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Olaf Tataryn Juergensen is currently writing his Ph.D. dissertation in geography at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, on the local social-spatial dynamics of the war in Angonia, Mozambique. (jbv)

vol 10 no 2

Angonia: Why RENAMO?
Olaf Tataryn Juergensen

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Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 10, No 2, December 1994
Page 13



Olaf Tataryn Juergensen is currently writing his Ph.D. dissertation in geography at Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, on the local social-spatial dynamics of the war in Angonia, Mozambique.

One of the frequently debated issues concerning the 16 year civil war in Mozambique has been the role and legitimacy of Renamo as political actor. To date field research in southern and central Mozambique has lead to the conclusion that Renamo, an instrument of Rhodesian and South African foreign policy, was cagey enough to transform itself from a group of marauding bandits to local warlords. It has been suggested that Renamo's support was basically founded on its ability to impose a hegemonic rule over the people and territory that it forcefully controlled. Simply put, the guerrilla group was comprised of kidnapped peasant soldiers, armed by external agents, who had no option but to cooperate with Renamo; the local population was forced to contribute food, labour and other tributes in the name of so-called freedom and democracy.

Much of the important work by O'Laughlin ( SAR, January, 1992) and Roesch ( SAR, December, 1990; May, 1992; February, 1994) further bears out the thin ideological and philosophical reasoning upon which Renamo based its "counter- revolutionary" project. Other factors contributing to Renamo support were seen to be ethnically based, particularly in the central provinces of Sofala and Manica, the home of the Shona- speaking minority Ndau, who dominated Renamo operations.

However, the recent announcements - by the international observer community that the October election was conducted in a `free and fair' manner and by Mozambique's National Election Commission that Renamo had won 112 of the 250 parliamentary seats - illustrates a broader base of endorsement than was anticipated. These results point to the need for greater understanding of the historical forces shaping peasant political consciousness and behaviour in Renamo-held zones.

One of the districts that elected a Renamo candidate was Angonia, in northern Tete Province. Angonia offers a unique opportunity to evaluate Renamo's relationship with the local population. It was the site of intense Frelimo activity and peasant support during the war with the Portuguese and after independence in 1975, it became the focus of capital investment in infrastructure and agricultural production by the newly formed national government. However, for almost all of the last decade, it has been under Renamo control. Thus, the people of the area have lived at war or under threat of war since the late 1960s and have become highly politicized and well aware of the costs of war and the benefits of peace.

War and displacement in the district of Angonia

Of the over 1.1 million refugees forced out of Mozambique, almost 700,000 came from Tete Province. Consequently, Angonia, with an estimated present population of 220,000, had been almost entirely depopulated by the time the Peace Accord was signed in Rome in 1992.

Renamo first moved into Tete in 1982 and established a permanent base in Angonia in 1984. By 1986, all but two communities - the district capital, Vila Ulongue, and the sub-district capital of Domwe - had fallen under the control of the guerrillas. For an approximate four-year period between 1986 and 1990, even these two strongholds were vulnerable to Renamo capture. In 1990, Frelimo returned in force to Angonia and solidified its control over Ulongue, Domwe, and a small area immediately adjacent to the towns.

The 1992 cease-fire brought to an end eight years of intense local fighting and both sides agreed to suspend military operations and remain in their zones of control. This lead to the first, and most successful, large-scale independent repatriation from Malawi, and by the end of 1993 the majority of Angonian refugees had returned to Mozambique.

It is now clear that the war developed important regional differences which in some instances allowed Renamo to exploit rural dissatisfaction with Frelimo's policies by promoting a return to traditional rural village life. Both O'Laughlin and Roesch were keenly aware of this fact and depicted a ravaged peasantry unable to resist Renamo's call for a `retreat to tradition.' However, in the case of Angonia, the re-negotiation of the social fabric serves as only one of several elements contributing to the emerging political landscape that has seen Renamo move from a military power to political party. One of the other important factors is the unique political geography of the war and how Renamo's guerrilla tactics were particularly effective in exploiting Frelimo's military weaknesses.

Power, space and hegemony

The 1988 Gersony report, entitled "Summary of Mozambican Refugee Accounts of Principally Conflict-Related Experience in Mozambique," provided detailed graphic evidence of Renamo's handiwork. However, it also suggested that there was a unique political geography evolving in Mozambique that had Frelimo and Renamo solidifying their control on a regional basis. It also gave internal spatial definition to the different levels of domination and control in zones of Renamo activity, namely: i) tax areas, ii) control areas, and iii) destruction areas.

Tax areas comprised of isolated under-populated rural zones made up of small villages or manors that could not be protected by Frelimo troops. Because there was no viable means of resistance, the local population was forced to pay a `tax' in the form of food, livestock, labour and, oftentimes, sex. Depending on the proximity of the manor, Renamo would extract their tax whenever they passed near on foot-patrol. Levels of violence were relatively low, although refusal was not an option. Importantly, the affected populations were not marginalized to the point where they fled to safe zones; rather they remained within their traditional areas and continued to struggle to survive.

The control areas were comprised of captive populations (porters, women, Frelimo soldiers, ex-patriots). These areas can be further broken down into three sub-groups: i) combat bases, ii) field areas and iii) dependent areas. In these zones, violence and suffering were much greater because of the proximity of the front lines. Control areas were an active part of the military complex: the combat bases where the soldiers actually lived, the field areas where forced agricultural production took place, and the dependent areas, which held the elderly who toiled, doing menial work and the children who represented the future indoctrinees.

The last, and most deadly category, were the destruction zones. Prime targets in these zones were small towns or district capitals, communal villages established by the government and road and rail links. Attacks in these targets normally resulted in great loss of life and property.

