'Nice' Renamo may yet win the peace

The voters of Mozambique are turning to their former tormentors, writes Mary Braid

The stench assaults the senses from the bottom of the dark and filthy staircase, and only worsens on the long ascent to a vast reception area, long ago stripped of furniture. In the far corner a former soldier, his left leg missing, sits propped against the wall, hoping to see a party activist. Above his head is a political poster of startling simplicity. "Vote Dhlakama, Dhlakama is nice" it advises in Portuguese, beside a picture of a grinning, round-faced man with huge glasses.

Welcome to the regional headquarters of Renamo, in Mozambique's squalid port of Beira, stronghold of the reviled peasant terrorist army whose barbaric tactics and brutal recruitment methods won international infamy. Under the leadership of the smiling Alfonso Dhlakama, it specialised in slicing off noses and routinely forced children to watch the rape, mutilation and murder of their parents before press-ganging them, half-mad, into its ranks.

Four years after its peace accord with the Frelimo government, Renamo has come in from the bush. As Mozambique, one of the world's poorest countries, struggles to recover from the ravages of 16 years of civil war, Renamo remodelled has turned to democratic politics. And bizarrely, the once- terrorised are voting for it in their millions.

In a bare side office Francisco dos Santos, Renamo's local political adviser, sits flanked by a former guerrilla fighter and two ruddy-faced men, who hang on his every word. Special preparations have been made. His desk has been draped with a tea-towel imprinted with Mr Dhlakama's face, and is decorated with a small, limp party flag. "The transition to democracy was easy," he insists. "We were already well organised and disciplined and had strong support from the people."

This runs contrary to popular wisdom. For Renamo was always the Frankenstein created by Rhodesia's beleaguered white minority government, which had its road and rail links to the coast cut off after Frelimo wrested independence from the Portuguese in 1975. When Rhodesia finally fell, a hostile South Africa stepped in to back Renamo. Latterly the terrorists were funded by fundamentalist US churches.

Mr dos Santos insists that Frelimo propaganda was misleading, and that the people always loved Renamo. If so, love must be blind. For Beira lies in ruins, with pitted roads and its once beautiful buildings crumbling. There is little running water or sanitation.

Before independence it was the summer playground for landlocked Rhodesians, who came to lie on the golden beaches and eat the famous prawns. Today the huge seafront Grand Hotel is a shell which echoes with the noise of the displaced and dispossessed. The entrance teems with ragged children, and bodies seem to spill over every balcony. More than 600 people sleep eight and nine to a room and wet clothes now curtain the once-chic pool.

The Grand's latest guests lived in the countryside before seeking sanctuary from Renamo in town. But despite the years of siege, disease and hunger, few seem to blame Renamo today. In the country's first election in 1994, Renamo won four times as many votes as Frelimo locally. It also cut a swathe through central Mozambique, winning the most populated provinces and the regions with the greatest economic potential.

In these areas , the UN and aid organisations say, Renamo already calls the tune unofficially. While Renamo failed to gain democratic control anywhere, only 6 per cent of the popular vote separated the parties. The Frelimo leader, Joaquim Chissano, polled 20 per cent more votes in the presidential election than Mr Dhlakama, winning the right to appoint provincial governors and directors. But the closeness of the parliamentary vote shocked Frelimo and the government is dragging its heels over the date for local elections, in which Renamo is set for its first real taste of power.

In Beira, support rests on the long-standing grudge against Frelimo. Tourism and freight traffic were killed off by its embargo of Rhodesia, locals claim, and it was then that Beira began to die.

But Renamo's political appeal reflects a general resentment. Now that its socialist murals are faded, Frelimo is judged to have grown corrupt. "People vote Renamo because they hate the south and the capital, Maputo," says a journalist. "Resources have always been focused there." In the aftermath of war, fewer hold the simple view of Renamo as ignorant, demonic bandits and Frelimo as politically sophisticated and saintly freedom fighters. By the time they had slugged each other into mutual submission, Frelimo's soldiers were as brutalised and war-crazed as Renamo's.

"Frelimo attacked all the old values and institutions - the Catholic Church and the old tribal and social structures," said one UN source, who now believes that while it was funded from outside in a Cold War-dictated conflict, Renamo did tap domestic discontent. The UN is pushing both sides to compromise, so that local elections can be held. "These elections are the second step to consolidating the peace," said Carlos Picado-Horta, a senior UN economist. But while Renamo wants nationwide elections, Frelimo argues for a gradualist approach, claiming that in many areas of the war- torn country there is no infrastructure and no money; and so nothing to control.

Poverty and ignorance in its rural heartland could be Renamo's greatest weapon. Journalists say that in remote areas people do not even know they live in Mozambique and think Mr Dhlakama is president. Mr Picado-Horta says Renamo has grown intellectually, but others disagree. "My suggestion to Frelimo is let them win some local seats then watch them make a mess of it," said one western diplomat. "They have no programme, no policies, no vision for this country."

Fernando Lima, a columnist with the Maputo-based Savana newspaper, says that by the 1998 general election the unthinkable may come to pass. If Frelimo does not improve, Renamo support will spread beyond the centre of the country. "At the moment Renamo still carries the stigma of the war, but in time that will go."

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