The southern African country, one of the poorest countries in the world only two decades ago, could be about to resume what the World Bank has called a ‘blistering pace of economic growth’ after the ruling Frelimo party and the Renamo opposition signed a peace deal expected to pave the way for polls on 15 October, the fifth general elections since independence from Portugal in 1975.

Elements of the accord had already been announced in the run-up to the final agreement, including an amnesty for crimes committed by Renamo forces during the two-year insurgency. The deal also envisages foreign observers overseeing the fighters’ integration into the army and police.

The accord had initially been signed by a Renamo delegate and the agriculture minister as Renamo’s veteran leader, Afonso Dhlakama, had refused to come out of his hideout in the Gorongosa mountains until he was escorted to the capital, Maputo, by foreign diplomats. However, Dhlakama told journalists from his base that his forces were aware of the ceasefire: ‘They’ve received the orders and promised to obey’.

He added that he was looking forward to meeting the Mozambican president, Armando Guebuza: ‘There’s goodwill on my side and a lot to talk about’.

There is also a lot hinging on the success of the peace deal: some analysts and neighbouring states had feared a return to outright civil war over the past two years as relations deteriorated and Renamo launched sporadic attacks on government forces and the country’s main highway. Foreign industrial conglomerates such as Italy’s ENI, Brazil’s Vale and the US oil firm Anadarko were waiting in the wings, ready to exploit the country’s wealth of natural resources but uncertain about committing multibillion-dollar sums (such as ENI and Anadarko’s plans to build a gas liquefaction plant) in such an unstable political climate.

The hostility between the former liberation movement and its old adversary, which had been in abeyance since the 1992 peace accord ended the 16-year civil war, erupted into open conflict again last year when Renamo declared: ‘Peace is over’.

Dhlakama accused Frelimo of monopolising power and excluding the opposition from the economic opportunities of developing the huge mineral reserves.

However, Frelimo has a dim view of its opponents, unable to forget how the carnage wrought by Renamo during the civil war imposed such hardship on the newly independent country. In response to Renamo deputies’ defence that they had waged war to ‘destabilise Marxism–Leninism’, the late Rafael Maguni, who joined Frelimo at 15 in 1964 to fight Portuguese rule, told the Mozambican parliament in 2002 that the opposition party’s origins had been ‘pure terrorism’. Maguni told MPs: ‘There is no Mozambican family who was not plunged into mourning, or who escaped the blood-lust’.

Renamo—or the Mozambique National Resistance (RNM in Portuguese), as it was when it grew out of the counter-insurgency tactics of Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia in the 1970s—became notorious in the 1980s for the wanton destruction of Mozambique’s already skeletal infrastructure, and the massacre and mutilation of civilians that killed nearly a million people and drove more than two million from their homes. Some 10,000 children are believed to have been kidnapped and turned into combatants and torturers by Renamo.

After Zimbabwean independence, Renamo became an equally vicious proxy in apartheid South Africa’s war against the frontline states and, by attacking the lifelines to the sea from Mugabe’s landlocked state, had its foot on the throat of Mozambique’s neighbour as well. In 1992 The New York Times described Mozambique’s rebel-held areas as a ‘land of tears’. One man who fled at night with his family told the newspaper: ‘In the Renamo areas, you just work like a slave’.

Despite this litany of horrors, Renamo rapidly reformed itself when South Africa’s support fell away as the apartheid regime moved towards democracy and managed to win nearly 34% of the vote in the first multi-party elections in 1994. In the 1999 polls, Dhlakama, the party’s leader since 1979, cried foul when he narrowly lost the election, garnering 47.7% of the vote to Frelimo’s Joaquim Chissano’s 53.3%. However, the 50-strong electoral observer mission of the Carter Centre, led by the former US president Jimmy Carter and Botswana’s former president Ketumile Masire, concluded: ‘Overall, the strong sense of our delegation is that the process we have witnessed so far has been very positive’. It added: ‘Problems reported by Renamo in Tete [province] do not provide sufficient grounds to challenge the overall results’.

By the 2004 elections Dhlakama’s share of the vote had declined by a third—losing by 63% to 31%, albeit on a declining turnout—and by 2009 he won just 16% to Frelimo’s 75%.

The uneasy coexistence survived until 2012 when Renamo’s dwindling band of diehards took to the bush, establishing a base in the forested hills of central Mozambique. In April 2013 the reformed guerrilla force attacked a police station and killed four officers in what it said was a response to an army raid on its camp. It returned to ambushing transport corridors, especially the main north–south road, and the death toll from its raids rose. However, The Economist argued: ‘Despite the violence, Renamo has garnered quite a bit of public sympathy. There is support for its demands for electoral reform, an end to Frelimo’s sway over the security forces, the depoliticisation of the civil service and a dividend for all Mozambicans from the country’s burgeoning new wealth from coal and gas’.

The forthcoming elections will be a critical test of political stability. A previous peace deal in October 2013 failed to hold, with both sides blaming the other, but the hydrocarbon bonanza awaiting a peaceful and stable Mozambique has concentrated minds.

Frelimo said it now expected Renamo forces to disarm and begin their reintegration into Mozambican society, although the agreement does not specify a timetable for the process. Damião José, secretary for ‘mobilisation and propaganda’ on Frelimo’s central committee, told a Maputo press conference that reintegration of the forces—variously put at between a few hundred and 1,000 guerrillas—would allow Renamo members to use their constitutional rights and help develop the country. Frelimo congratulated Renamo, he said, ‘for having finally understood that by embarking on the use of armed force and the death of innocent citizens, they were on the wrong side of history’.

