Mozambique’s veteran rebel leader Afonso Dhlakama, who mixed guerrilla warfare with opposition politics, has died aged 65, party sources said on Thursday.
Several sources in Dhlakama’s Renamo party told AFP that Dhlakama passed away after an unconfirmed heart attack, with local television stations also reporting the death.
For 39 years, Dhlakama led Renamo, the rebel group which fought a 16-year war against the ruling Frelimo party until 1992 and then emerged as an opposition party that still retained its armed fighters.
He had been in hiding since 2013 in the remote Gorongosa mountains after sporadic conflict again erupted in the country.
But Dhlakama had recently held meetings with President Filipe Nyusi and he was seen as playing a key role in the country’s developing peace process.
“His death and the unknown succession plan within Renamo will bring uncertainty,” Zenaida Machado, Mozambique specialist at Human Watch, told AFP.
“It raises critical questions about the next Renamo leader’s ability to control hundreds of armed men in the bush and negotiate a long-lasting peace deal with the government.”
She said Dhlakama would be remembered for challenging the abuses of the ruling Frelimo party, but also for allowing his own forces to commit serious human rights violations with impunity.
In December 2016, Dhlakama announced a surprise truce with the government in the major first step towards a possible formal peace deal.
Nyusi and Dhlakama last met in February in Gorongosa to discuss disarmament and reintegration, and they appeared to have agreed on constitutional reforms that would decentralise power.
The reforms, currently under debate in parliament, would allow voters to directly elect provincial governors, who at present are appointed by the president.
But Renamo’s demands for better integration of its supporters into the police and military remained a major sticking point in discussions.
Any peace deal would likely require the disarmament of Renamo’s armed wing which has been maintained since the end of the civil war.
Dhlakama repeatedly stood as an unsuccessful presidential candidate in elections, despite alleging electoral fraud.
“I appear as the spokesman for the poor,” he told AFP before losing the 2014 poll. “People believe that I can set in motion a democratic change of government.”
Mozambique will hold presidential, legislative and provincial elections in October 2019, with observers saying Renamo has recently increased its public support.
Frelimo has ruled the country since independence from Portugal in 1975.
Low-level violence erupted between government troops and Renamo (Mozambique National Resistance) from 2013 to 2016, with the discovery of mass graves of recent victims fuelling fears that the country was heading back to war.
The fighting often centred on the country’s main roads, with Renamo – which also holds seats in parliament – attacking government convoys and civilian vehicles, and soldiers accused of ruthlessly targeting suspected rebels.
The violence forced thousands of people to flee to government-run camps, relatives’ homes or across the border to Malawi and Zimbabwe.
Renamo alleges that the Frelimo elite has enriched itself at the expense of the country, with the once-booming economy badly hit in recent years but a massive hidden debt scandal.
“Sustainable peace in Mozambique still what everyone is hoping and working for,” said Joanna Kuenssberg, the British High Commissioner to Mozambique, on Twitter as she expressed her condolences. (Mail & Guardian, Johannesburg)