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The death of Afonso Dhlakama: Mozambique's legendary politician and ex-guerilla leaves a legacy

Afonso Dhlakama on the campaign trail with the Mozambican National Resistance in Maputo, Mozambique during the 2014 elections. Photo: Adrien Berbier/Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

On May 3, 2018, Mozambique and the world received the news that Afonso Dhlakama, one of Mozambique’s most influential politicians, has died.

The former guerrilla fighter and leader of Mozambique's National Resistance (known by its Portuguese acronym Renamo), the largest opposition party, died from ill health complications at one of the most crucial points of the country’s history – peace negotiations.

For over 40 years, Dhlakama led Renamo, a militant organization founded in 1977 and supported by anti-communist, white-minority rule governments of neighboring Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa, which fought in a civil war that devastated Mozambique for 16 years.

In 1992, most of the group disarmed and became a political party, but so far it has never managed to win a parliamentary majority in the Assembly of the Republic or beat the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) for the post of president.

In 2012, escalating tensions with the government led Renamo to take up arms again and move to the forests of the Gorongosa mountain range (in Sofala province) where Dhakama had taken refuge since 2015.

Among Renamo’s main demands is the decentralization of power which calls for, among other things, the election of provincial governors, who are currently appointed by the president. This project has already seen progress with the approval of constitutional revision in view of Renamo’s proposal.

A cease-fire was announced in December 2017, but the death of Renamo’s leader leaves the country’s future uncertain, given that he was the only person who negotiated directly with President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi.

The lack of an obvious successor is now hanging over the party, a consequence of the late leader’s authoritarian leadership style. General Ossufo Momade, a parliamentary deputy and current head of Renamo’s Department for Defence, recently took the leadership.

Both Renamo and Frelimo seem committed to continuing the peace process. President Nyusi made it clear that everything would continue as planned in terms of the peace negotiations. Momade said that the best way of honoring Dhlakama would be to conclude negotiations and decentralize the government.

On the day of Dhlakama’s death, President Nyusi’s message relayed that he had done everything he could to prolong Afonso Dhlakama’s life, including asking neighboring countries South Africa and Zimbabwe for help with a possible trip for Dhlakama to receive medical treatment.

In his funeral eulogy on May 9 in the city of Beira, Nyusi stated:

Que fique claro que irei dar continuidade a todo processo da paz juntamente com a nova liderança do partido de Dhlakama respeitando sempre o quadro legal e constitucional. Estaremos honrando a sua memória se soubermos concluir de forma responsavel e célere o diálogo político que agora se centra sobre no processo de descentralização desmobilização e reintegração social dos militares da Renamo.

It must be made clear that I will continue the peace process along with the new leadership of Dhlakama’s party, always respecting the legal and constitutional framework. We will be honouring his memory if we are able to conclude responsibly and quickly the political dialogue that is now centred on the process of decentralization, and the demobilization and social reintegration of Renamo’s combatants.

The presence of the President of the Republic at Dhlakama’s funeral and holding an official ceremony received praise from various quarters, such as that of Manuel de Araújo, member of Mozambique’s third largest political force (MDM):

O seu discurso foi impecavel, respeitoso e dignificante nao so para ele como pessoa, mas também para a função que desempenha. Saiu a ganhar Moçambique a nossa pátria comum. Perante uma audiencia hostil, Nyusi soube arrancar, se a memória nçao me trai tres momentos de aplausos, todos referentes ao Grande Homem e patriota que era Afosno Dhlakama!

His speech was impeccable, respectful, and dignified not only for him individually, but also for the role that he performs. Mozambique, our common homeland, came out winning. In front of a hostile audience, Nyusi was able to get, if my memory does not betray me, three rounds of applause, all referring to the Great Man and patriot that was Afonso Dhlakama!

Hero or villain?

Opinions diverge on the heroism of Dhlakama, in a debate amplified by the fact that nearly all of the current national heroes come from Frelimo, the ruling party.

This fact was highlighted by the journalist and political commentator Fátima Mimbire:

O líder da Renamo, Afonso Dhlakama foi herói para uns e um vilão e se calhar o diabo para outros. As razões para ser considerado como um ou outro são justas.