The day after the accord was signed, an extraordinary session of parliament was called to ratify the agreement—the peace deal was regarded as sufficiently urgent for the assembly to meet on a public holiday. Military observers began arriving in Maputo the next day, China’s Xinhua news agency reported. The government and Renamo invited Botswana, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Kenya, Cape Verde, Italy, Portugal, Britain and the US to send observers to supervise the ceasefire, disarmament and reintegration of Renamo forces for a renewable term of 135 days. The $18m operation will consist of 30 international and 70 national observers, with 35 chosen by Frelimo and an equal number by Renamo, headquartered in Maputo and led by a brigadier from Botswana.

Dhlakama was slow to start his election campaign, which began officially on 31 August. His two rivals, Filipe Nyusi of Frelimo (Guebuza is constitutionally barred from standing a third time), and Daviz Simango, leader of the Mozambique Democratic Movement (MDM), were quick to embark on election rallies and tours of the northern and central provinces. Recent opinion polls suggest Simango, son of Frelimo’s first vice-president, is expected to replace Dhlakama as the main opposition leader.

hlakama has contested every election since the civil war, but has always lost and is almost certain to do so again. Renamo holds just 51 seats in the 250-member parliament. A poll in July by Maputo’s Polytechnic University suggested Nyusi would win 47% of the vote, followed by Simango with 35% (up from only 8% in the 2009 elections). Dhlakama trailed with 10%, but his party dismissed the survey as ‘flawed’.

On 5 September, the national electoral commission (CNE) and the European Union agreed the details of a 50-strong mission of EU observers to monitor the presidential, parliamentary and provincial elections. The CNE chairman, Abdul Carimo, said the African Union, the Southern African Development Community and the Carter Centre had also expressed an interest in observing the elections, with the total number of observers, both Mozambican and foreign, reaching as many as 5,000. The EU’s chargé d’affaires in Maputo, João de Carvalho, said the election campaign had begun well and that the EU was convinced that the entire electoral process would unfold normally. Dhlakama’s arrival in Maputo was a ‘positive sign’ for the stability that the country needed, he said.

Kamalesh Sharma, secretary-general of the Commonwealth, also welcomed the peace deal. In a statement issued by the Commonwealth Secretariat, Sharma said: ‘We commend all those who have played a part in reaching this landmark agreement’. He said the Commonwealth was helping to train CNE staff in preventing and managing electoral conflict. ‘Our Commonwealth approach is that we seek always to find common ground, and encourage all parties to invest in peaceful settlement of disputes—the alternative is too costly’.

Nevertheless, analysts are cautious about the durability of the peace deal. Egidio Vaz, a Mozambican historian, told Agence France-Presse: ‘For Renamo to become a totally civil and not an armed political organisation will take time. The fact that Dhlakama’s armed people are not surrendering arms before the elections means that, yes, they may go back to the bush if the elections are not regarded as free and fair’.

Antonio Francisco, of Mozambique’s Institute for Social and Economic Studies, said: ‘I don’t trust it. The fact that Dhlakama did not accept to come [to sign the accord himself] shows they do not trust each other. They [Renamo] probably reached a compromise to get into the process of elections. Probably Dhlakama and those in the bush with him are tired’.

Vaz suggests it will all come down to giving Renamo a share of the spoils: ‘What will happen is that they [the government] will have to negotiate some leading positions for Renamo, for example the chair of the board of a leading company’.

Like its fellow former Portuguese colony Angola, Mozambique’s economy looks like having an unhealthy reliance on energy: the discovery of huge oil, gas and coal deposits has seen energy conglomerates scramble to get a foothold in recent years, although there has been the occasional exit too, as when Rio Tinto abandoned plans to develop coal deposits and pulled out of the country, writing off $3.5bn in the process. The influx of foreign companies is in stark contrast to Portugal’s rush for the exit in the 1970s.

Buoyed by high growth projections, attention is also being paid to the vast infrastructure development planned to connect remoter parts of the country with the more urbanised south. As in other parts of Africa, Chinese investors are at the forefront of the rush to exploit Mozambique’s ever-faster pace of development. South Africa, which has traditionally strong trade links, is also seeking closer ties.

Perhaps the most significant investment partner, however, is Angola. With the economy surging on vast energy reserves—it is not far behind Nigeria in output—and high oil prices, the government of José Eduardo dos Santos announced in August that it was ready to write off half of Mozambique’s national debt, which amounts to about $60m and largely stems from imports of Angolan oil going back decades. The other half will be ‘transformed into capital for Angolan investment in Mozambique’, a Mozambican official said.

However, in a reminder of more troubled times in Mozambique, there was also news of the release from Maputo’s high-security prison of Momad Assife Abdul ‘Nini’ Satar, one of the men convicted of ordering the assassination in November 2000 of Mozambique’s leading investigative journalist, Carlos Cardoso. The public prosecutor’s office had strongly objected to releasing Satar as he was suspected of organising a spate of kidnappings over the past three years from his prison cell. ‘Authorities say they registered 44 kidnapping cases last year. Unofficial sources say the actual number is easily double that, as many families were too afraid to involve the police,’ the South African newspaper Business Day reported in April.

The Mozambican police chief, Jorge Khalau, told the Maputo daily Noticias in May that Satar was ‘the boss of the kidnappers’. Khalau claimed that despite serving 10 years of a 24-year sentence, Satar had been able to use smuggled phones to organise the kidnappings of wealthy Asian businessmen. ‘Nini’s profession is to guide organised crime,’ he said.

The role of police officers in the kidnappings and the apparent weakness of Mozambique’s judicial system serves as a warning that, as in Nigeria and Angola, rampant corruption threatens to siphon off much of Mozambique’s new-found mineral wealth. Once again the discovery of untold oil wealth could prove to be a curse.