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Two decades after the end of Mozambique's bloody civil war and over 16 months after the ruling party, the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo), won elections in October 2014, tensions have been running high with opposition the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo) guerillas.
In an escalation of a simmering conflict between old civil war foes, army operations began in Tete Province in October 2015, and thousands have fled to bordering Malawi fearing violence and harassment from government soldiers, and the situation is still evolving in Mozambique – one of Africa's fastest-growing economies, which is looking to escape years of poverty and conflict by tapping into its huge energy resources.
IBTimes UK spoke to Joseph Hanlon, a journalist and a development researcher who has been writing about Mozambique since 1978 about the possibilities of a new civil war in the country home to more than 27 million people.
Who is Mozambique's conflict opposing?
Frelimo (in Portuguese: Frente de Libertação Moçambique) was founded in 1962 as a liberation movement in neighbouring Tanzania by exiled Mozambicans who were seeking to overthrow Portuguese colonial rule in their country. The movement then formed the ruling party of newly-independent Mozambique in 1975.
The conflict has pitted Frelimo against the dissident Mozambican group known as Renamo (in Portuguese: Resistência Nacional Moçambicana), which has tried to overthrow the former Marxist-leaning Mozambican central government since 1976.
Renamo was initially formed by white Rhodesians who were hoping to find a way to keep newly independent Mozambique from supporting the black guerrillas trying to overthrow the white Rhodesian government. South African armed forces soon took over Renamo's sponsorship and the guerillas used sabotage (cutting railways and power lines, blowing up roads and bridges) and raids on villages and towns to disrupt the nation's economy and infrastructure.
By the late 1980s, Renamo's rebellion had left at least 100,000 dead and more than 1,000,000 refugees. However, the 1992 peace agreement enabled Renamo to participate in multi-party elections after 1994 and between 1999 and 2009, Renamo was politically active and part of the nation's coalition of opposition parties, the Renamo–União Eleitoral (Electoral Union) electoral alliance.
What happened to the Maputo peace agreement?
Renamo began feeling politically marginalised and growing economic imbalances in Mozambique pushed Renamo's leader, Afonso Dhlakama, to retreat to a Renamo jungle base in 2012 prompting sporadic violence.
In October 2013, Dhlakama revoked the 1992 peace agreement, and fighting between Renamo fighters and government troops or police continued until Mozambique's former president Armando Guebuza and Dhlakama agreed on a new ceasefire, and a peace agreement was reached in Maputo in September 2014.
According to Hanlon, the agreement was just enough to get both parties through the elections – in which Dhlakama stood as the presidential candidate for Renamo in the country's October presidential and legislative elections. After Frelimo's candidate Filipe Nyusi defeated him, Dhlakama claimed the elections were stolen from him, even as Renamo increased its number of legislative seats.
"Since then, Dhlakama has shown his intentions of taking over the six central and northern provinces he says should be under Renamo control – Manica, Sofala, Tete, Zambezia, Nampula and Niassa", Hanlon explained. In March 2015, a confident Dhlakama declared that the provinces "will be governed by Renamo, by the policy of Renamo, by Mozambicans who, although they might not be members of Renamo, are appointed because they enjoy our technical and professional trust, who are not thieves, drug addict or bandits".
How serious are the growing tensions?
According to an IMF report on Mozambique published in January,"political tension" and the "failure to find a permanent solution to the growing tension" between Frelimo and Renamo are seen as the highest risk in the nation.
Hanlon described growing tensions between both groups, which culminated at the beginning of this year with a number of attacks. Dhlakama's convoy was shot at on 12 and 25 September 2015.
On 20 January, Renamo's secretary general Manuel Bissopo was seriously injured and his bodyguard killed in a drive-by shooting in Beira. Renamo then accused the government of kidnapping and killing two Renamo members while Frelimo accused six Renamo gunmen of killing two people including a traditional chief in Sofala – one of Renamo's targeted provinces – on 5 February. Renamo has been accused of targeting traditional chiefs and community leaders, in an attempt to weaken authorities in these provinces.
In early February, Renamo carried out attacks on the N1, the main north-south road, in Sofala province – where Dhlakama is currently living in a Renamo base in Satunjira, Gorongosa. Eight cars were shot at and six people were injured.
A few days later, local media reported Renamo guerrillas had raided the town of Maringue in Sofala, burning houses and injuring two people.
Has Renamo returned to war?
Dhlakama has always promised war or strikes. When he went back to war in 2013, experts were all caught by surprise because the leader had been promising action for so many years that no one believed him.
"Now, if he doesn't do something in March, he would have lost all credibility, and he knows that, so he will absolutely be forced to do something. No one knows how far he will go. A lot now depends on what Dhlakama does with his promise to take over government in the six provinces, and how successfully the Frelimo government responds to that," Hanlon said.
"Over the next month, it is all down to a military question," the researcher said, underlining the fact that the conflict could flare up as soon as March. "That will be the test."
According to recent interviews in the media, Dhlakama appears to be ready to take over provincial headquarters, but he seems much more likely to go for district towns — Morrumbala for instance. "That's easier, because it is very difficult to resists to 100 guerillas deployed to district towns," Hanlon said. "And he can put together a force of 100 people, that's doable."
The trouble is that the Mozambican military is quite weak, so responding to this type of attacks "will not be easy".
What could restore peace again?
Both sides have made claims about the other's failings to respect the 2014 peace agreement.
Renamo, for instance, has accused the government of failing to integrate its rebel soldiers into the army and police in accordance with the deal — allegations that the government has denied, instead accusing Renamo of not handing over a list of its militia to be integrated in the national army.
The nation's President Nyusi initially called a halt to disarming Renamo by force on 19 November 2015, as part of an attempt to reduce military and police pressure on Renamo, but he effectively reversed that on 10 February, when he declared his patience and tolerance were exhausted, and that he could no longer accept that the opposition party was armed.
Nyusi's increasingly thin restraint translated into increasing attacks on Renamo. "If you look at it from Dhlakama's side, his convoy was shot at twice and Renamo secretary general Manuel Bissopo was seriously injured and his bodyguard killed in the drive-by shooting involving AK47s," Hanlon highlighted.
Now, both parties are at a stalemate, with Dhlakama requiring things that are impossible to demand, Hanlon explained. And while Guebuza was always particularly difficult in that he would not make any concessions, Nyusi was seen as prepared to make more concessions with Frelimo at a high-level divided on this — something Dhlakama appears to be using.
"One of the things that Dhlakama did put on the table is that perhaps Renamo should appoint provincial governors — which opened an interesting debate in Maputo. But then he said he wanted to be the person in charge of appointing the first provincial governors, meaning he wants his people to be appointed," Hanlon said. "There is a very real difficulty here in that Dhlakama wants a certain amount of power and prestige and in his eyes this includes the right to appoint. This is something no elected president of any country would accept."
One of the reasons Dhlakama is so keen to appoint provincial governors is that he does not want anyone who would be able to challenge him to be in power.
"Dhlakama doesn't want that kind of challenge, and if you look at somebody like Devisso Mango and he was mayor of Baira, what Dhlakama tried to do is stop him from running again as mayor of Baira. Mango then he stood as an independent (under the new Movimento Democrático de Moçambique, MDM flag)- and won," Hanlon explained.
As the number of Mozambicans fleeing clashes between armed elements of Renamo and government forces and entering Malawi continues to grow, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), has called on all parties to respect refugees' right to seek asylum amid signs of pressure to return.
More than 6,000 have arrived in Malawi since mid-December 2015.