Renamo pins poll hopes on chiefs

Passers-by knelt in respect as Rosa Johnny Inhaminga sat in the shade of a mango tree, explaining why she was urging her followers to vote for the former rebel Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo) and not for the Frelimo government in the first general elections this week.

'Frelimo and Renamo are Mozambican, but Renamo likes the people and Frelimo committed many errors,' Mrs Inhaminga, 48, said. 'Because Renamo fought for democracy, many people here will vote for them. If Renamo loses, the people's suffering will continue,' she added.

Her word carries weight in the Renamo-controlled central town of Inhaminga because, as her name indicates, she is a mpfumo, a local chief, part of a traditional political structure President Joaquim Chissano's Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) failed to sweep away during the revolutionary days that followed independence from Portugal in 1975.

Loyal chiefs who lent support against Renamo insurgents are a key factor in the movement's electoral chances. Although Renamo was accused of carrying out atrocities during the war, it appears to enjoy strong support in Sofala and in the densely populated northern provinces of Zambezia and Nampula.

Part of its popularity is due to a close relationship to traditional authorities. 'Renamo does not control the traditional structure, but we value it,' said Francisco Caetano Bero, 30, Renamo's political representative in Inhaminga. 'Frelimo tried to do away with the people's traditional culture which was lost and forgotten.'

Two Irish Catholic priests, Eamon Aylward and Derrik Laverty, said that the chiefs remained highly influential. 'The people here do what their chiefs say,' Fr Aylward said. 'If they say the people should register and vote for Renamo, they will do it.'

Inhaminga, 'a place of thorns', is in Cheringoma district, in the heart of Renamo country and was cut off from the outside world for years. If the Renamo leader, Afonso Dhlakama, is to stand a chance against President Chissano, he will have to win handsomely in rural areas such as Cheringoma, where 9,000 people have been registered to vote out of a national total of 6.2 million.

Two years after Renamo and Frelimo signed a peace agreement in Rome to end the 17-year civil war, Inhaminga, once a prosperous railway junction 100 miles north-west of the Sofala provincial capital of Beira, is the pride of the Renamo movement. It is the only big town still under Renamo control - a shattered town of 5,000 people.

Renamo's control is firm. Frelimo's first secretary in Inhaminga, Chavica Chave Tingote, refused to be interviewed until a senior Renamo official gave permission. Last week, a group of Swiss reporters were ordered by a Renamo official not to talk to Frelimo.

'We are a bit apprehensive because of certain attitudes of some Renamo personalities,' Mr Tingote said, outside the rubble of what was once party headquarters. 'We recognise their local administration but other people try to cause trouble for us. They have come around saying that if we do not vote for Renamo, they are prepared to start two more wars.'

Other people causing trouble include 600 demobilised rebel soldiers, who set up road blocks and took hostages last month, demanding demobilisation pay and food aid. As a result, the Renamo administration had to hand over food that was intended for hungry civilians.

Mr Bero said he understood why the demobilised soldiers had decided to take hostages. 'Only when people make a fuss do things begin to happen,' he said.

The crisis was defused only after the Frelimo- run provincial government in Beira sent in the specially trained 'rapid intervention police' at night to disperse the former soldiers and to re-establish Renamo administrative control.

Some residents fear a resumption of the war if Renamo loses the elections, as most analysts predict. Several non-governmental organisations in the area have temporarily pulled out. But Renamo members said that they would never return to war. 'Take up arms again? What for?' one mechanic asked. 'God will never forgive us if we go back to war.'