The Lessons of War

Mozambique’s Afonso Dhlakama has had an interesting political life. Up until the early 1990s his Renamo movement fought a brutal civil war against that country’s Government, controlled since independence by the liberation movement turned political party – Frelimo. Today, he is leader of the opposition in Mozambique and has in a couple of elections won nearly 50 per cent of the vote. He in fact claims to have won those elections outright, alleging he was denied victory through vote-rigging. Allegations of vote-rigging are only part of the problems that have bedevilled Mozambique’s democracy. Economic difficulties, worsened by occasional natural disasters and IMF-dictated reforms, plus high levels of corruption, have also tested the faith of the people in their government.

Nevertheless, Mozambique’s transition from a savage civil war to a democracy of sorts is an important example for those parts of our continent which continue to be blighted by war. Despite the long and complex negotiations that finally led to the end of Mozambique’s civil war, the fundamental principle of the General Peace Agreement signed by Dhlakama and the Frelimo Government in 1992 was quite simple: Mozambique would become a multiparty democracy in which all sections of society, including the former rebels of Renamo, would be able to compete for power in free elections.

Frelimo had led the struggle against Portuguese colonial rule and had also provided rear bases for the forces fighting the minority regimes in what used to be Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. Renamo had in fact been cobbled together by Rhodesia’s security forces to weaken their Frelimo enemies and then, when the Rhodesian minority regime fell, was inherited and re-energized by the apartheid government. For many years the idea of negotiating with the puppets of apartheid had been anathema to Frelimo. But the colossal damage done to Mozambique by the civil war forced Frelimo to seek a peaceful settlement. Subsequent elections have revealed that in spite of its dubious origins, Renamo did speak for significant parts of Mozambican society. In fact the Save River which divides northern Mozambique from the south also roughly divides the areas where Renamo is dominant (the north) from the southern areas which generally support Frelimo.

As with Mozambique’s, many of the peace agreements that have ended Africa’s civil wars are based on the principle of allowing participation by all sections of society in a democratic political process. Thus the RUF in Sierra Leone, first the NPFL and now ULIMO in Liberia and the various RCDs and other armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo have made or are making the journey from armed rebellion to democratic politics. Sudan’s SPLA and the JEM and SLM in Darfur as well as the holdouts in the Burundian peace process may soon commence a similar journey. The lesson for the whole of Africa is clear: the sustenance of democracy, the promotion of political competition in a free and fair atmosphere, is critical to the very survival of our nations. As we seek to emerge from the nightmare of civil war and try to create political systems capable of addressing the severe economic and social problems that our people face, democracy becomes a matter of life and death.

the sustenance of democracy, the promotion of political competition in a free and fair atmosphere, is critical to the very survival of our nations

But the experience of Mozambique offers another lesson. Since the peace agreement of 1992, that nation has undergone several political crises because Renamo’s substantial share of the vote has not been translated into a share of executive power. Even in provinces where Renamo has won clear electoral majorities, the Mozambican constitution gives the Frelimo central government the power to appoint governors. This has bred resentment and resulted in occasional brinkmanship on Dhlakama’s part. So while Mozambique’s multiparty democracy has allowed former rebels to participate in the political process, the actual governance of the country has been solely left to Frelimo, which has managed just slightly more than 50 per cent of the vote in each election since 1992.

Where, as in many parts of Africa, the private sector and civil society are weak, governments are overwhelmingly powerful. Thus to be excluded from government sometimes seems like being cast out into the wilderness. Exclusion from power creates high levels of frustration, so high in some cases that the excluded forces are quite prepared to bring down the entire structure rather than remain outside it. It is therefore vital at our current stage of political development to create political systems where various sectors of society can participate not only in the contest for power but also in the actual exercise of power, at least to the extent to which they command popular support.

Our governments often have to make very difficult economic choices in a world where the room for manoeuvre for poor countries is very limited. They may be concerned about being bogged down in endless negotiations if their political opponents are brought into government. But that is precisely one of the strengths of genuinely inclusive democracy. It is not a bad thing if those who hold power are forced to take account of the views of diverse forces in making policy; are forced to govern in truly democratic fashion.

In any event, we have seen all too clearly the consequences of political exclusion. We have witnessed the dangerous frustration of political forces which command some public support but see their views overridden by the sometimes-slim parliamentary majorities of their opponents. Replacing winner-takes-all politics with inclusive democracy should be far less painful than the consequences of continuing to exclude significant political forces from government.

The novelist Ike Oguine lives in Lagos, Nigeria.

New Internationalist issue 374 magazine cover This article is from the December 2004 issue of New Internationalist.
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