Recent displays of armed violence and fragile politics demand a steady hand. But is the president up to the task?
Frelimo, Mozambique's party of government, completed its 11th Congress in Matola on 1 October, unanimously endorsing the current president, Filipe Nyusi, as president of the party and its de-facto presidential candidate in the 2019 elections. Nyusi has consolidated his power within the party through new appointments of allies to its political commission, and has weakened the influence of his predecessor, Armando Guebuza.
But outside of the party, Nyusi faces a growing political and economic challenges - and, as revealed over the past few days, the widening threat of armed violence.
The spectre of violence
On 5 October, a group of about 30 men attacked three police stations in Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado province. This followed a separate armed incident the previous day when an opposition mayor of the country's third city, Nampula, was shot dead as he attended a ceremony commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Rome General Peace Accords, which ended the civil war between the government and the opposition party, Renamo.
Since 2013, there has been a renewed armed power struggle between Renamo and the government, but these recent incidents suggest that armed violence is now spreading beyond this division. Nampula Mayor Mahamudo Amurane was a member of the non-armed opposition Democratic Movement of Mozambique (MDM), but had become increasingly estranged from his party and was planning to stand as an independent in the August 2018 municipal elections. His death could be linked to his dispute with MDM, or to his efforts to combat corruption in Nampula city.
The armed raid of Mocímboa da Praia is equally worrying. Although Mozambique police claim to have killed some 10 members of the armed gang and arrested two others, the ultimate motives of this hooded gang are unclear. The gang were armed with AK-47s (two were captured by police) and machetes and killed at least two police officers. They seem to have wanted to capture more firearms, a tactic that Renamo has also used during its armed operations against the government.
Initial press reports that this was an al Shabaab group appear incorrect. Al Shabaab has thus far only focused on countries contributing troops contributors to Somalia; Mozambique does not. It may still be the case that there is some sort of localised Islamist link to the gang, or another type of grievance - the sense of inequality is pronounced in Cabo Delgado and local communities feel increasingly disenfranchised by political elites that focus on their own enrichment.
The primary political issue for Nyusi is reconnect with the electorate. During the 11th Congress, he noted that in the 2014 presidential election Frelimo won only 2.8 million votes despite a party membership of 4.2 million. In concurrent parliamentary polls, it lost 47 deputies in the Assembly of the Republic.
An underperforming economy and agreement with the armed opposition party are the two other most pressing priorities.
In addition, a $2 billion debt scandal is unresolved, despite an independent probe by Kroll, a risk management firm. A group of 14 traditional donor countries froze their direct support of the state budget following the scandal - along with the IMF, they have signalled that the Kroll audit is the start of a process, not the end, and are seeking further information before considering releasing funds. The government is cash-starved; its stated expectation of reducing the state budget deficit from 10.7 per cent of GDP in 2017 to 9.7 per cent in 2018 looks over-optimistic. Nyusi will need to use his strengthened position following the Congress to reach internal consensus within Frelimo on disclosing enough additional information so that traditional donors feel reassured.
Mozambique also needs to urgently to improve its investment environment and confidence in its institutions. The World Economic Forum's new global competiveness ranking placed Mozambique 136 out of 137 countries (only Yemen was ranked lower) and the World Bank has lowered its annual institutional assessment of Mozambique's economic policies to a level comparable with South Sudan.
It is not all bad news. There has been progress in talks with Renamo. Nyusi and Renamo leader Afonso Dhlkama have agreed in principle to votes for elected governorships in the 2019 national elections. A strengthened Nyusi should be able to move the talks forward. Agreement on the integration of ex-Renamo combatants into the state security apparatus is still being discussed, but the conversation has moved on to details of seniority, numbers and affordability.
Nyusi needs now to demonstrate consistent leadership and make progress on restoring international confidence in the Mozambican government's stewardship of the economy and reach a lasting and sustainable agreement with Renamo. Both are possible but neither are straightforward, especially with municipal elections scheduled for October 2018 and national elections in 2019. For their part, donor countries and the IMF need to be careful that their principled squeeze on funds does not undermine this progress.
Longer term, Mozambique's economic prospects remain promising, with world class gas finds coming into production in the 2020s. But in the short term, it remains uncertain whether Mozambique's political leadership can deliver badly needed macroeconomic stability.
Dr Alex Vines OBE
Research Director, Area Studies and International Law; Head, Africa Programme