Give me a child and I’ll make a soldier

AFONSO DHLAKAMA (pictured), the Mozambican rebel turned opposition leader who died on May 3rd at his Gorongosa mountain lair, had been the undisputed and charismatic leader of Renamo for nearly 40 years. Some disciples said he had magic powers: that he could turn into a partridge (a symbol of Renamo) to escape danger. He had been trying to clinch a peace deal with the government, and was said to have made progress during secretive talks with Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi. But since, in typical African big-man style, he left no successor, that whole process may now be in question.

Mr Dhlakama had once before laid down his guns, ending a civil war marked by mass atrocities, child conscripts and 1m deaths between 1977 and 1992. But the two decades of peace that followed were not to his liking. In 2012 he took up arms again to protest against the dominance of Frelimo, the ruling party. Renamo fighters attacked police stations, roads and railways. Although a truce was reached in late 2016, negotiations dragged on, advancing only after Mr Nyusi travelled to Mr Dhlakama’s remote base for private talks.

Under the putative accord, power would have been devolved to the provinces. The two men were still discussing how to demobilise and reintegrate Renamo’s militia, maybe a thousand strong.

Given Mr Dhlakama’s dominance over Renamo, it is unclear when negotiations will restart. Ossufo Momade, a former guerrilla chief, has been chosen as its interim leader, promising to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. Some wonder if talks could proceed faster without the capricious Mr Dhlakama.

Whoever takes over will face a tough task. Mr Dhlakama unified old guerrilla fighters with his party’s modern political wing. Mr Momade is from the military side. Ivone Soares, a niece of Mr Dhlakama who heads Renamo in parliament, may lack support from war veterans but do better at the ballot box. Another contender, Manuel Bissopo, the secretary-general, may appeal to both factions.

Renamo has little time to deliberate. Local elections are to be held in October, followed by a national poll next year. Renamo has momentum, recently winning a by-election in Nampula, up north. Mr Dhlakama’s absence may make it easier for Renamo to work with the Mozambique Democratic Movement, which splintered from it. Some fear that the emerging deal between Messrs Nyusi and Dhlakama might concentrate power in the hands of Frelimo and Renamo at the expense of smaller parties. Others fear Mr Nyusi may be persuaded by Frelimo’s old guard to drive a harder bargain. The peace process is even more fragile than it was.