Political Tensions Threaten Mozambique’s Tenuous Peace

A woman walks past a campaign poster showing Afonso Dhlakama, presidential candidate for the Renamo party, Maputo, Mozambique, Nov. 30, 2004 (AP photo/STR).
A woman walks past a campaign poster showing Afonso Dhlakama, presidential candidate for the Renamo party, Maputo, Mozambique, Nov. 30, 2004 (AP photo/STR).
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Long considered to be a post-conflict success story, Mozambique currently finds itself in a period of uncertainty, with past political progress and current economic opportunities threatened by unresolved tensions on both fronts. The government’s decades-long war with the Mozambican National Resistance, a rebel group turned political party that is known as Renamo, officially ended 24 years ago. After a period of postwar reconstruction, the country has enjoyed steady and solid economic progress. GDP growth has averaged between 7 and 8 percent for the past decade, and the discovery of significant reserves of coal and gas have driven robust foreign investment. In 2013, Forbes magazine reported that Mozambique had the largest oil or gas find of the year. According to the Financial Times, foreign direct investment increased 67 percent in 2014 over the previous year, to $9 billion. And according to the IMF, total investment in Mozambique’s Rovuma gas fields alone is eventually expected to reach $100 billion. With such progress, Mozambique seems to be on the road to transitioning from a highly aid-dependent country to an important site of private investment from former donors such as the United States.

Yet beneath strong economic growth and political progress marked by five consecutive multiparty elections, problems such as poverty, inequality, corruption and political violence persist. Most worryingly, economic prosperity has been undermined since the return of political instability and violence in 2012. That year, renewed tensions between Renamo and the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front, known as Frelimo, called into question the political progress made since 1992, worrying investors and tarnishing the country’s image as a postwar success story. In 2013, Renamo’s leader, Afonso Dhlakama, took his armed rebels back to the bush, where they began attacking road and rail traffic in the center of the country. Rail transport of coal between two major coal-producing provinces, Tete and Beira, dropped by half, and Rio Tinto, one of the major coal-mining corporations operating in the region, briefly suspended shipments due to security concerns.

After months of episodic violence, the government and Renamo rebels signed a peace agreement in August 2014. But important issues remain unresolved, including the demobilization of Renamo’s “residual forces,” as they are known, who are still armed in the bush in the center of the country. Reintegrating these forces into the army and police has been a political football since 1992, compounded by political discord between Renamo and Frelimo over provincial autonomy and the distribution of natural-resource wealth. Until these obstacles are overcome, preserving the country’s political stability and developing its economic potential will remain at risk.

Natural Resources and Politics Collide

Since 1998, the government has embarked on a gradual process of municipalization, which aims to give local elected governments more power to handle the provision of some essential services. In most municipalities—there are now 53—Frelimo candidates have consistently won mayoral races and most of the seats in municipal assemblies. But in Beira, the country’s historic “second city” and the capital of Sofala province, an opposition mayor, Daviz Simango, was elected in 2003 on a Renamo ticket, and has governed since. However, Simango was re-elected in 2008 and again for a third term in 2013 under the banner of his own party, the Democratic Movement of Mozambique (MDM), which he established in 2008 after breaking with Renamo. The party’s entry into Mozambique’s political arena has had significant implications for the country’s postwar political accommodation, which will be examined later.

As Mozambique’s previously untapped natural resources—including coal, gas, semi-precious stones and timber—continue to come online, they have become an increasingly political issue. Pressures have mounted from the opposition to diffuse power and offer a greater voice to the provinces where resource rents originate. While some elements of Frelimo have echoed those calls, the party’s leadership has routinely rejected Renamo’s proposals.

Beneath strong economic growth and political progress, poverty, corruption and political violence persist.

