Afonso Dhlakama, Mozambique's Opposition Leader, Dies at 65

(Bloomberg) -- Afonso Dhlakama, who led the Mozambique National Resistance as a rebel movement during a 16-year civil war and later as an opposition party, has died. He was 65.

He died Thursday at his mountain hideout near Gorongosa in central Mozambique, according to the nation’s state-owned radio station. No cause was given, although his health had deteriorated in the past several days.

Born on Jan. 1, 1953, in the central Sofala province, Dhlakama took over the leadership of the movement known as Renamo in 1979 from Andre Matsangaissa after he was killed in an attack by government forces.

President Filipe Nyusi, in comments broadcast on state television, described Dhlakama as someone who “always worked for Mozambique.” The two were set to compete against each other in presidential elections due next year and it’s not yet clear who Dhlakama’s successor will be.

Using fiercely anti-communist rhetoric, Dhlakama won support from then white-ruled Rhodesia, whose security forces had created Renamo, and later South Africa. Under his leadership, Renamo extended its military control of large swathes of Mozambican territory, mainly in rural areas, while the war reached as far south as Maputo, the capital. As many as 1 million people died.

Excessive Control

A 1992 peace agreement led to Mozambique’s first elections in 1994, and Renamo complained that Frelimo, the ruling party, exerted excessive control over the government and the military, marginalizing Renamo and making it impossible for it to win subsequent votes.

In 2012, Dhlakama retreated to his old stronghold near Gorongosa. There were frequent attacks on roads and rail lines in central Mozambique from 2013 to 2016 that the ruling party blamed on Renamo. It denied involvement.

The two groups entered into renewed talks in 2016 and were due to sign a permanent peace deal last year, but that was delayed. In February, they agreed to constitutional changes that would give political parties more power in the provinces.

“Dhlakama’s passing represents the end of an era in Mozambican politics,” Anne Fruhauf, senior vice president at New York-based risk adviser Teneo Intelligence, said Thursday in an email. “It raises immediate questions about the planned peace deal, as Renamo’s internal succession seems unclear from the outside. Renamo stands a good chance of making gains at the next round of elections, perhaps even in Maputo, so it will be essential how the party redefines itself in the wake of Dhlakama’s passing. The strengthening of Renamo’s parliamentary wing would be a positive.”

Dhlakama, with his wife, Rosaria, had five children.

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