Just to the northeast of South Africa, with a lengthy Indian Ocean coast, Mozambique has proven itself as something of a success story for the past two decades, often used as a data point for the viability of sub-Saharan investments and the rebuilding after civil war. In recent weeks, however, that story has proven to be unfinished, with the next chapter either being written in a new wave of natural gas revenues — or in blood.
In 1992, after a decade-long year civil war, the anti-communist RENAMO signed a peace treaty with the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front party, ending the war and agreeing to take part in government. Since then, the treaty has held mostly firm, though with a few wavers from RENAMO leaders to protest political disagreements. Despite those worrying moments, for two decades the treaty kept the two sides from open conflict, aside from in parliamentary debate, with RENAMO remaining in the opposition the entire time.
That lengthy period of calm took a turn for the worse several weeks ago, when RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama announced that his party had opted to withdraw from the treaty’s provisions entirely. The decision was sparked following a government raid into a RENAMO headquarters, after a string of attacks on public transit and against police officers that the government blamed the opposition party for organizing. Dhlakama has been in hiding since then, with only weeks to go until a municipal elections on Nov. 20 and national elections scheduled for 2014.
The situation has yet to fully spiral into a full-fledged conflict in the time since, but small-scale incidents continue to occur, leading to the sense that a small shift could lead to much wider-spread violence. Last week, the Mozambican army raided more RENAMO bases, accusing them of planning attacks against riot police in the area. Four Mozambican soldiers were killed on Wednesday in what the local media described as a RENAMO supporter-led attack. Vicente Ululu, a senior RENAMO official, also earlier this week rejected the government’s requests to hold new talks to dampen the heightened tension between the two sides.
In a phone interview with ThinkProgress, Amb. Johnnie Carson, formerly Assistant Secretary of State for Africa and now at the U.S. Institute for Peace, called RENAMO’s decision to pull out of the peace accord “regrettable and unfortunate,” adding that it “hopefully will be temporary and will be a political action, and lead to a political solution, rather than a military or security solution.” Carson also noted that while the agreement has been renounced, RENAMO’s 51 members of parliament are still holding their seats and remaining a part of the government.
Making the political crises all the more perplexing is the amount of opportunity that exists for Mozambique to become a leading power in its region. “Mozambique sits on one of the largest known reserves of gas in the world,” Carson told ThinkProgress, “and if that gas is exploited correctly, it has the potential of making Mozambique one of the wealthiest countries in sub-Saharan Africa.” At present Mozambique is one of the poorest countries worldwide, but has seen remarkable GDP growth in the last decade, last year posting a 7.4 percent growth rate.
“It is in the interest of the government to maintain its democratic image, its current political stability, in order to enhance its economic growth and its ability to expand and deliver social services to the people,” Carson said, noting that conflict will slow economic development and make it harder to acquire the foreign direct investment needed to keep the Mozambican economy growing. “I know that Dhlakama is upset that his party has not made a tremendous amount of headway towards capturing the government,” he continued, “but sometimes overcoming the strength of the party that brought the country to independence is a long-term journey.”
The United States has so far taken a ‘wait and see’ approach towards Mozambique. “Mozambique is a country that has been moving forward in a very positive way, and we hope that that continues,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Africa, said in a conference call with African journalists last month, according to the Global Post. “This is a setback but I believe it is only a temporary setback, and hopefully we can move forward from here,” she added.
“We are deeply concerned by the recent escalation of violence between government security forces and members of opposition party RENAMO,” deputy State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said during a daily press briefing two weeks ago. “We would reiterate again our appeal for continued dialogue between the parties, conducted in the spirit of good faith, inclusiveness, and openness.” While a travel warning has not been issued, Harf said more recently, the State Department is keeping a close eye on developments in the country.
The uncertainty about the situation in Mozambique has made it hard for it to gain much traction in media spheres, leading to cries of it being completely ignored. The difficulty in covering such an issue comes, however, in threading the line between wanting to avoid falling prey to stereotypes of Africa — only covering violence and mayhem or hyping every minor skirmish as a new civil war — and failing to adequately raise the profile of large-scale violence when it actually is occurring as seen in the Central African Republic. The situation in Mozambique, while worrying, is not nearly as clear cut as the CAR, making it difficult for journalists and analysts alike to determine whether what is occurring is a major story that needs focus or merely a hiccup in an otherwise relatively stable country.