In Mozambique, a Rigged Election Risks Opening Pandora's Box

7 MINS READOct 21, 2019 | 13:10 GMT
Posters for Renamo's presidential candidate, Ossufo Momade, line a wall ahead of Mozambique's Oct. 15 polls.

Posters for Renamo's presidential candidate, Ossufo Momade, line a wall ahead of Mozambique's Oct. 15 polls. Reports of election tampering will undermine the government's peace deal with Renamo, its longtime enemy and political opponent. 

  • Revelations of election fraud could prompt the Mozambique National Resistance Movement to pull out of its recent peace deal with the government, potentially leading to a return to low-intensity conflict in the central provinces.
  • This could distract Maputo from the ongoing insurgency in Mozambique's northernmost Cabo Delgado province, which poses an increasing threat to the country's multibillion-dollar energy sector.
  • A failure to fundamentally tackle the deep drivers of the northern conflict will also erode support for the long-ruling Mozambique Liberation Front, possibly leading to a weaker performance in future election cycles.

The ballots from Mozambique's Oct. 15 general election are still being tallied, but indications point to another sizable victory for the Mozambique Liberation Front, commonly referred to as Frelimo. That outcome was expected, given the ruling party's dominance over the country's political and economic systems since the mid-1970s. Indeed, despite the introduction of multiparty democracy decades ago, Frelimo continues to reign — much to the chagrin of the militant Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo).

Despite the recent peace deal between the government in Maputo and Renamo, mounting evidence of electoral misconduct indicates the Frelimo government is still waging a covert war against its chief political rival. In response, Renamo could send its fighters back to battle in Mozambique's central regions, which would risk distracting the government from a much greater threat brewing up north

The Big Picture

After decades of civil war, Mozambique has struggled with deep internal problems including poor governance, corruption and cycles of conflict with its longtime Cold War enemy, Renamo. But with tens of billions of dollars in offshore energy revenue likely in the years ahead, Mozambique has nonetheless attracted investment.

Cracks in the Foundation

The results of the latest election could determine the direction of the internal party struggle, largely along generational lines, that has gripped Frelimo in recent years. Since he took office in 2015, President Filipe Nyusi has sought to maneuver many of his relatively younger allies into positions of power within the party, largely to the detriment of the Frelimo allies of Nyusi's predecessor, Armando Guebuza. 

The ruling party is also still reeling from the fallout from Mozambique's 2016 Tuna Bond crisis, in which the government defaulted on loans to international creditors after admitting it had secretly taken out some $2 billion in debt. Three years after the scandal surfaced, prosecutions in Mozambique and the United States continue to make news and tarnish Frelimo's international image. Due to his role in the scandal, the country's former finance minister, Manuel Chang, remains behind bars in South Africa as courts decide whether to send him back to Mozambique or extradite him to the United States.

Consequently, with Frelimo still on the defensive after years of negative publicity and internal fighting over the financial fiasco and its aftermath, the results of the election will likely set the internal direction of elite factionalism in the party for the years ahead. A strong victory by Nyusi and his cadres could greatly strengthen their hand against rival factions in the party, while a weak performance could do the opposite. 

Reopening Old Wounds 

Apart from ruling party internal politicking, Mozambique's election results could also determine the fate of the Frelimo government's recent peace deal with its longtime enemy, Renamo. Their feud over the past 20 years is rooted in a power struggle.

In the runup to the election, there were several reported cases of intimidation and violence directed against Renamo-affiliated individuals. Both successful and attempted assassinations of opposition figures, including a human rights activist and election observer, occurred. In some of these cases, the assailants have been identified as police officers or figures otherwise connected to the Frelimo government, underscoring the likelihood of a coordinated intimidation campaign at the hands of the ruling party. 

Mounting evidence of foul play in the country's Oct. 15 election could be the straw that finally breaks Maputo's back.

Meanwhile, recent reports of police barring election observers from some polling stations — along with election delays and at least 300,000 alleged "ghost voters" in the southern province of Gaza (a Frelimo stronghold) — have fueled concerns over misconduct in the latest election. This mounting evidence of foul play, along with the politically motivated violence ahead of the Oct. 15 vote, will weaken the narrative that the government has overseen a clean election. It could also compel Renamo's leadership to pull the plug on its latest peace deal with Maputo, as it has in the past — especially if the rebel group's cadres are disappointed by their party's election results once the final tallies are released. Indeed, Renamo leader Ossufo Momade has already threatened that his group will refuse to accept "rigged" results. 

This would occur before the effects of the deal — which calls for the integration of thousands of Renamo fighters into either the Mozambican armed forces or society at large — had even really begun, and would thus portend the rebel group's return to the forests of Mozambique's central provinces, Renamo's stronghold. From there, Renamo fighters would likely wage the same low-intensity conflict that they have in previous cycles of violence against the Frelimo government, including occasional attacks on trains, vehicle convoys and military units. The group would still be unable to mount a significant threat to the government given its lack of resources and manpower since the end of the Cold War. But a reopening of this front will force Maputo to send resources and manpower back to the country's center that could otherwise have gone to combatting the ongoing Islamic insurgency in the country's far north.

The Fight for the Far North

For years, Maputo has struggled to fully clamp down on militants attacking hard and soft targets across the country's northernmost province of Cabo Delgado. The tyranny of distance plays a key role here, as the region is located thousands of miles away from Maputo and the country's surrounding southern core. But it is also widely believed that the province's deep neglect and mistreatment from Maputo are primary drivers behind the region's instability. This includes a lack of basic services and significantly higher levels of poverty (compared with the country's wealthier south) in Cabo Delgado, as well as the corrupt and predatory nature of local political elites and the real or perceived theft of natural resources and land by the government. 

In response to Maputo's inability to root out corruption and spiraling violence up north, the region could increasingly turn against Frelimo at the polls. And that's a problem for the ruling party, considering those voters are expected to only grow in number in the years ahead. Data shows that population growth continues to be robust in the central and northern provinces. Meanwhile, Frelimo's strongholds in Mozambique's south are declining in population. Should it suffer a reversal of electoral fortunes in the country's fastest-growing areas, the ruling party will struggle to maintain its dominance over the political system in the years ahead. The election results in the far north will thus be important for gauging the prospects for Frelimo's political longevity. 

Oil Investments on the Line

Losing ground up north — both from a political and military perspective — will also have economic ramifications for the Frelimo government. While far from Maputo itself, militant attacks in Cabo Delgado have increasingly occurred in close proximity to the energy projects being built offshore. This notably included at least two attacks in February that killed and injured contractors working with the U.S.-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp. With tens of billions of dollars at stake, Maputo must clamp down on not only the militants but address the factors fueling their insurgent narratives in order to reduce the risks posed to Mozambique's burgeoning offshore energy sector. Otherwise, persistent violence will raise the costs for international oil companies as they weigh their key investments in the coming years. And this could in turn delay the multibillion-dollar financial windfall that's slated to hit Maputo's reserves beginning in 2024 — revenue that the Frelimo government is no doubt planning to use to cement its hold over the country's politics and economy. 

Therefore, it will be important to track the next government's strategy for addressing the militancy crisis in the far north and whether it seeks to halt many of the key drivers of the conflict, such as the region's high levels of economic inequality and corruption. But defusing this looming political and economic threat in Cabo Delgado will be no easy feat, especially if a collapsed peace deal forces Maputo to shift its attention to fending off Renamo fighters elsewhere. 

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