Mozambique’s President Samora Machel and SA President PW Botha signed the Nkomati Accord in which both sides agreed to stop supporting each other’s enemies, Renamo and the ANC.

The agreement diminished Renamo’s resistance, amid accusations that SA continued to provide clandestine support.

The end of the Cold War in 1990, which terminated the international appetite for proxy ideological wars, and Pretoria’s initiation of negotiations with the ANC, created the environment for peace in Mozambique.

The Italian Community Sant’Egidio, a liberal Catholic movement, persuaded Dhlakama to engage in dialogue. The US, France, Britain and Portugal entered the negotiations as observers. After 11 rounds of hard bargaining, the General Peace Accord was signed in Rome on 4 October 1992 between President Joaquim Chissano and Dhlakama. It included the disarmament and demobilisation of nearly 110,000 combatants from both sides, as well as the creation of the new army and the resettlement of between five and six million refugees and displaced people.

The Rome accords ushered in multiparty democracy and Renamo transformed itself into a political party and began to contest elections from 1994. In those first elections, Chissano won with 53.3% of the vote and Dhlakama came second with 33.7%. In the national assembly elections, Frelimo won with only 44.3% of the popular vote – but a slim majority of seats. Renamo came second with 37.7% of the vote.

Dhlakama and Renamo’s electoral fortunes fluctuated widely over the next two decades but peaked in 1999 when Dhlakama won 47.7% of the vote amid widespread suspicion of rigging, even by independent observers, some of whom suspect he really won.

Though Dhlakama continued to participate in parliamentary politics in Maputo, he became increasingly disenchanted with them, convinced that Frelimo was cheating him, Renamo and Mozambicans of their patrimony. By 2013, after 20 years of peace, he had had enough and retreated from Maputo to his old lair in Gorongosa to resume the armed struggle.

Vines mainly blames Frelimo for this development. He says Dhlakama’s near-victory in 1999 scared Frelimo into seeking total political dominance, offering Dhlakama and Renamo few concessions, particularly in their demands for decentralisation of power, to give them more say in at least their central Mozambique heartland provinces.

Vines also believes Dhlakama felt Renamo was not getting its fair share of the international aid bonanza, which flowed into Mozambique after 1994 and that it would not get a cut either of the huge coal and gas reserves that had just been discovered.

Vines believes that Renamo never expected to capture the Mozambican state, “but has always sought a military or political stalemate through which it can extract elite bargains from the dominant party, Frelimo, resulting in a temporary political settlement”.

After Dhlakama’s death in 2018, Vines wrote in the Mail & Guardian: “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.

“Dhlakama’s lasting legacy is political pluralism in Mozambique and hopefully greater political devolution with elected provincial governorships.” DM168

European Union to train 11 Mozambique special force companies to take on Islamic State 

Rita Laranjinha, the head of Africa for the European External Action Service – the European Union’s (EU’s) foreign service – said the Portuguese general in charge of the EU’s training mission was already in Mozambique and had met the commander of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in Mozambique (Samim). She emphasised that the EU would coordinate closely with Samim.

She also emphasised that the training would be part of a comprehensive EU programme to address the insurgency and should not be seen in isolation.

The programme included humanitarian aid and development support.

Laranjinha told DM168 the training mission was similar to those the EU was conducting in Mali, Somalia and the Central African Republic. She noted that the training had already begun under Portugal, which had been able to go into Mozambique more quickly than the EU, with its need to coordinate among 27 member states. This had now been converted to an EU mission.

EU ambassador to SA Riina Kionka noted that several such EU military training missions began similarly, launched by a single member state.

Concerns have been raised about who will fund the SADC Samim, which has been in Mozambique since July to support the Mozambican security forces. Its mission was indefinitely extended last month.

Officials have told DM168 that the nearly R1-billion that President Cyril Ramaphosa had originally requested for SA’s contribution to Samim would probably run out in January and that external financial support was needed.

SADC sources told DM168 that so far Samim was being fully funded by the organisation itself.

Laranjinha, who had just been in Gaborone, where she met SADC executive secretary Elias Magosi, said he had not requested EU financial support for Samim.

She could not say how the EU would respond to such a request, saying all 27 member states would have to decide. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.

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