Less than two years after its recapture by the joint forces of Rwanda and Mozambique, the town of Mocímboa da Praia is now preparing for municipal elections in October. Since 20 April, voter registration brigades have been mobilized to register 76,000 potential voters.
This piece is from the Cabo Ligado Monthly: April 2023
The decision to include Mocímboa da Praia in the next elections was made by the Council of Ministers after it ignored the appeal by the main opposition party, Renamo, and the electoral management bodies to exclude it from the electoral process. The concerns of Renamo and the electoral bodies over the state of insecurity in Mocímboa da Praia are valid. A sustained insurgent presence in the district, and the militarization of the town, may both negatively affect the elections. There are also questions over the political stance of Local Forces. It remains to be seen whether the investment in the process will be worth it.
From January to April 2023, the insurgents have maintained a consistent presence in the district. Over this period, seven events of political violence were recorded in Mocímboa da Praia district, with clashes between pro-government forces and insurgents in the villages of Mitose, Malinde, and Calugo. These events resulted in 29 reported fatalities. Insurgent presence was also confirmed in the villages of Marere, Limala, Calugo, and Mbau, and they peacefully reached the villages of Chiculua, Maculo, and Nazimoja, south of Mocímboa da Praia, in their new strategy to win ‘hearts and minds.’ This presents a significant challenge for the municipal elections. If insurgents can maintain a presence in rural areas of the district, and in coastal areas of neighbouring Macomia district, over the coming six months, they could present a real threat to holding peaceful elections. Attacks at that time would potentially undermine the return of displaced people to the district, as well as state legitimacy.
The militarization of the town of Mocímboa da Praia is another important aspect to be considered. Several forces are deployed in the town of Mocímboa da Praia, including Rwandan military and police forces, the Police of the Republic of Mozambique, FADM, and Local Forces. The presence of different forces there may influence the vote, since both the population and the opposition parties may fear reprisal in case of the defeat of Frelimo.
There are particularly sensitive concerns over the composition of Local Forces. Recently, people in Mocímboa da Praia have been questioning the absence of Mwani people in their ranks. Local Forces, which have been instrumental in counterinsurgency efforts in Cabo Delgado, are perceived as being predominantly made up of Makonde ethnic group. Furthermore, the Mwani are believed to make up the bulk of the insurgents' members. Mwani and Makua communities on the coast, are also considered to be broadly supportive of the opposition party Renamo, while Frelimo itself has its roots on the Makonde plateau inland. These concerns and suspicions reinforce the mutual distrust between the different ethnic groups in the town.
Frelimo is the political party most interested in the elections in Mocímboa da Praia. It wants to replicate its victory in the 2018 municipal elections, when it claimed 58% of the vote against Renamo’s 39% in Mocímboa da Praia. Moreover, it aims to use these elections as a mechanism to restore the legitimacy of the state. Since the previous elections, the image of Frelimo has been tarnished in the eyes of sections of the local population. During the campaign for the 2019 general elections, several people chanted in a Renamo rally in Mocímboa da Praia that “Frelimo brought al-Shabaab,” allegedly to prevent the population from enjoying the benefits of natural resources.
Importantly, the government intends to use the elections to reinforce the idea of national unity – one of Frelimo’s principles. In this, it may find its principles undermined by the reality of Local Forces’ composition on the ground. This unity can only be achieved by restoring state authority. Currently, the authority of the state is also being replaced by foreign entities, in this case, TotalEnergies and Rwandan forces, in terms of providing public investment and security.
It is worth asking to what extent the elections and the voter registration process itself are relevant to the residents of Mocímboa da Praia. The first major benefit is the voting cards, which are accepted as a valid form of identification by most public institutions. Voter registration thus represents a quick and low-cost alternative to obtaining a document, especially for returnees. However, local sources in Mocímboa da Praia report that the shortage of registration centers may be a barrier to accessing this document. A large number of registered voters does not necessarily translate to high voter turnout. Demand for identification for access to public services and for movement throughout the district likely drives registration. Whether the investment would be better made in those same public services such as water or health remains a question. With a weakened state, most of the services are being provided by foreign entities, from corporations to humanitarian organizations.
It remains to be seen if the October elections will address the issues behind the insurgency in Mocímboa da Praia. Elections provide an opportunity for citizens to define their priorities. However, it is questionable whether Frelimo would be interested in using the elections to better understand the demands of the population, and of the insurgents in particular. To do so, Frelimo would have to be more tolerant and open to considering socio-economic factors as central to its conflict resolution strategy. Since the beginning of the conflict, Frelimo has strongly denied socio-economic factors as the driving force behind the insurgency, rather describing the conflict as being driven by international jihadism.
The municipal elections of 2023 and the general elections of 2024 may represent an opportunity to renew the social contract between the state and the people. Likewise, the authorities can capitalize on this moment to listen to the grievances of the population, seeking to establish channels and mechanisms for dialogue between the various political and social actors in order to put an end to the insurgency. However, elections can further undermine the conflict resolution process if they only serve the interest of restoring state authority, without taking into account the factors inherent to the insurgency, and the risk of the insurgents targeting the process.