Currently, provincial governors are appointed by the president, while the elected provincial assemblies created in 2009 are purely consultative. For years, Dhlakama has pushed for Renamo members to be appointed in the central and northern provinces where the party’s support base lies. In March 2015, Renamo submitted a bill to the National Assembly, Mozambique’s parliament, calling for the creation of “provincial municipalities” with elected governors to accompany elected provincial assemblies that wield legitimate power. Under the proposed legislation, a provincial government would have been entitled to 50 percent of revenues the state generates from mineral, oil and gas extraction in that province. But the provincial-autonomy bill was promptly voted down as unconstitutional.

Faced with opposition from Frelimo legislators, Renamo submitted a follow-up bill in December 2015 that aimed to amend the constitution to allow greater provincial autonomy. Although it too was rejected, the National Assembly recommended creating an ad hoc commission to look into ways to achieve further decentralization.

The intersection of the movement to devolve power and the natural-resources boom has earned Renamo some electoral successes. With the exception of Cabo Delgado, which has a long historic association with Frelimo, most residents of resource-rich provinces lean toward the opposition—Renamo and more recently the MDM. Until the 2009 elections, the first in which the MDM participated, Renamo won around one-third of the votes in every presidential and national legislative election, reaching 47 percent in the 1999 presidential race. From 2003 to 2008, it governed in five municipalities: In addition to Beira, it won Marromeu, also in the province of Sofala, as well as Angoche, Nacala Porto and Ilha de Mocambique, all in Nampula province.

In 2008, however, Renamo’s electoral fortunes took a turn for the worse, when Simango defected and formed the MDM. In October 2009, the MDM competed in presidential and legislative elections, winning eight seats—the best showing by a third party in any Mozambican election. The party’s success was all the more remarkable given that the National Elections Commission had banned it from running in all but four provinces, due to alleged mistakes in its registration paperwork. In that same election, Renamo lost more than half of its vote share, polling just over 16 percent of the vote in the presidential race and retaining just 51 seats in the National Assembly. In the 2008 elections, Renamo lost all of the municipalities it had previously secured. Frelimo, by contrast, held 191 legislative seats.

In 2013, Renamo boycotted the national polls, having already reverted to fighting the government with bullets instead of ballots. In Renamo’s absence from electoral politics, Simango’s MDM retained control of Beira and won two more provincial capitals, Nampula and Quelimane, as well as Gurue, a town in Zambezia province. Nampula and Zambezia, where four of the cities are located, are as rich with voters as they are with natural resources—they are the most populated of the country’s 11 electoral districts, which comprise Mozambique’s 10 provinces and the capital city of Maputo.

For 15 years after the civil war ended, Renamo had been the only opposition party that mattered, with the political landscape polarized between Renamo and Frelimo. But the MDM’s rise changed the nature of politics in Mozambique. That shift, coupled with decentralization and the politics of natural resources, shook up the post-1992 party system and has shaped contemporary political disputes and challenges.

Frelimo’s Grasp on Power

Despite Renamo’s political inclusion and nearly regular participation in elections following the 1992 agreement, Frelimo has consistently used state resources to ensure an electoral advantage. In addition to using government vehicles and state employees for campaigning purposes during working hours, the party has declared work holidays for Frelimo rallies and tilted electoral administration processes in its favor. The Mozambique Electoral Commission’s behavior has been a source of contention in every vote, particularly since 1999. That year, Frelimo’s candidate, Joaquim Chissano, narrowly defeated Renamo’s Dhlakama, but many argued that the electoral commission had discarded numerous ballots from provinces that were expected to vote for Renamo candidates.

In the 2009 legislative election, the electoral commission excluded the MDM, which was running for the first time, from the ballot in seven of the 11 provinces, exacerbating widespread skepticism over the body’s independence from Frelimo. Tabulation has been far from transparent in each election, prompting repeated calls for electoral laws to be revised to give opposition parties and civil society more say in the process.

