How Mozambique’s rebel fighters wooed an urban electorate

In October 2013, thousands of people took to the streets of Maputo, the Mozambican capital, in anti-government protests. At municipal elections the following month, which were boycotted by the traditional opposition party and former rebel army Renamo, a third party called the Mozambique Democratic Movement, or MDM, won 40% of the Maputo vote, giving the ruling party, Frelimo, its bloodiest nose in the capital since independence in 1975. In three other major cities — Beira, Nampula, and Quelimane — the MDM took control.

One year later, October 2014’s parliamentary and presidential elections seemed the perfect opportunity for MDM to press home its advantage as the country’s leading opposition party, at least in Mozambique’s urban centres. For one thing, Renamo was entering the race at a late stage, having signed a peace agreement at the start of September ending an on-off insurgency in the centre of the country that it had begun the previous year, and allowing it to take part in the elections.

The consensus view was that although Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama would retain some popularity in his heartlands in the centre of the country, most Mozambicans would be unimpressed by the return to arms, particularly in Maputo.

“Some of us even dreamed maybe the Renamo vote would collapse and the MDM would emerge as the main opposition party,” says Paul Fauvet, the Maputo-based editor of the English-language version of Mozambique’s national news agency, AIM, since 1981.

What happened in fact was the opposite. In Maputo, Renamo posted its best ever result, taking 20% of the vote while the MDM slumped to 15% in the parliamentary election, and just 10% in the presidential poll. How did Renamo, traditionally seen as a party of the poor and disenfranchised, and whose strongholds are hundreds of kilometres north in the centre of the country, defy its doubters in the capital and elsewhere?

On the one hand, despite visible effects in Maputo of Mozambique’s impressive economic growth — 7.5% for the last two years in a row, according to the IMF — the majority of the city still lives in poverty. According to the last census, conducted in 2007, only 16% of the population has running water inside their homes.

When Dhlakama supporters gathered at Maputo airport to greet their leader on December 9, I heard the same message I’d heard at Renamo rallies elsewhere in the country in the run-up to the election: he understands poverty, he knows what it’s like for us.

The Maputo rally, however, was poorly attended compared with others around the country. A local party organiser told me one reason is that people in Maputo are more fearful of openly supporting Renamo. More people in the capital have jobs, she said, and you could lose your job by coming out for the opposition.

Some Renamo supporters might even be among those with the most to lose. According to Venancio Mondlane, the MDM’s candidate for mayor of Maputo in 2013 and one of two MDM candidates elected in this year’s elections to represent the capital in the national parliament, the opposition parties tend to do best in KaMpfumo, the Maputo district that is home to the richest people, including the Frelimo elites.

According to Mondlane, the city of Maputo is one of the places “where discontent with the party in power is highest” — even more, he reckons, than in the Renamo heartlands. In the municipal elections in 2013, opposition to Frelimo manifested itself in 40% of voters voting for MDM in Maputo. But a year later, things had changed.

A key turning point, Mondlane argues, was Frelimo’s agreeing to the truce agreement with Renamo. By returning to the bush, and taking up arms again, Renamo extracted significant political concessions from Frelimo, chiefly around the way elections are organised.

“It created an idea that the only way to make Frelimo accept the will of the people is through military force,” Mondlane says. What is more, “it created an idea that Renamo had won the war.”

This led MDM to lose support both to Renamo, who people believed was the only viable opposition force, and also to Frelimo, as voters who had flirted with MDM in 2013 feared that doing so again might hand power to the former rebel fighters.

This is a key factor for Fauvet. In 2013, he says, “people whose natural political home was Frelimo thought they could risk a vote for the MDM in an election that Renamo wasn’t standing in — send a message to the ruling party by voting for the MDM at the municipal level. I think that largely explains MDM’s very good showing in Maputo and [the neighbouring city of] Matola.”

Mondlane, however, believes that it was more than just a protest vote and the MDM itself should take at least some of the blame for its vote evaporating. The party’s typical voter, he says, is “enlightened, urban, more informed” — this means the party has to be careful to actually deliver the goods.

Over the course of the last parliament, Mondlane believes the MDM voted with the government too often to be seen as a credible alternative, and at times couldn’t agree internally what position to take.

“If it wasn’t an enlightened electorate,” he says, “these things could go unnoticed. But our voters can read the papers, watch television, and listen to the radio. They know what’s happening.”


Tom Bowker is a journalist based in Mozambique, tracking the country’s economy and politics for Bloomberg News and other outlets. His blog is at Twitter @TomBowk

Photo: a small crowd cheers Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakam at Maputo Airport December 9. Tom Bowker.

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