Afonso Dhlakama, head of Mozambique's opposition party Renamo, addresses an election rally in Matola, near Maputo, on the last day of campaigning October 25, 2009. 

© 2009 Reuters/Grant Lee Neuenburg

Afonso Dhlakama, the leader of Mozambique’s main opposition party and former rebel group, Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo), died today after an illness, party sources have confirmed.

Dhlakama, 65, had been living in the Gorongosa mountains, in the central province of Sofala, since October 2012. In Gorongosa, he had set up a camp for hundreds of his followers and former militia to fight the government if his political demands were not met. He called for free and fair elections, a better share of the country’s resources, control of some Mozambican territory, and the appointment of Renamo members to senior positions in the security and defense forces.

In April 2013, Renamo attacked a police station in the central town of Muxungue. This marked the start of sporadic attacks on government positions and civilian entities, including hospitals and public transport, raising fears that Mozambique would return to civil war.

Dhlakama succeeded Renamo’s first leader, André Matsangaissa, who was killed by Mozambican government forces in 1979. Under Dhlakama’s command the group controlled large parts of the country and carried out raids often marred by serious human rights abuses, including assassinations, torture, and sexual violence.

In October 1992, Dhlakama signed a peace deal with the government, and transformed Renamo into a political party, which now holds 89 out of the 250 parliamentary seats contested in October 2014.

Human Rights Watch documented numerous abuses by Renamo in Mozambique’s central provinces from November 2015 until a ceasefire in December 2016, including political killings, attacks on public transport and looting of health clinics. No one has been held responsible for those crimes.

His death and the lack of a clear Renamo succession plan bring uncertainty to the political environment and raise critical questions about the next leader’s ability to control hundreds of armed men in the bush and negotiate a lasting peace agreement.

Dhlakama was a guerrilla leader who for decades allowed his forces to commit serious human rights violations with impunity. He was also a political leader who used unconventional and at times violent means to challenge the political control and abuses of the Frelimo-led government.