By that point, it appeared that Frelimo had locked in a monopoly on power at all levels, blurring the lines between party and state and exploiting the multiplying opportunities linked to natural resources. Armando Emilio Guebuza’s victory in the 2004 presidential election was partly responsible for that trend. During his two terms as president, which ended in 2014, Guebuza sought to reassert Frelimo’s role beyond government and into professional and personal life, often cracking down on dissent. During Guebuza’s last year in office, noted economist Carlos Castel Branco was detained and later tried for publishing an open letter criticizing him. Civil servants complained that party loyalty had become a litmus test for promotion and access to other benefits, such as concessionary loans and investment deals.

The MDM’s rise changed the nature of politics in Mozambique.

Guebuza’s leadership was also marked by a number of questionable investment deals that significantly increased national debt while reportedly lining the pockets of key members of his private circle. One particular deal, an opaque venture in which state funds were used to purchase overpriced fishing and patrol vessels through the state-owned Mozambican Tuna Company, known as Ematum, was perhaps the most egregious example of Guebuza’s cronyism and caused several stalwart donor countries, including Belgium, Holland, Norway and Spain, to withdraw their general budget support. The group of 19 countries that provides general budget support subsequently cut its aid to Mozambique by 11 percent the following year, citing corruption and a lack of transparency.

The Ematum deal is emblematic of the challenges of exploiting a natural-resource bonanza in a fragile political context. Guebuza presided over a period of prodigious growth in foreign direct investment and a steady rise in GDP that is projected to continue well into the future. The expected revenue from coal and liquefied natural gas are only now beginning to trickle in, but it is already making an impact. Yet under Guebuza’s presidency, national debt ballooned from $4.8 billion to $7 billion in a few short years, demonstrating how a handful of business deals that promised high returns for ruling party politicians, but little for the country as a whole, can undermine growth in very concrete terms. Frelimo, with its roots as an armed liberation movement that fought for independence from Portugal, long enjoyed a reputation as one of the more institutionalized and less personality-driven parties in Africa, albeit not one without weaknesses. Yet more than two decades of peacetime rule in a multiparty system have exposed numerous fault lines within the party.

As Guebuza attempted to use his political power to gain a sizeable stake in the country’s newfound resource wealth, those internal fractures deepened. When his constitutional limit of two terms ended in 2014, Guebuza attempted to handpick his successor, violating party norms and drawing fire from a rival faction that had emerged within the party. Ultimately, Filipe Nyusi, one of the three Frelimo members Guebuza had selected to succeed him, emerged as the party’s candidate.

But even after Nyusi was elected president in 2015, Guebuza, who remained president of the party, clung to his leadership role to stifle internal and external criticism. He was ultimately forced out of the position at the next party congress, after some party members, arguing that Guebuza valued excessive personal gain over the party and the economy, succeeded in sidelining his supporters.

nyusiFilipe Nyusi is sworn in as Mozambican president, Maputo, Jan. 15, 2015 (AP photo by Ferhat Momade).

Between the resource boom and political tensions, poverty reduction has fallen by the wayside. Despite optimistic projections from the likes of Forbes magazine, economic conditions for average Mozambicans have not improved, fueling resentment toward the government. Riots in 2008 and 2010 over increases in the cost of basic goods and services resulted in violent confrontations with government forces. Civil servants worry that their children are no longer assured of a better future, and that the circle of beneficiaries of the country’s wealth is shrinking. University graduates are not finding jobs, and 90 percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day. The Multidimensional Poverty Index ranks Mozambique among the 12 poorest countries in the world. The U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index ranks Mozambique 178th of the 187 countries surveyed. This is a striking statistic for a country that has had the second-highest year-on-year growth among non-oil producers in sub-Saharan Africa since 1995.

Renamo’s Return to Arms

Against this backdrop, the resurgence of Renamo’s armed attacks in 2013 elicited public outrage at the former rebel group’s return to violence after years of calm. Anger was also directed at the Frelimo government’s inability to deliver tangible social and economic improvements, and its refusal to accommodate Renamo’s demands for greater political and economic inclusion—two failures considered to have driven Renamo’s recourse to force.

