The losers in a power struggle between the Mozambican government and opposition RENAMO party are the refugees that have streamed across the border into Malawi, fleeing insecurity and allegations of human rights violations by the army.
More than 11,500 civilians have left Mozambique since military operations began in October 2015 to disarm RENAMO militants, predominantly in the coal-rich central province of Tete, which borders southern Malawi.
According to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, as many as 250 refugees were crossing each day in early March. Most find shelter in the small Malawian village of Kapise, five kilometres across the border. Facilities in the overcrowded, makeshift camp are inadequate, with just 14 latrines and limited boreholes to supply water.
The UNHCR had announced plans to open an older camp at Luwani, which hosted Mozambican refugees during the 1977-1992 civil war and was finally closed in 2007. But both the Malawian and the Mozambican governments appear to have opposed that move.
Officials in Mozambique have sought to play down the escalating conflict with RENAMO, blaming the mass displacement as partly a response to drought.
An inquiry into alleged human rights violations by the Mozambican army absolved the security forces of any wrongdoing, but refugees in Kapise said they had witnessed abuses by military personnel looking to weed out RENAMO sympathisers.
Mumderanji Mesenjala told IRIN that he fled after seeing soldiers beat up his neighbour and set his house ablaze. “I believed that I would die with my family that day, so I instantly made a decision to flee the country,” he said.
Another refugee, Verniz Jose Joao, told IRIN that since controversial polls in October 2014, there had been “an air of tension and conflict in many areas where RENAMO [unofficially] won more seats in the elections”.
Old wounds re-opened
Human Rights Watch has documented far worse crimes in a confrontation that pits old civil war rivals against each other and threatens to derail a country not long ago seen as one of Africa’s great economic success stories.
“There is a low-intensity conflict under way,” Mozambique expert Paula Roque of Oxford University told IRIN. “There are deaths and human rights abuses in Tete and elsewhere, and there is potential for escalation.”
The violence has taken the form of ambushes on the EN1 and EN7 highways in central Mozambique, which are increasing in frequency. A week of RENAMO attacks against civilian and military targets in Sofala, Manica and Zambezia resulted in three deaths with 23 people wounded, police reported on 15 March.
RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama, whose rebellion more than three decades ago against the then-Marxist ruling FRELIMO party was backed by Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa, claims the 2014 elections were stolen. He has demanded a constitutional amendment to allow him to appoint governors in six central and northern provinces he says should be under RENAMO control, and has threatened to seize them militarily by the end of March.
According to the election results, FRELIMO retained control of all of the country’s 10 provincial assemblies. The polls were marred by irregularities, but according to veteran Mozambique watcher Joseph Hanlon, they would not have been sufficient to change the overall election verdict, which saw FRELIMO maintain its 40-year grip on power.
Unable to win power through the ballot box, as has been the case in all five previous elections, Dhlakama has pushed hard for devolution as the next best option.
Current military tensions date back to October 2013, when RENAMO renounced the 1992 peace agreement, triggering clashes with the army. A ceasefire in 2014 stopped short of a planned demobilisation and military integration programme for RENAMO fighters, with both sides blaming each other for the failure.
RENAMO militants are not just the aged combatants of the last bush war. “We all thought that RENAMO may be just a few hundred men”, but it seems able to attract some younger recruits, said Roque. At least one refugee in Kapise spoke of fleeing to escape forced recruitment.
“RENAMO has a lot of support in central Mozambique. I was told by a researcher who was there for three months that it’s almost hegemonic,” said Roque. “People buy into the rhetoric accusing FRELIMO of corruption and the marginalisation of RENAMO regions.”
Wider violence in Mozambique is not inevitable. A local mediation team has been urging Dhlakama not to make good on his military threats in the provinces, and a former Italian diplomat, Mario Raffaelli, who helped negotiate the 1992 peace accord, has returned to the country to help find a political solution.
While President Filipe Nyusi has called for direct talks with Dhlakama, the former rebel warlord has sought to broaden the negotiations and bring international players, including the Catholic Church, the European Union, and South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, to the table.
Nyusi, the winner of the 2014 election, is viewed as more moderate than his predecessor, Armando Guebuza. But there are hardline elements within FRELIMO who are less accommodating. Dhlakama last year survived at least one apparent attack on his convoy – the police said they were returning fire.
With the international community beginning to wake up to the seriousness of the situation in Mozambique, Roque portrayed recent events as part of a tried-and-tested strategy by Dhlakama to ratchet up the military pressure to win concessions at the negotiating table.
“Dhlakama has a wonderful capacity to say things and then backtrack. He’s always found a way to justify how he’s shifted the goal posts,” she said.
In the meantime, refugees continue to pour across the border, abandoning their homes and livelihoods in Mozambique to live in extremely difficult conditions in Malawi, where host communities are already feeling the strain.
“We don’t have problems living alongside our Mozambican brothers,” one Malawian in Kapise, Isaac Zimpita, told IRIN. “However, we believe the camp is too small and it is quite proper the refugees are moved to Luwani, where they were hosted during the civil war.”