Research in Angonia shows that these zones of control and domination were constantly in transition and under threat by either Renamo or Frelimo, and there is clear evidence that both sides were responsible for attacking the local populations and the creation of displacees. Initially, the exposure to the ideology of Frelimo was central in this politicized landscape. However, this was challenged early in the course of the war via radio broadcasts made by Renamo from its bases in Zimbabwe.

Political rhetoric aside, when Renamo launched its campaign in Tete, it did not leave much room for grassroots debate. The resultant destruction is well catalogued. However, the question remains: `Why would the local population elect the very band that is seen to be responsible for its suffering?' It has been suggested that Renamo's political platform is loosely based on a combination of traditionalism, intimidation and a `war of the spirits' against the social engineering of the ruling party. Oral testimonies collected in Angonia and the neighbouring refugee camps in Malawi, suggests that although their ideology was vague and sometimes fraught with compulsion, it indeed did win resonance with the peasantry.

The democracy dividend

Seeing the election process `in action' in Malawi during the referendum debate on multi-partyism in 1993 and the subsequent elections held in May of this year, had an educating and empowering effect on the people of Angonia. Historically, there are strong cultural, kinship and trading links between the ethnic majority Ngoni of Mozambique and the Chewa in neighbouring Malawi. This is evidenced in the extraordinary gesture of the Malawian people who provided land for the refugees to settle while they themselves faced serious land shortages necessary for food production. Because the refugee settlements were highly integrated into the Malawian village setting, the dissemination of information on democratic initiatives in Malawi shaped much of the political discourse and understanding of the democratic process in Angonia.

Unlike the situation in South Africa, and to a lesser extent in Malawi, people in Angonia wanted present conditions, that allowed people to return home and begin the difficult process of reconstruction and reconciliation, to continue. The fact that Renamo controlled the majority of rural Angonia, and did not let Frelimo campaign in much of their held territory, clearly limited public resistance, but this in itself does not explain their support. What emerges is a calculating and active peasantry that partly rebuffed Frelimo on the grounds of its social and economic experiment. One of the most commonly held memories was recounted by a manorial headman in the Chide area just west of Domwe:

People were indeed happy that they were out of the bondage of the Portuguese; such things as live skinning and the whipping with Chamboko (thorned whip) stopped. However, by 1978 onwards, people saw that things became different and difficult, they could not even own a shop apart from the government. The government would not allow me to start a shop on my own without having to join hands with other persons (ten or more) even if these people had no money. This ruined most businesses. People at that stage thought Frelimo should be kicked out. During the time of Frelimo the economy was deteriorating; no matter how much you sold the money you got could not buy anything.

The introduction of collective and communal farms also produced substantial resistance. A local farmer echoed a familiar perspective on the changes brought by the these policies to the rural economy:

At first people liked these farms, they thought that they will make a lot of money with that type of system but with time they realized that they were being cheated, and they started to oppose the system. Then the government became weak so nobody was forced to go because the Renamo war started. This was after three years in 1978. People were unhappy even before Renamo came.

A third major area of discontent was the replacement of chiefly authority with local chairmen appointed by Frelimo:

When Frelimo came they appointed chairmen and these were more powerful than the chief. The people were not happy because this is not good according to their tradition. The Frelimo could appoint anyone to become chairman. His role was to be the informer for the government. The people didn't like him but they respected him because of fear of the government.

Lastly, the inability of Frelimo to militarily win control over Angonia must be seen as one of the most significant contributors to the support eventually won by the rebels. The sheer rugged vastness of Angonia made it a difficult place to hold and protect for Frelimo. As Renamo was able to strengthen its grip in the outlying areas, Frelimo became more ruthless in attacking those people who remained in Renamo-held territory as supporters of the insurgents. However, as one local who endured in Renamo-held territory throughout the war noted:

They all put on the same uniform. Both sides were doing the same thing (killing people) because they would say the people are supporting either Frelimo or Renamo. You could run into the bush to build a house but either Renamo or Frelimo would attack you there.

So regardless of the ideological terrain the peasantry might hope to claim, it was their spatial location that seemed to determine their fate. Even in exile the political geography remained quite stark, as certain areas were settled by residents from Frelimo-held areas, while others were from pro-Renamo villages (although actual violent conflict was rare). Given Frelimo's poor military history, the fear that Renamo would not respect the outcome and would return to the bush to re-ignite the war loomed continuously on the horizon. But there were also the concerns, linked to the ability to simply return `home' and re-gain control over everyday life after a decade of displacement, that influenced voter consciousness. Finally, when the UNHCR terminated its relief operation to all but approximately 5,000 so- called `vulnerables' in Dedza District of Malawi at the end of 1993, the refugees who had repatriated to Angonia realized that the best way to secure their future would be through a lasting peace in the region.

As has been offered elsewhere, Frelimo's initiatives were subverted via external aggression. However, Frelimo itself must be criticized for many of its policies and responses to opposition. In Angonia, its inability to protect the people, and then its decision to force them to move to Malawi in an attempt to weaken Renamo's grip, backfired and only further alienated the peasantry. Renamo was quick to exploit this scheme, and together with Frelimo's earlier vision of rural transformation, was perceived as a bona-fide alternative. Equally, this is not to dismiss the atrocities committed by Renamo in the name of its distinctive version of `democracy', but it does provide a framework for some general understanding of the recent electoral results. Set in this context we can see that the peasantry were victims of domination from both sides; their actions cannot be measured in purely ideological terms (neo-traditional versus progressive), but must also be understood within the spatial hegemony and will to survive that dominated life in Angonia.

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