Historical memory and recent political violence in central Mozambique

Justin Pearce, University of Cambridge

In April 2013, Mozambican riot police dispersed a gathering of veterans from the one-time rebel movement Renamo in Muxúnguè, a small town in Sofala province in central Mozambique. The next morning Renamo retaliated, shooting at the police post and killing at least three police officers. Over the following year Renamo regularly ambushed traffic on the country’s main arterial road. Violence was suspended only after the government and Renamo began peace talks that raised possible political concessions to Renamo. Local and national elections went ahead in 2013 and 2014, but sporadic violence has resumed in several provinces, and the road near Muxúnguè suffered more ambushes in early 2016. Renamo retains an armed force and the two sides seem no closer to reaching a permanent agreement. More than twenty years after the end of the civil war (1976-92), violence is again part of the calculus of Mozambican politics. The 2014 election saw a surge in votes for Renamo.My research tries to explain the surprising degree of both tacit and active support among civilians for the new low-level insurgency.

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the road near Muxúnguè where many ambushes took place

Events since 2012 need to be located within several layers of history: most recently, that of Renamo’s fortunes since the war. The 1992 Rome Peace Accord envisaged Renamo’s transformation into a political party in a multiparty system, but also conceded to Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama the right to retain bodyguards, and to nominate national army officers in equal numbers to those appointed by the government. Renamo’s electoral support peaked in 1999, followed by a decline that has been attributed both to poor party management and to a lack of opportunities for patronage. In 2012, Dhlakama left Maputo for the northern city of Nampula, claiming he was in danger in the capital. Later that year, his bodyguards exchanged fire with government security forces. Dhlakama subsequently withdrew to Satungira, a wartime redoubt in Sofala province.

But to understand the violence that shifted to Sofala in 2013, we also need to look at the history of the civil war, which has already been the subject of scholarly debate. Early studies emphasised Renamo’s support from white Rhodesia and South Africa, and the violent nature of its relationship with Mozambican people. Later studies revealed how Renamo had in parts of Mozambique capitalised upon local grievance against Frelimo policy in order to build a consensual relationship with rural people. I interviewed civilians in two districts of Sofala province. In the coastal Machanga district, Renamo never held territory during the civil war, while government control was limited to a few centres. The farming and fishing communities who live there had experienced both Renamo and Frelimo as aggressive forces. In the inland Chibabava district, which includes Muxúnguè, Renamo during the war controlled territory and part of the population.

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Muxúnguè town

Interestingly, though, people shared a common view of the history of colonisation, nationalism and independence irrespective of wartime control: an indication that this history was not simply the legacy of Renamo propaganda. Interviews in both districts revealed a consistent narrative linking understandings of past events to the legitimacy of political actors in the present, which served to challenge Frelimo’s authority. It has to do with the ascendency in the late 1960s of a southern faction within Frelimo which, people say, displaced central Mozambican nationalists associated with the former Mozambican National Democratic Union.

Stories of the early independence years were equally consistent. People complained about the collectivisation policies and restrictions on trade and travel imposed by Frelimo. Today, these practices are no more, and interviewees agreed this represented an improvement on the post-independence years. Yet life today is no better than before independence, people say: produce prices are low, paid employment barely exists, police and civil servants extort bribes while bandits rob with impunity. These complaints are accompanied by a conviction that central and northern Mozambique suffers discrimination by a southern elite.

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rural central Mozambique – resentment lingers about the
agricultural policies of earlier years

While these accounts were common to both districts, people who had lived under Renamo control during the 1976-92 war added a further detail: that Renamo’s war had been a just struggle against an overbearing Frelimo state. People who lived amid the 2013-14 violence linked narratives about the past to the present by framing today’s grievances as a denial of the freedom that Frelimo claimed to have won: typical remarks are, “how can we be free when you can’t walk out of your house at night without a bandit grabbing you by the neck?” or “what independence is this when you have to pay a tax on a bicycle?” Fraud in recent elections was seen as a denial of the “democracy” that Renamo claimed to have forced Frelimo to adopt in 1992.

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the Renamo base in Muxúnguè where riot police dispersed a Renamo
gathering in 2013

Since 2012 Renamo has benefited by appropriating a popular narrative that was not of its own making, but which allowed Renamo to present its use of violence as consistent with a history of struggle for independence, and later against the supposed authoritarianism and ethno-regional discrimination practised by Frelimo during the 1980s. In this way it challenges Frelimo’s claims to sovereign authority that depend on the ruling party’s own preferred history of united nationalism. 

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