Since the late 1970s, the principal group opposing the Frelimo government has been the Mozambique National Resistance (MNR, later Renamo). This group was formed in 1977 by the Rhodesian Central Intelligence organisation (CIO) in the face of President Machel’s growing support for the Zimbabwean National Liberation Army (Zanla), and his enforcement of United Nations sanctions against the Rhodesians. In its early years, Renamo comprised soldiers who had fought with the Portuguese during the colonial war as well as Frelimo dissidents. Its initial objectives were to destabilise the Mozambican government and provide intelligence on Zanla guerrillas operating within its borders. In pursuing these aims, Renamo initially enjoyed limited grass-roots support and did not pose a serious military threat to Frelimo. This changed, however, after 1980.
With Zimbabwe’s transition to majority rule, control of Renamo was handed over to the South African Military Intelligence Directorate (MID). After a year or so of relative calm, while the South Africans reviewed and reoriented Renamo operations, the Mozambican war began to escalate dramatically. South Africa’s aims in revitalising Renamo were to counteract Mozambique’s support for the armed opposition to apartheid, and to block landlocked Zimbabwe’s access to the sea through Mozambique, thus increasing South African dominance of the regional economy. Under the tutelage of the apartheid regime, Renamo’s strength quickly increased from 500 to 8,000 fighters. By 1982, the rebels were active in most of Mozambique and posed a serious military threat to the government.
While South African support for Renamo was reduced following the 1984 Nkomati accord, a change in strategy allowed the rebel group to continue functioning. Immediately after the agreement, the South African military covertly airlifted huge quantities of arms to Renamo bases inside Mozambique and advised the rebels to adopt new insurgency tactics. Rather than relying on rear bases in South Africa, Renamo would now have to provision itself from the local population. It would also need to increase efforts to conserve arms and ammunition and to replenish its supplies from captured weaponry.
As part of this strategic reorientation, Renamo restricted its conventional military operations to key strategic areas and began to concentrate increasingly on ‘soft’, civilian targets. In seeking to control and instil fear in rural populations, they became particularly well-known for mutilating civilians, including children, by cutting off ears, noses, lips and sexual organs. These tactics were part of a standard terrorist strategy intended to advertise the rebels’ strength, to weaken symbolically the authority of the government and to undermine the rural production systems on which Mozambique depended. A central aim was to destroy transport links, health clinics, schools, and all other infrastructure that represented social security and government provision.
With bands of rebels dodging direct engagement and with morale fading fast, the Mozambique Armed Forces (FAM) stood little chance of maintaining control across vast areas of territory. By 1986, more conventional Renamo units had also consolidated their strongholds in west-central Mozambique and pushed deep into Zambézia province, routing poorly supplied army units. Stepping up diplomatic activity, the government enlisted Tanzanian and Zimbabwean support to pressure Malawi into closing Renamo bases on its soil. Though this initiative had some success, assistance for Renamo continued to come from various quarters, including elements within the South African government, Portuguese business interests, and evangelical Protestant groups channelling their aid through Malawi and Kenya.
Immediately following their expulsion from Malawi, Renamo units launched their biggest ever offensive along the length of the Zambezi valley. This threatened to cut the country in two and allow the rebels to set up an alternative government in the north. With the support of Tanzanian and Zimbabwean forces, however, the Mozambican army launched a successful counter-offensive which marked an important turning point in the conflict. Hundreds of thousands of refugees were pushed into neighbouring countries, while some of the war’s biggest massacres took place in Inhambane and Gaza provinces. By late 1988, with external support in rapid decline, it was becoming clear to both sides that the war was entering stalemate.
The Nkomati Non-Aggression Pact
In 1984, Mozambique and South Africa signed the Nkomati Non-Aggression Pact which was meant to lay the groundwork for a cessation of hostilities. In exchange for South Africa halting its support for Renamo, Mozambique would close down ANC military operations from its territory. A series of South African-mediated negotiations also took place between Frelimo and Renamo in an attempt to reach a lasting settlement to the war. However, these talks quickly collapsed under pressure from the South African military and other groups. While Frelimo largely stuck to the terms of the Nkomati accord, the South Africans did not, publicly conceding in 1985 that ‘technical violations’ had occurred. By the year’s end, it was clear the Nkomati initiative had failed.