Opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama and 800 former guerrillas have decamped to their old military base. Is this a tactic of negotiation or a retreat from it?
Chimoio - At the end of October, former Mozambican rebel leader Afonso Dhlakama, along with 800 of his former guerrillas, decamped to his former base near the Gorongosa Game Park.
Dhlakama is the leader of the National Resistance of Mozambique (RENAMO), the country's second largest political party and the main opposition party. The group had a key role in the civil war (1977-92), during which it - backed by the Ian Smith regime in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and the apartheid regime in South Africa - attempted to oust the ruling socialist Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO) party.
It has now been 20 years since the signing of the Rome General Peace Accord, which brought an end to the 15-year conflict, yet the violence of war remains fresh in the minds of many. Both sides were accused of war crimes, more than one million people were killed and more than five million were displaced.
While presented as a negotiating tactic, Dhlakama's move has nevertheless created anxiety amongst some Mozambicans, worried that the country could see a return of violence.
"A new political order"
The recent move by Dhlakama to decamp with former fighters followed reports that the Mozambican government failed to meet some of the demands of the opposition party which holds 51 of Mozambique's 250 parliamentary seats. RENAMO MP Ivone Soares said: "We want a new political order in Mozambique. We have already tried dialogue with FRELIMO but they don't take it seriously."
Dhlakama's demands include electoral reform and increased acknowledgement of the country's former fighters, a move backed by the Commission of the Forum of Demobilised Soldiers whose spokesperson was quoted as describing Dhlakama's move as "courageous and necessary".
Dhlakama is also said to want FRELIMO to share the wealth the government has acquired following the discovery of the country's mineral reserves. Mozambique has seen a decade of high reported GDP growth and is expecting this to continue with revenues from gas finds expected to come online by 2018. Dhlakama accused FRELIMO of keeping these spoils to itself and called President Armando Guebuza "robber-in-chief of public funds."
Dhlakama invited Guebuza to his new residence for negotiations and has demanded a transitional government be formed within one month, despite elections being two years away.
A retreat from demands...or from politics?
While Dhlakama's move has garnered much attention, some see it as a political retreat unlikely to help. Political commentator Joseph Hanlon, for example, suggested Dhlakama is "retiring" and that he is "retreating further and further and this is probably a statement that he does not take the next elections seriously", adding "they are old men".
Similarly, The Herald newspaper in Zimbabwe argues RENAMO has given FRELIMO free reign to control the government, saying: "The deeper issue is Mr Dhlakama's failure to capitalise on popular discontent against FRELIMO after the end of the civil war, or to build viable political machinery that could oppose the ruling party".
Some believe that RENAMO could soon be replaced as the country's main opposition party by the new Democratic Movement for Mozambique party (MDM), which some see as a break from the country's civil war era.
Fresh civil war concerns
For the moment, however, Dhlakama continues to wield significant influence and while calling for negotiations, some are concerned events could escalate and violence could return. During the civil war, RENAMO committed war crimes as part of its mission to destabilise the FRELIMO government. These included mass killings, rape and mutilation of civilian as well as the use of child soldiers, forced labour and sexual violence. Such horror is still fresh in the minds of many.
Shadreck Maphosa from Chipinge district in Zimbabwe told Think Africa Press, "RENAMO rebels were ruthless. Many people had their lips and noses cut by the rebels because our soldiers were fighting with FRELIMO government in Mozambique. I urge the SADC [Southern African Development Community] to act fast before the issue gets out of control".
Eduardo Mwaira from Tete province in Mozambique said, "I don't think it is a good move by Dhlakama - things must be settled amicably. We suffered a lot during the years of civil war and we were hoping that it is time to rebuild Mozambique."
Andrea Mucado, another Mozambican from Manica province, expressed similar sentiments, commenting: "We are all worried and we hope this could not end in a war again. We call the Mozambican government to open all channels of negotiations to avert a civil war."
Since Dhlakama's move, Isac Massamby, Minister Counsellor at the Mozambican embassy in Zimbabwe has assured people, saying: "the government has opened all channels to dialogue and this is very critical. There are so many channels at his disposal for discussions and one of them is parliament".
While many Mozambicans have some grievances with the current government, the vast majority are united in their hopes that the devastating conflict of the past will remain a thing of the past.
Andrew Mambondiyani is an awarding-winning Zimbabwean journalist with more than 10 years experience. He has reported extensively on political, environmental, agricultural and mining issues in Zimbabwe from the land reform program to illegal gold and diamond mining in the country. He has written for international publications, including Yale E360, a USA environmental magazine. From 2007 to 2008 he served as one of the inaugural fellows at Middlebury Fellowship on Environmental Journalism in USA.