The factors driving Renamo’s return to arms are complex, but they were largely a product of postwar political dynamics, fed by natural-resource discoveries and wealth; changes within the ruling party; and Renamo’s own organizational weaknesses. Faced with Guebuza’s heavy-handed leadership, the MDM’s rise and Frelimo’s obstinacy over provincial autonomy, Renamo’s political prospects seemed limited—and violence appeared to be a more viable alternative. With its return to the bush, Renamo sought to turn back the clock, reassert its role as the government’s “partner in peace,” and claim what it considered to be a fair share in the country’s institutions. For example, Renamo pressed for parity in integrating its fighters into state security forces, as well as a return to earlier postwar models of election administration, in which election commissions had greater representation from opposition parties at all levels.

In February 2014, the government and Renamo signed an agreement on a more inclusive structure for the electoral administration, doubling the number of opposition-party representatives at the national level as well as on provincial and district-level election commissions. Although that deal sought to bring Renamo back into politics, major points of contention, such as separating the state and its resources from the ruling party, as well as integrating Renamo fighters into state security forces, remained unresolved, stalling progress thereafter.

Five months later, Renamo and Frelimo finally reached a cease-fire, and a peace accord was signed on Sept. 4, in time for Renamo to participate in the fifth postwar general elections which took place in October. In that vote, Renamo reclaimed its place as an opposition force to be reckoned with, winning 37 percent of the presidential vote and 89 of 250 seats in the parliament. Frelimo’s vote share tumbled from 75 percent to 57 percent in the presidential race, and the party lost 50 seats in the parliament, while the MDM doubled its representation to 17 seats.

The September agreement also called for a general amnesty for crimes committed by Renamo forces during its return to the bush, and gave the group until February 2015 to demobilize its so-called “residual forces” and integrate them into the police or armed forces, or into society as civilians. This was to be done under the observation of an international team drawn from other African countries and international donors, including the U.S., U.K., Italy and Portugal. However, Renamo failed to provide a list of personnel to be integrated into the police and security forces. Even after a 120-day extension of its mandate, the observer team ultimately left the country without fulfilling its mission. Only halting progress has been made on reintegration since.

In June 2015, a further agreement was reached on the separation of the ruling party and the state, another of Renamo’s demands in negotiations to restore national stability. The agreement calls for an end to party branches within state and public institutions and an end to wage garnishment for party dues; forbids civil servants from engaging in partisan activity during working hours; and requires that candidates for government positions and chairmanships of public companies be recruited transparently, rather than being appointed behind closed doors. It also recommends creating a commission to monitor the implementation of those recommendations. Although some of these changes had been on the books since the 1992 agreement, the Guebuza administration left them unenforced. In fact, many of Renamo’s demands in 2013 and 2014 are rooted in Frelimo’s failure to fully implement provisions of the 1992 peace agreement, which sought to include Renamo personnel in key state institutions, notably the police and security forces.

Renamo’s political prospects seemed limited—and violence appeared to be a more viable alternative.

For its part, Frelimo has maintained since 2004 that electoral results, and not the 1992 peace accord, should form the basis for allocating power—in other words, that the logic of competitive elections should replace the inclusive ideals of the distant peace process. Its critics, including Renamo, point out that Frelimo closely manipulates those elections to ensure the outcomes it desires. The agreements signed in the wake of the latest bout of armed conflict are a nod to Renamo’s desire to be the government’s essential partner in peace, one that thereby deserves inclusion and access to the state and its resources regardless of its performance in multiparty elections and other formal processes and institutions. But the arrangement remains tenuous and fragile.

Relics of the Past

How did Mozambique get here? Many would have expected that two decades of peace, laced with discoveries of some of the world’s largest deposits of mineral resources, lavish donor attention and a fairly stable two-party system, would produce a more promising outlook. But Mozambique’s experience underscores how a focus on electoral democracy, or at least on elections dubbed free and fair according to international standards, is not a sufficient guarantor of stability. International praise and optimistic policy prescriptions from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund can mask a weak foundation not conducive to political and economic stability. In Mozambique’s case, the political system has rested on an informal understanding about the importance of inclusion—a bargain that rested heavily on the goodwill of the negotiating partners.

At the heart of this bargain was the General Peace Accords, signed in Rome in October 1992, which halted the 16-year war between Renamo and the Frelimo-led government and marked Renamo’s emergence as a formal political entity. Mozambique’s transition from war to peace was thus also a shift from a single-party state to a competitive multiparty system, in which the war’s protagonists became the country’s major political actors. That leap from violent conflict to political competition earned the country praise as an early success for liberal peacebuilding. A multidimensional United Nations Observation Mission, ONUMOZ, monitored the cease-fire and oversaw the processes of demobilizing Renamo forces, forming a unified army and reintegrating those demobilized troops into civilian life. The mission also organized the country’s first elections, an important marker of a transition to postwar politics.

In signing the agreement, both Frelimo and Renamo seemingly embraced democratic competition. But in practice, each side was reluctant to surrender its fate to the uncertainties of elections. During peace talks, Renamo saw participation in elections as necessary, but not sufficient; the group expected elections to be supplemented by consultation and negotiation between the two major parties, due to what it saw as the state’s lack of credibility as both a player and referee in the democratic game. Frelimo, for its part, avowed its preference for elections as the last word in power allocation, but was skeptical about administrative opacity and more serious problems with the electoral commission’s integrity. In other words, the ruling party accepted electoral politics, assuming that it could control the electoral commission and limit transparency and oversight in its favor.

Over time, a pattern emerged in which elections were followed by opposition-led protests of fraud and incompetence, which in turn prompted face-saving consultations between the parties’ respective leaderships. Generally, these talks did not change electoral procedures or outcomes, but they were a sufficient mechanism to maintain peace. For the decade that followed the 1992 agreement, Renamo consistently made a credible showing in presidential and parliamentary elections, though Frelimo always emerged victorious. That competition, coupled with post-election consultations, prevented Renamo from feeling entirely marginalized, at least for a while.

Armando Guebuza’s victory in the 2004 presidential election disrupted that pattern of dialogue, and over the course of his leadership, Frelimo abandoned any pretense of consultation or consensus-building with the opposition. At the same time, Renamo’s own weaknesses as a party, notably its continued personalization around its leader, Dhlakama, led to increasingly lopsided electoral results.

The MDM’s entry onto the political scene compounded Renamo’s decline. In the 2009 elections, voter support for Renamo registered at an all-time low. In addition, a number of the party’s parliamentary leaders had defected to the MDM, and it was clear that Frelimo was no longer interested in maintaining the old formula of “elections plus negotiations.” The game had changed. Dhlakama withdrew to Nampula province, threatening obliquely to divide the country. Renamo’s parliamentary delegation was relegated to the margins, and the party’s future looked dim.

External forces alone were not responsible for that downfall. Renamo had done little to develop itself as an organized party, and that was one of the factors behind the MDM’s success. Dhlakama refused to countenance political success for others in the party, keeping Renamo’s organizational capacities weak by design. He also ran in each presidential election, but never made himself a candidate for the National Assembly, remaining forever on the outside of the political establishment, suspicious of his own party’s legislators and especially those who enjoyed a measure of respect and visibility.

Even in 2003, when Renamo candidates won mayoral races in five municipalities, the party was thwarted not only by the ruling party’s efforts to prevent them from succeeding—which included, for example, withholding transfers of revenue and authority from the central state—but also by the absence of institutional party channels to structure policy, decision-making or strategic cooperation across municipalities. Though effectuating change as a minority party in municipal government and the National Assembly was never going to be easy, Renamo’s participation in both venues sometimes seemed aimed more at gaining leverage in negotiations than at governing effectively.

