BEIRA, MOZAMBIQUE — A FEW years ago, Afonso Dhlakama was known as one of Africa's most shadowy and savage guerrilla leaders who directed a rebel army in a 17-year civil war that some estimate cost over 1 million lives.
These days, this son of a traditional chief and father of five has given up his military fatigues for gray slacks and a polo shirt and is focusing on directing an army of parliamentarians voted into office 16 months ago. The vote, sponsored by the United Nations, was Mozambique's first multiparty election.
Mr. Dhlakama's goal as head of the guerrilla-movement-turned-political-party is to gain a greater share of power in the governing of Mozambique and to better his party's chances of winning the general elections in 1999.
This southeast African nation's civil war started in 1975, after independence from Portugal. The new government of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique [known by its Portuguese acronym Frelimo] turned to Marxist-Leninism, which brought Soviet support and Western wrath.
The anticommunist opposition in Mozambique quickly found support from white-ruled Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and, later, apartheid South Africa. Soon the Mozambican National Resistance [Renamo] was born. By the early 1980s, it had become a formidable force, controlling most of the Mozambican countryside. The war would drag on for 17 years and would end only after a reluctant Dhlakama signed a peace accord in Rome in 1992.
Although government forces were accused of atrocities, many, including human rights organizations and the United States government, maintain that Renamo was the bigger offender. The rebels used a scorched-earth policy in southern Mozambique, summarily executed innocent civilians, and employed children as soldiers and slaves, according to Human Rights Watch and others.
Today, Dhlakama, the man who was referred to as a monster and child killer by Frelimo, concentrates on mundane issues such as the national budget and strengthening the power of the supreme court. He calls his old enemy, Mozambique President Joaquin Chissano, "my brother."
"The president and I understand each other now," Dhlakama says in an interview at a beach-side house where he is supposed to be on vacation but is actually working hard. "Renamo is committed to working with all our brothers in the government in making democracy stronger in Mozambique."
Dhlakama's poorly funded and inexperienced Renamo faces frustrating times ahead. But one thing is certain, the soft-spoken leader insists: Renamo will not return to war and is committed to settling disputes by debate.
"The place for fighting now is in parliament," Dhlakama says, sipping a soft drink and scanning a fax from a deputy in the capital of Maputo. "I could cause a lot of trouble in Mozambique if I wanted to. I could take us back to war at any moment. But I don't want that. Renamo doesn't want that. The Mozambican people don't want that," he says.
It is not surprising to observers that Renamo scored a strong second place in the 1994 elections, winning 112 seats to Frelimo's 129. But many are surprised by Dhlakama's restraint after Frelimo's continued dominance of the political process.
The ruling party passes nearly all its legislation intact and routinely defeats Renamo bills. Many, including some top Renamo leaders, expected Dhlakama to threaten a return to war or the secession of his stronghold in the central provinces by now.
But the former general will hear nothing of it.
"The last thing Dhlakama will do right now is return to war," says Miguel de Brito, a former professor of politics at Mozambique's Institute of International Relations in Maputo. "Renamo has a lot of strength in the rural areas and enough influence with the international community to make sure the 1999 elections are fair. If they play their cards right, they could do much better next time."
Even Frelimo officials are beginning to realize Renamo may pose a challenge to its leadership in the future.
"I don't like Renamo, but I respect their right to be in parliament," says Rob Chambal, a longtime Frelimo party member and now an official in the Ministry of Justice.
"It's a slow process, but I do think we are laying the groundwork for a stronger democracy," Mr. Chambal says.