Mozambique: Attacks on cargo in central provinces to continue despite agreement on peace talks

24 Jun 2016

Mozambique: Attacks on cargo in central provinces ...
  •   An agreement between the Mozambican government and the RENAMO opposition movement to participate in peace talks under international mediation is unlikely to bring an end to a surge in attacks on road and rail cargo. 
  •   A formal peace agreement will likely take months to negotiate, during which time RENAMO will continue its attacks and look to consolidate its position in central and northern Mozambique.
  •   Any major escalation in fighting or targeted attacks on key RENAMO figures during negotiations will severely jeopardise the peace talks, further prolonging current hostilities and the threat to cargo movements.

The agreement to begin peace talks represents a major concession by the government and follows a significant increase in RENAMO attacks on key infrastructure, cargo and security forces in the past six months. RENAMO resumed its insurgency against the government in 2013, two decades after a civil war between the two sides ended in 1992. A deal signed in August 2014 led to a cessation of hostilities, but violence broke out again after the disputed general election the following October. Since the beginning of this year the group has intensified its attacks, regularly firing on road transport along the main N1 north-south highway and, on 7 June, on a train operated by Brazil’s Vale in Sofala province, wounding the driver’s assistant. The attack was the first against a train since RENAMO stepped up its attacks at the beginning of this year, raising concerns of disruption to freight along the vital Sena line between coal-rich Tete province and the port of Beira. The group has also seized control of government offices and police stations in small towns across north and central Mozambique in line with its threat to install a parallel governing administration in those regions where it claims to have won the 2014 election. 

Political violence incidents involving RENAMO in the past 12 months. Source: Risk Portal

The steady increase in violence and RENAMO’s efforts to forcibly seize territory have raised growing concerns that what has largely been a low-level insurgency could escalate into a broader conflict. In May, the government began deploying some 5,000 troops to Sofala and Manica provinces, threatening an offensive unless RENAMO ceased its attacks. Although this may have contributed to the decision by RENAMO’s leader Afonso Dhlakama to agree to negotiations on 17 June, this was on the strict condition that both sides could choose the mediators.

Significantly, Dhlakama has refused to commit to a ceasefire during the talks, and the presence of large numbers of government forces in key RENAMO provinces makes further confrontations likely. Invitations for the mediators were due to be dispatched by 24 June, with RENAMO proposing that the EU, Catholic Church and South African President Jacob Zuma participate. The talks are expected to begin shortly after the mediators have made their response.

The agreement to hold the talks, however, is just an initial step in the peace process, which will likely be subject to fraught and protracted negotiations. Among the most contentious issues is RENAMO’s demand for a semi-autonomous government in the six central and northern provinces where it claims to have won the contested 2014 election. President Filipe Nyusi is highly unlikely to agree to this concession, considering the huge opposition from within the ruling FRELIMO party and the economic significance of these provinces, which include many of Mozambique’s most valuable mining, rail and port assets. With the government facing a major financial crisis after the discovery of USD 1.4 bn in undisclosed state-backed loans in April and the subsequent suspension of foreign aid, Nyusi can neither afford to lose the provinces, nor allow the fighting to escalate and cause wider economic instability.

Recognising the difficulties facing Nyusi, RENAMO will likely continue its strategy of conducting hit and run attacks on economic assets in order to strengthen its negotiating position. Over the remainder of the year, attacks will continue on road transport along the N1 highway and mining infrastructure, including the Sena line, in central Mozambique. A continuation of the attacks will in turn increase pressure on the negotiations, prolonging the talks and possibly resulting in their suspension. Although Nyusi will be unwilling to agree to RENAMO’s demand for greater autonomy in the centre and north of the country, other concessions are possible, including the allocation of political and security posts to key RENAMO leaders. These were a key demand of RENAMO during previous peace negotiations, though an unwillingness of the government to accept “parity” of FRELIMO and RENAMO leaders on the boards of public companies undermined the dialogue and will likely remain a key source of contention between the two sides.

Notable risk factors that could derail the talks and result in a major escalation in fighting include any major attacks – by either side – that result in significant loss of life or disruption to economic activity. Ambushes targeting key RENAMO personnel, including two failed attacks on Dhlakama in September 2015, have also previously proven highly destabilising and will likely undermine confidence in any future dialogue. The capture of any major towns by RENAMO is also likely to provoke retaliation by the government to re-take lost territory and could lead to the indefinite cessation of peace talks. 


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