The MDM’s rise compounded the sense that Renamo was losing relevance. In many cases, Renamo’s reflex when faced with political setbacks has been to stand back, withdrawing from participation in parliament or boycotting elections, leaving Frelimo to govern alone without effective opposition. Accordingly, the party boycotted the November 2013 municipal elections, opting instead for armed force to advance its demands. As previously mentioned, that created space for the MDM, which made a very strong showing, coming away with three provincial capitals—Quelimane, Beira and Nampula—as well as Gurue, in Zambezia. The MDM was in a near dead heat with Frelimo in two other towns in Zambezia and won 40 percent of the mayoral vote in Maputo.

In order to re-emerge as a viable political actor capable of competing with the MDM and breaking Frelimo’s monopoly on power, Renamo realized it would have to rejoin formal government institutions and develop strategies beyond simply refusing to participate or reverting to violence. And it might be doing just that: In the 2014 elections, Renamo demonstrated its ability to mobilize voters, particularly in the resource-rich provinces of Nampula, Niassa, Zambezia, Sofala and Tete.

New Game?

Nevertheless, Renamo’s return to arms in 2013 and Dhlakama’s subsequent triumphant re-entry to politics in October 2014 were the reflection, rather than the cause, of change in Mozambique. The delicate balance of competition and consultation established during the decade following the war gave way to Guebuza’s bare-knuckles approach of maximizing Frelimo’s authority at the expense of political inclusion and equitable distribution of resources. All the while, social, political and economic forces bubbled beneath the surface, as unresolved issues from the postwar transition festered and Renamo’s long-deferred demands for meaningful political inclusion, left unaddressed, gained steam.

At the same time, however, Mozambicans have found new spaces to air their grievances. Expanded Internet access and the use of social media have bolstered readership of independent newspapers and encouraged the broad dissemination of critical commentary that was previously contained to private settings. Demands for greater ethnic diversity in politics have come to the fore during the past four successive municipal elections. Frelimo, Renamo and the MDM all draw from multiple ethnic groups, but certain ethnicities have dominated each party’s leadership, prompting calls for greater representation of historically marginalized groups.

As natural resources play a bigger role in politics and the economy, representation of the northern central provinces continues to figure prominently in political debate. The new Frelimo government has conspicuously broader geographic representation in its ministerial posts, drawing ministers from Nampula, Tete, Niassa and Sofala. President Nyusi himself is from Cabo Delgado, the site of recently tapped offshore gas deposits that contributed more than 4 percent of GDP in 2013.

Still, the direction of Mozambican politics is hard to predict, and it is unclear whether political parties can establish a foundation for sustained development. One of Nyusi’s first acts as president in 2015 was to meet with Renamo’s Dhlakama to discuss the impasse in the protracted “dialogue” between the two parties, which by then had lasted for more than a year and over 100 rounds of talks. But those negotiations have remained stalled throughout Nyusi’s first year in office, and the agreement around disarming and reintegrating Renamo’s “residual forces” has not been implemented.

Renamo realized it would have to develop strategies to re-emerge as a viable political actor.

Rhetorically and in practice, the Frelimo government has not applied much optimism—or patience—to its reconciliation with Renamo. Speaking during a visit to Angola in November, Nyusi asserted that Angola had found a solution for peace that could be emulated in Mozambique. It was a veiled reference to the fact that Angola’s decades-long civil war was ended when the government killed rebel leader Jonas Savimbi in an ambush, with his group, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola, known as UNITA, only disarmed afterward.

The remarks followed an incident in early October 2015, when government security forces surrounded Dhlakama’s house a day after he had arrived in Beira from his fortified base in Gorongosa to prepare for direct talks with Nyusi. A daylong standoff ensued before Dhlakama agreed to disarm his “presidential guard,” surrender his weapons and have his security detail undergo police training, although only the first two steps were actually taken.

After the October raid, Mozambican Minister of Interior Basilio Monteiro, as well as the country’s police commander, were cited in the CanalMoz newspaper as promising to disarm Renamo “until the last weapon in unauthorized hands is delivered voluntarily or by force” to the Mozambican defense forces. The extent to which Renamo has heeded these warnings, however, is unclear: As Dhlakama surrendered his arms that day in Beira, reports emerged that Renamo rebels engaged in armed attacks in southern Zambezia province. Since the incident, however, a growing number of Renamo fighters have come forward under the amnesty provision, seeking military pensions that were agreed upon in the August 2014 deal.

Political violence and intimidation not directly related to the partisan tensions between Renamo and Frelimo have also picked up in Maputo. In early 2015, Gilles Cistac, a legal scholar, was shot dead in broad daylight. Prior to the murder, he had vocally argued that there was a legal basis for Renamo’s calls to devolve political power—calls that Frelimo has routinely rejected. The landscape for journalists and academics hasn’t been promising either. In 2014, economist Carlos Nuno Castel-Branco and newspaper editor Fernando Mbanze were charged with “crimes against the security of the state” and “abusing freedom of the press,” respectively, for Facebook posts they wrote questioning Guebuza’s leadership. Although they were acquitted in September, Mozambique’s general prosecutor appealed their acquittal in October; they are still awaiting the appeal trial.

[protest]A protest following Gilles Cistac’s murder, Maputo, Mozambique, March 7, 2015 (Photo by Adrien Barbier, CC BY-SA 2.0).

Meanwhile, although Mozambique’s economic ascent since 1992 has been impressive, social improvements have not kept pace. Poverty remains a major problem, though rates are highest in the central provinces, notably Zambezia and Sofala, where opposition support is strong. Conversely, poverty has fallen by half in the Frelimo stronghold of Cabo Delgado. Income inequality and unemployment have increased, particularly among urban youth. In 2014, the government and donors developed concrete recommendations to address unemployment, but much remains to be done to implement them.

Mozambique is a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which promotes accountability in natural-resource management, and has made some strides in improving transparency in mining and hydrocarbon extraction. In 2014, five new laws and policies were passed to regulate extractives and hydrocarbons. And in October 2015, Mozambique requested a new IMF emergency loan of $286 million in order to cut its deficit and stabilize its currency. But while the funds, which the IMF released in December, should shore up investor confidence, they won’t help address the issues of poverty or inequality, which can only be tackled through wise political leadership. In the long term, however, strong leadership will require creating space for more inclusive debate—in politics and the media—about the allocation of political authority and the distribution of resource revenues across different levels of government. In other words, long-term stability may well depend on intensified political competition in the short term.

After more than 20 years of nominal peace and competitive elections, Mozambique’s political institutions still struggle to function democratically. The most consequential decisions and battles in Mozambican politics tend to occur within parties themselves. That party-centric landscape has sidelined the parliament and stunted the development of institutional identities for legislatures, municipal assemblies and the civil service. Rather than gaining independence from partisan interests, these institutions are shackled to the will of the governing party. At the same time, political behavior has not evolved. Neither Frelimo nor Renamo has an incentive to develop its organizational capacities or deepen connections with their respective bases. Frelimo can win elections and parliamentary majorities simply by relying on its advantage as the incumbent ruler and its control of economic resources. Renamo, for its part, rallies its own base not by proposing alternatives but by withdrawing from the game, defining itself in opposition to Frelimo’s elitist and exclusionary behavior.

Will Mozambique be able to take full advantage of its newfound natural-resource wealth? Or will it succumb to a pattern familiar in some other resource-rich countries, in which windfall profits bring spectacular wealth to some but worsen overall poverty and inequality for the rest? The answer depends largely on whether a new settlement can be reached to peacefully manage conflict and forge institutions that can sustain the political battles ahead: distributing natural-resource wealth in a system that has long marginalized the very regions producing those materials; limiting the political elite’s attempts to cash in its power for private economic gain; and fostering balanced political competition that revolves around a sense of a shared national fate.

Carrie Manning is professor and chair in the Department of Political Science at Georgia State University.

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