Since mid-2015, over 3 000 refugees from Mozambique have fled to neighbouring Malawi and are being housed in camps set up by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
The World Food Programme and Médecins sans Frontières are also now assisting with the influx of people who say they are fleeing reprisals from government soldiers against the low-level guerrilla warfare staged by Renamo (Mozambican National Resistance) rebels. This story has not, however, hit international headlines. Veteran rebel leader Afonso Dhlakama has insisted that his movement, Renamo, would take over the local administrations of the six central provinces (out of 11) that he believes were won in the elections in 2014.
Renamo refused to accept the results of those elections, which it claims were rigged, and insecurity in Mozambique has worsened since. Last Thursday, a new attack on Mozambique's main north-south highway saw three people injured. This was part of a series of ambushes on vehicles in the past few weeks. And on 20 January, Renamo secretary general Manuel Bissopo was shot and wounded in Mozambique's second biggest city Beira, and his bodyguard killed.
Bissopo was hospitalised in South Africa, according to the Mozambican News Agency, AIM, and government has launched an investigation into the assassination attempts. In the same report, AIM says that threats made by Renamo on 8 February, to set up armed roadblocks on the main highways in central Mozambique, amounts to 'tearing up the agreement of 5 September 2014 on the cessation of military hostilities.'
Institute for Security Studies (ISS) researcher Dimpho Motsamai warns that even though there are doubts about Renamo's military and financial capacity to sustain a war effort, it could temporarily render the country ungovernable. 'Government can no longer afford to dismiss the threats as mere warmongering,' she says.
Still, apart from alarm in Mozambique, and especially in the affected areas - particularly Tete province - the situation hasn't been put on the agenda of any of the continental institutions like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) or the African Union (AU).
According to Paula Roque, an expert on lusophone Africa and an Oxford University scholar, the relative dearth of international reaction is partly due to Mozambique being seen as one of Africa's post-conflict success stories. People are reluctant to let go of that narrative. 'There is also relatively little reporting in international media, partly because fighting has not reached the capital,' she says. It is not only African institutions that are at fault for not reacting, but the international community at large, Roque says.
Mozambique has indeed been hailed as an example of how a country can pick up the pieces after a devastating civil war, which ended in 1992. Its phenomenal economic growth, recently spurred by massive gas finds, contributed to optimistic predictions that Mozambique could become an economic giant in years to come.
Researchers concur, however, that although Mozambique's peacebuilding efforts were exemplary, not enough has been done to consolidate the gains made after the peace was signed with Renamo. Dhlakama is clearly still in wartime mode. He briefly came out of his hiding place and signed a peace deal to participate in the October 2014 elections, but has again urged his Renamo fighters to take up arms.
'Long-term goals of peacebuilding can be undermined by the temptations of immediate political gains,' say researchers Lisa Reppell, Jonathan Rozen, and Gustavo de Carvalho in a soon-to-be-published ISS report. De Carvalho explains: 'The current challenges in Mozambique provide a lesson on the importance of ensuring that peacebuilding processes are sustained, despite particular gains that might have been experienced.'
While Renamo's tactics are to be condemned, the opposition in Mozambique does have some legitimate grievances - especially when it comes to corruption by the elite within the governing Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), as noted by ISS researchers Sibongile Gida and Amanda Lucey. 'Although Renamo has been portrayed as the sole cause of the current conflict, the government does need to acknowledge some of the grievances put forward by the opposition,' they said. Tension in the country has also increased in recent years because the natural resource wealth has not been distributed equally.
Are the continent and the region turning a blind eye to what has been happening in Mozambique? Clearly the government doesn't want much international focus on the events for fear of scaring off potential investors. It has urged refugees to return home and has committed to relocating them to a safe haven. Reports of Mozambicans being forced to find refuge in a neighbouring country are harmful to its international reputation and evoke bad memories for everyone in the country.
For now, it doesn't seem as though regional leaders will get involved in mediation efforts, unless the violence escalates even further. This is despite reported calls by Dhlakama for South Africa's President Jacob Zuma to get involved in mediating in the crisis.
Asked whether South Africa would play a role in the political crisis in Mozambique, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, South Africa's Minister of International Relations and Cooperation, reportedly said that there had been no official request for South Africa to get involved. If such a request were to be made, the cabinet would first consult with the Mozambican government, she told the African News Agency during a visit to Maputo on Wednesday 10 February. 'Mozambique has an elected government,' she is quoted as saying.
Roque believes that given Renamo's legacy as a rebel movement supported by the former apartheid regime in South Africa, countries like neighbouring Zimbabwe would also not be keen to see SADC mediation. 'Renamo is on the wrong side of history.' Mozambique's neighbours did participate in a structure called the Military Team of International Observers for the Cessation of Military Hostilities, led by Botswana, set up to monitor the 2014 pre-election agreements.
Motsamai says the fact that the government insists that this is a domestic matter precludes regional mediation at this stage. 'It explains SADC's current position on Mozambique, which is a repeat of what happened in the past. When the clashes escalated in 2013 and Renamo said it ended its peace deal with the Frelimo government, SADC was the only organisation that remained mum on the developments. The AU, the European Union, the United States and others released statements condemning the acts and encouraging dialogue'.
At the time, Mozambique chaired SADC's security organ and its executive secretary was Mozambican. Currently, Mozambique's President Filipe Nyusi chairs the Organ for Peace, Politics, Defence and Security, so SADC cannot intervene without Nyusi's invitation, she says.
Some believe a neutral broker like the Italian government could again be roped in to try and get a new dialogue on the go. The Community of Saint'Egidio, an Italian Catholic organisation, was instrumental in getting Renamo to sign the September 2014 peace deal and to agree to participate in the elections. Saint'Egidio was also involved in mediating the first peace agreement in 1992, which ended the civil war.
In the short term, it seems to be up to Mozambicans to solve the crisis. Nyusi, who took up office in January 2015, has offered many times to negotiate with Dhlakama and dialogue has been ongoing with the opposition at a more informal level. However, Dhlakama retreated to his home in the Gorongosa mountains after his motorcade was attacked in September last year, and he has since refused to meet with Nyusi.
During a recent visit to Namibia, former president Joaquim Chissano said that dialogue with Renamo is the only viable way to resolve the current impasse and 'to avoid the killing of people in a more generalised conflict'. The impasse could be a ticking time bomb.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant