TWENTY years after the end of Mozambique’s civil war, hundreds of former guerrillas from Renamo set up camp in the bush again, on the orders of leader Afonso Dhlakama.
Mr Dhlakama called his supporters back to their old military base close to the Gorongosa Game Park last week and told his former foes in the ruling Frelimo party, they could come out to the bush if they wanted to talk to him. While he did not want war, Mr Dhlakama said he could not prevent his supporters from responding if attacked.
"I will not leave here unless all my demands are met," the former guerrilla leader was quoted as saying in Mozambique’s independent weekly newspaper, Savanna, on Friday.
It is not known how many of the estimated 800 men who heeded Mr Dhlakama’s call have weapons. His party confirmed that Mr Dhlakama’s " presidential guard" (thought to number about 300) are armed.
When it signed a peace deal with its former Marxist foes in 1992, Renamo held back a small reserve of armed men and maintained at least two military bases, including the one at Gorongosa.
The government has tended to turn a blind eye to the occasional show of force by Renamo.
Mozambique is bent on forgetting the 16-year Cold War-era conflict that killed more than 1-million people. South Africa’s apartheid regime was Renamo’s main backer as the group battled the Socialist regime put in place by Samora Machel at the end of Portuguese colonial rule.
The timing of Mr Dhlakama’s latest move looks set to test the government. Mozambique is poised to benefit from large capital inflows from the discovery of significant natural gas and coal discoveries.
Renamo’s immediate demands include greater inclusion of its former fighters in the country’s armed forces and revisions to election laws — it wants greater power to veto election results after accusing Frelimo of fraud in previous polls.
It claims the division between Frelimo and state institutions has become blurred.
"We want Frelimo to stop being arrogant," Renamo MP Ivone Soares says.
"At the moment we feel there is a great attempt to return to a one-party state and we cannot permit that after 20 years of sacrifice," she adds.
"Frelimo has cells in every public institution and these cells watch who supports Frelimo. When they discover a person who supports the opposition, that person is automatically demoted," she says.
Chief among Renamo’s complaints is that the Frelimo elite is keeping the spoils of its newfound wealth for itself.
Mozambique’s economy is already growing at more than 7.5% — one of the fastest in the world and the country is set to start cashing in on a mineral resource rush in the next five to 10 years.
Mr Dhlakama has lashed out at Armando Guebuza — once a Marxist general in Frelimo’s forces and now the country’s business-friendly president — calling him "robber-in-chief of public funds", according to a Savanna newspaper report.
On the same day, Mr Guebuza promised a forum of potential foreign investors gathered in the capital, Maputo, that his country was a secure place to do business.
"Improving the business environment continues to top our agenda," Mr Guebuza said.
While Mr Dhlakama’s war talk could damage the country’s image on the international stage, Mozambicans are accustomed to his sabre-rattling. A revolution Mr Dhlakama promised last December failed to materialise and, when he called on supporters to regroup in the northern city of Nampula earlier this year, hundreds of starving former combatants spent weeks camping outside his headquarters until the police raided the camp. He is now promising a series of countrywide demonstrations to bring about a "new political order" but some observers see his return to the bush as a retreat that began long ago.
"He is retiring," says UK-based political analyst Joseph Hanlon, who has written several books on Mozambique. He argues that Mr Dhlakama is "retreating further and further and this is probably a statement that he does not take the next elections seriously".
"These people have been out of the bush for 20 years. They are old men," Mr Hanlon says.
The Renamo leader’s physical withdrawal began when he shifted his headquarters from Maputo to the northern city of Nampula in 2009. In that same year, Mr Dhlakama lost spectacularly, winning just 16% of the vote against Mr Guebuza’s 75% in presidential polls. Over the past year, the Renamo leader has seldom been seen in public until he emerged, earlier this month, promising to shake up the political establishment once again.
The deeper issue is Mr Dhlakama’s failure to capitalise on popular discontent against Frelimo after the end of the civil war, or to build viable political machinery that could oppose the ruling party. "He runs the party out of his own pocket and tries to control it as best he can by mobile phone," according to Mr Hanlon.
Seen in this light, Renamo has given Frelimo the political space it needs to effect control over state institutions. Although Renamo still has 51 out of 250 parliamentary seats, even its position as official opposition looks doubtful as Mozambique heads for municipal polls next year and presidential and parliamentary elections in 2014.
Its biggest challenge is a relative newcomer on the political scene, the Democratic Movement for Mozambique (MDM).
The MDM first contested elections in 2009 and represents a break with the civil-war era past. Led by the charismatic Daviz Simango, the party has had several recent successes in by-elections.
As Mr Dhlakama withdraws into the bush, he may be relegating Renamo to the history books