Uns o odeiam porque ele desencadeou uma guerra que matou milhares de moçambicanos. Alguns viram suas casas serem detruídas, outros seus familiares serem mortos. Eu inclusive, tive familiares mortos, primas violadas. São situações que acontecem numa guerra, onde há suspensão de direitos. Uns ainda guardam essas máguas e é justo. Outros colocaram uma pedra sobre elas e entregaram a Deus o julgamento de tudo.

Outros amam, admiram e o têm como herói, não pelas armas que ele empunhou, mas pela capacidade que ele teve de afrontar o sistema opressor da Frelimo. Sim, opressor. Ele conseguiu colocar a Frelimo de joelhos muitas vezes e se calhar não vivemos pior neste país por causa dessa capacidade que ele teve de desafiar o establisment.

The leader of Renamo, Afonso Dhlakama, was a hero for some and a villain, maybe even the devil, for others. The reasons for considering him as one or the other are fair.

Some hated him because he sparked a war that killed thousands of Mozambicans. Some saw their houses destroyed, others their relatives killed. I myself had family that died, cousins raped. These are things which happen in war, where rights are suspended. Some still feel this grief and it is fair. Other drew a line under it and left everything to god’s judgement.

Others love, admire, and see him as a hero, not for the weapons that he wielded, but for the capacity that he had to confront the oppressive system of Frelimo. Yes, oppressive. He managed many times to put Frelimo on its knees and maybe we are not living any worse in this country as a result of this ability that he had to defy the establishment

Juma Aiuba, an influential Facebook commentator, said that Dhlakama would remain in the annals of Mozambique’s history:

Dizer que a morte de Afonso Dhlakama é um retrocesso à democracia é uma grande ingratidão. Dhlakama já semeou, regou e a planta cresceu. Se amanhã a planta morrer, a culpa não será dele. É agora que a verdadeira liderança de Dhlakama virá à tona, porque, afinal de contas, os verdadeiros líderes se fazem desnecessários. Ou seja, a obra de um grande líder se manifesta quando ele se ausenta. Isto é, a obra de um grande líder não morre com o líder. Morre o “obreiro”, mas a obra fica e continua. Morre o mensageiro, mas a mensagem fica e se alastra.

To say that the death of Afonso Dhlakama is a regression for democracy is very ungrateful. Dhlakama already sowed [the seed], watered [it] and the plant grew. If tomorrow the plant dies, the fault will not be his. It is now that the true leadership Dhlakama will show itself, because, after all, true leaders make themselves unnecessary. That is, the work of a great leader manifests itself when he becomes absent. Or, the work of a great leader does not die with the leader. The ‘worker’ dies, but the work remains and continues. The messenger dies, but the message remains and spreads.

Bitone Viage, student and opinion-maker on social media, supported the idea that Dhlakama deserves the status of a national hero:

Dlhakama foi vítima de uma história narrada pelos pseudos-historiadores.

Dlhakama foi uma lenda, os maiores criminosos foram os que escreveram a nossa história, estes foram os culpados pelo branqueamento dos fatos como forma de salvaguardar os interesses de quem os ordenou a narrarem os fatos a luz dos seus interesses. Os pseudos- historiadores deturparam a nossa história e com a morte de Dlhakama ficou mais difícil saber quem realmente merece o estatuto de herói.

A heroicidade de Dlhakama foi negada por conta da forma que a nossa história foi narrada e consequentemente a definição da heroicidade foi para acomodar os interesses daqueles que foram exaltados vencedores por uma história mal narrada.

Dhlakama was the victim of a history told by pseudo-historians.

Dhlakama was a legend, the biggest criminals were those who wrote our history, they were the culprits for whitewashing the facts as a way of saving the interests of those who ordered them to tell the facts according to their interests. The pseudo-historians misrepresented our history and with the death of Dhlakama it has become more difficult to know who really deserves the status of hero.

The heroism of Dhlakama was denied by the way that our history was told and consequently the definition of heroism was made to accommodate the interests of those that were glorified as winners by a history badly told.

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