Mozambique’s main opposition party RENAMO declared it would boycott peace talks with the government on 14 September, further raising tensions in the wake of the country’s disputed 2014 election. The announcement comes amid a rise in sporadic violence in northern and central parts of the country in recent months, much of which has focused on mineral-rich Tete province. The escalating violence increases the threat from disruption to mining operations in the region, including the key Nacala rail and port corridor.
The boycott announcement marks the second time in two weeks RENAMO has refused to participate in the dialogue as tensions escalate over the faltering peace process. The dialogue was initiated by former President Armando Guebuza and RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama in the run up to the October 2014 presidential election as part of a ceasefire deal that ended two years of low-level conflict in central Mozambique. However, after 114 rounds of negotiations, the talks have delivered few tangible results, as tensions have meanwhile risen over RENAMO’s claims the government committed widespread fraud in the 2014 election.
Much of the recent violence has centred on the coal-mining province of Tete. A series of clashes beginning in July between RENAMO and police units in Tete forced thousands of civilians to flee into neighbouring Malawi in July. Both sides have accused the other of starting the violence and warned that the clashes could derail the peace process. RENAMO has also built a new military barracks in Morrumbala district in Zambezia province, which it said will be used to train personnel and protect civilian populations in northern and central Mozambique. A further escalation was reported on 12 September, when gunmen attacked a convoy carrying Dhlakama outside the city of Chimoio in the central Manica province, wounding seven, though the RENAMO leader escaped unharmed. Dhlakama has directly accused President Filipe Nyusi of ordering the attack and threatened to retaliate on 17 September, without providing further details.
The sporadic violence across northern and central Mozambique and RENAMO’s refusal to participate in the dialogue raises the prospect of a complete breakdown of the peace process. RENAMO’s primary motivation is likely aimed at undermining the government’s legitimacy in the north and centre of the country, where it is pushing for devolution of powers to provincial authorities. Trust between the two sides has been further undermined by RENAMO’s refusal to disarm and its insistence of equal representation on the boards of state-owned businesses. “Parity” of FRELIMO and RENAMO supporters on the boards of public companies have been a consistent demand of the opposition since October, as the group has currently claimed government allies dominate the most lucrative positions in the public sector. Both sides’ unwillingness to compromise means there is a strong possibility the peace talks could collapse before the end of the year.
In order to maintain pressure on the government in the peace talks, RENAMO will likely continue to carry out hit-and-run attacks in central and northern Mozambique, increasing the likelihood of further retaliations by the government. Although attacks will be primarily directed at state security forces, the 2013-2015 conflict demonstrated that the key north-south cargo route of the EN1 highway is also vulnerable to attack, raising the potential for shootings on civilian vehicles such as passenger buses and freight trucks. The concentration of recent violence in Tete province also indicates a threat to coal production, which the government hopes will reach 41.8 mn tonnes by 2017, making Mozambique one of the top ten global producers. In 2014, RENAMO fighters attacked a train belonging to Brazilian miner Vale travelling along the Sena line from Tete to the port at Beira. The group officially denied the attack, but it came less than six months after RENAMO said it would paralyse the movement of trains along the route.
The fighting also presents a potential threat to Vale’s multibillion dollar Nacala port and rail corridor project, which is expected to begin carrying coal exports this quarter. The project has already been subject to repeated delays due to financing and logistical issues and is seen as vital to Vale’s plans to increase production at the Moatize mine to 22 mn tonnes by 2017, up from 7 mn tonnes currently. As the corridor passes directly through Tete, landlocked Malawi, and then into the Mozambican provinces of Zambezia and Nampula, it traverses several of the areas that have seen recent attacks and displacement of civilians. Although no direct threats have been made against the line, any significant deterioration in security in those provinces could disrupt cargo movements. An escalation in attacks will be especially likely in the event the peace talks fail to resume or any further government assaults or assassinations target key RENAMO personnel. Any further announcements from RENAMO should be closely monitored as an indication the group may re-launch attacks, especially in relation to the claims President Nyusi ordered the attack on Dhlakama. Future RENAMO reprisals risk provoking the government into launching offensive operations, a move that would almost certainly result in a resumption of the low-intensity conflict seen in 2013-2014.