Former rebel group and Mozambique’s largest opposition party, Renamo, is currently holding its leadership conference to elect its first new leader in almost 40 years. The elective conference ‒ from 15 to 17 January 2019 at the party’s headquarters in the Gorongosa district of Sofala province in central Mozambique ‒ is being attended by 700 delegates from across the country.
The conference was necessitated by the sudden death on 3 May 2018 of Afonso Dhlakama, the party’s undisputed leader since October 1979. His passing plunged the party into crisis, particularly as Renamo was at a key point in the ongoing peace negotiations aimed at bringing Mozambique’s repeatedly renewed conflict to an end. The party was also preparing to contest the October 2018 municipal elections, the first municipal elections it had contested in a decade and the first under the newly agreed decentralised system. In response to the instability presented by his death, Renamo’s leadership had an emergency meeting and appointed former party secretary-general and head of the Renamo defence and security department, Ossufo Momade, as the party’s interim leader.
Momade has essentially maintained the course keeping to the path outlined by Dhlakama. Renamo stayed in the peace negotiations and Momade led the party into the municipal elections which were considered a success for the opposition party as it won several municipalities and recorded widespread support across Mozambique
Momade has subsequently declared that he will be standing for election at the conference in a bid to become Renamo’s permanent leader. He is one three leading contenders for the position and is currently viewed as the frontrunner. This owes largely to the fact that his role as acting leader has given him widespread recognition within the party, especially because he led Renamo through a successful municipal election and he notably won the brief power struggle to become temporary leader immediately after Dhlakama’s death. According to Renamo’s constitution, the party’s current Secretary-General should have taken over the leadership until an elective conference was called. Momade is also believed to enjoy support from the party’s powerful armed wing.
The next most likely contender for the Renamo leadership is current Secretary-General Manuel Bissopo who, despite being outmanoeuvred by Momade in May 2018, remains influential and popular within the party. Bissopo is a life-long member of Renamo and was considered close to Dhlakama. He draws much of his support from the provinces of Zambezia and Sofala and has served in Renamo’s parliamentary caucus ‒ as such he is much more connected with the group’s political and administrative wings. However, Bissopo is also currently weakened by his poor performance as Renamo’s mayoral candidate in Beira in the October 2018 municipal election. He headed the Renamo candidate list and was the most senior party member involved in the campaign, likely hoping that a municipal election win would strengthen his leadership challenge. However, the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM) retained control of the municipality with Renamo only coming in third. This has undermined his claims that he would be a good choice to lead the party in the coming general election.
The final leading candidate is Elias Dhlakama, the brother of the late Afonso. Elias Dhlakama’s strongest claim to the leadership is his relationship to his brother. However, he also has Renamo struggle credentials having fought in the group’s armed struggle and attaining the rank of general following the partial merging of Renamo’s fighting forces and the Mozambican army after the initial peace negotiations that ended the country’s civil war. He is the former head of Mozambique military’s reservists and recently resigned his commission to pursue the Renamo leadership in accordance with Mozambican laws separating military and civilian power.
In terms of policy and vision for the party, there is little difference between the candidates. They are all campaigning on the premise that they are the best successor to Dhlakama and will best implement the late leader’s vision. However, delegates will also be thinking about which candidate will be most successful in uniting Renamo and leading the party into the October 2019 general election. The new candidate will also need to be able to emulate Dhlakama’s adept skill in taking advantage of internal Frelimo challenges. The ruling party is facing internal strife and external criticism for its management of the current economic crisis and this has made it uniquely vulnerable in the build-up to the election.
The upcoming election is arguably the most important one in recent Renamo history as, under the new decentralised system, the party could win governance of provinces in which it receives the majority of votes. Historical voting patterns indicate that this could see Renamo take over the governance of three or more provinces. The acquisition of formal political power would also give the party access to more traditional systems of patronage such as civil service jobs and state resources.
Whoever the new leader is will not enjoy the same level of faith from the rank and file as Afonso Dhlakama and could face insurrection if they fail to deliver a strong electoral showing in October. This lack of absolute control over a party used to a single undisputed leader will also likely lead to continued power struggles within Renamo in the months to come. This will also include needing to reign in powerful figures within the party who thrived under Dhlakama’s leadership. Notably, Ivone Soares the Renamo parliamentary caucus leader and the Dhlakama brothers’ niece, is considered a powerful power broker in the party. She is supporting Elias Dhlakama’s leadership bid but, as parliamentary leader, she will be an important figure to work with for whoever wins the leadership election.
However, it should be noted that the build-up to the elective conference has been relatively peaceful with no major political clashes or fallouts reported. This is likely because the Renamo leadership is well aware that the party is at a pivotal point. Any factionalism and infighting within the party will likely become more obvious following the election of a new leader and after the general election, when manoeuvring for newly acquired political and governmental positions begins. Accordingly, the newly elected leader will need to rapidly stamp their authority on the party and ensure that Renamo remains as unified and disciplined as the party was under Dhlakama’s rule in order to prevent future infighting and possible party splits. This is also essential to retain Renamo’s bargaining strength in the ongoing peace negotiations and armed forces integration process.