Pope Francis' visit to Mozambique on 4-6 September comes at a critical political moment. The theme for the papal Africa trip (which also includes Madagascar and Mauritius) is 'pilgrim of hope, peace and reconciliation'. This is especially relevant for Mozambique, as this is the first week of the official campaign for Mozambique's sixth national elections on 15 October.
It is also the one-month anniversary of the Maputo Accords for Peace and Reconciliation between the government and the armed opposition, RENAMO (and the fifth anniversary of the previous such agreement in 2014).
What is unusual is that the pope accepted to visit Mozambique just after a peace accord and in the run-up to national elections. Something similar has happened only once, when Pope John Paul II visited Angola in June 1992 (following the Bicesse Accords) prior to the country's first ever national elections in September. Unfortunately Pope John Paul's preaching of reconciliation and pluralism failed and civil war resumed some months later, following rejection of the preliminary election results. Angola's civil war only finally ended a decade later in 2002.
The last papal visit to Mozambique was also by Pope John Paul II in 1988, when civil war was still ongoing, and the country was still a single party state. Despite the war, massive congregations attended and RENAMO reached local ceasefires and agreements to maintain electricity supply to honour the visit. Some of the seeds for the Rome peace process were laid during this trip - especially as it also represented a formal reconciliation of FRELIMO, the ruling party, with the Catholic Church.
This papal visit to Mozambique is equally anticipated, as was highlighted several times during speeches at the 6 August peace agreement signing in Maputo. When I was in Maputo last month, sales of papal-pictured capulanas (a Mozambican sarong) were brisk and Mozambican television carried countdown clocks on many programmes for the touchdown of Pope Francis on national soil.
The Catholic Church has played an instrumental role in promoting peace in Mozambique over the years. The 1977-92 civil war ended through negotiations hosted at the Sant' Egidio lay community in Rome, and the current Archbishop of Bologna, Dom Matteo Zuppi (who led the Sant' Egido negotiations in 1992 and is soon to be made a cardinal) was an official witness to 6 August accords signing.
When targeted armed conflict resumed in 2013, faith groups once more re-engaged and in 2016 Sant' Egidio once more co-led mediation efforts, less successfully than in 1991-92. Sant' Egidio (including during a presidential visit to Rome in July) contributed to convincing the Vatican that this papal visit should occur before the October elections.
President Filipe Nyusi anxiously wanted this visit to occur before the elections. He is seeking re-election for his second and final term and a papal visit should help win some votes. His party, FRELIMO, is also worried about securing a majority in the national assembly, as it has been weakened by patchy delivery of services and ongoing high-level corruption scandals.
This year, President Nyusi's priorities have been to show that he can attract international investment (such as Andarko's recently announced final investment decision on its gas project), a peace agreement with RENAMO (the August agreements) and a papal visit, so a successful trip would complete his goals.
The pope's 'hope, peace and reconciliation' message of his visit is important. Twice previously, the FRELIMO-led government and RENAMO have reached definitive agreements, in Rome (1992) and Maputo (2014), but failed to fully end bloodshed. This new August 2019 agreement is the third attempt, and if it is to last, it will require political goodwill, compromise and an acceptance of more inclusive national politics by both parties.
There are two immediate threats to this agreement. The first is the forthcoming 15 October elections and their conduct could make or break it. Accepting reconciliation and greater pluralism underpins this agreement, but RENAMO expects to increase its share of the parliamentary vote and win a majority in some provinces (and therefore indirectly elect their choice for governor).
A second threat is the 'Military Junta', a RENAMO splinter group that claims to be 500 strong, but probably accounts for 80 armed persons. It rejects the 6 August agreement and warns that it could disrupt the elections. This group has asked for mediation, and hopefully can be accommodated in a side deal to the main one agreed in August, which already provides for the reintegration of over 5,000 RENAMO supporters and combatants.
A recent Chatham House research paper on elite bargains in Mozambique concluded that the October elections will be the first immediate test of the August agreement. If the elections pass without significant electoral manipulation or violence and this August deal sticks on the third attempt, the domestic focus should then move onto poverty reduction, combating inequality, education and solving the new security crisis with Islamic militants in Cabo Delgado province.
Dr Alex Vines OBE, Research Director, Risk, Ethics and Resilience and Head, Africa Programme