THE Mozambique National Resistance Movement (Renamo), once branded with the Khmer Rouge as one of the world's most brutal rebel groups, is playing a key role in this southern African country's transition to democracy.
``I was in the bush for 16 years,'' says Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama in an interview. ``That was enough. I will never use the strategy of arms again. I turned to arms to force the government to accept multiparty democracy. Now I have achieved that.''
Mr. Dhlakama, dressed in a dark blue tailored suit and silk tie, cuts a very different figure from the introverted and hesitant guerrilla leader this reporter first met at his bush headquarters in central Mozambique six years ago.
Now able to conduct interviews in English, he measures his responses and avoids extravagant claims about Renamo's chances in the country's first democratic elections scheduled for Oct. 27 and 28.
It was unthinkable even four years ago that Dhlakama would be able to make the transition to democracy. Today he is President Joaquim Chissano's only serious rival for the presidency, and Renamo is the only real political threat to the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo).
Dhlakama had learned to exploit in speeches the excesses of Frelimo at the height of its former Marxist-Leninist program and to counter claims that Renamo alone was responsible for the gruesome civilian massacres of a civil war that ended in a peace accord in October 1992.
Renamo was created by the intelligence arm of formerly white-ruled Rhodesia to counter liberation groups there and was nurtured by South Africa to destabilize Mozambique after Rhodesia gave way to an independent Zimbabwe in 1980.
But Frelimo's centrist policies, which disregarded traditional leaders and customs, alienated large sections of the rural population and gave the rebel movement a life of its own.
Today, Renamo is well ahead of Frelimo in the demobilization of its military forces, but delays on the government side and in the training of the new Army indicate that effective military power will remain with Frelimo after the elections.
Dhlakama seems to enjoy being compared favorably with Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi, who plunged his country back into civil war after September 1992 elections were won by the government of Jose Eduardo dos Santos.
``What happened in Angola cannot be repeated here,'' says Dhlakama, at a swimming pool and the luxury villa that previously housed the European Union envoy and is now the rebel leader's home. ``What we need here is democracy - not power. The people of Mozambique have much more power than Frelimo.''
Dhlakama insists that if Renamo wins the election - an outcome regarded as highly unlikely by most diplomats and observers - he would opt for a government of national unity like the one in South Africa. ``If Renamo wins an election, it will invite officials from other parties to serve in government,'' he says.
Mr. Chissano, despite pressure from the US and other Western nations, has resisted making the same public commitment. Hard-liners in Chissano's Cabinet have already criticized him for making too many concessions to Renamo.
United Nations Special Representative Aldo Ajelo is encouraged that Dhlakama and Chissano have developed a relationship that has enabled them to resolve several sticking points in the peace process.
But Mr. Ajelo is concerned by delays in the demobilization of government troops and by the possible consequences of the parties' failing to reach a power-sharing agreement before the vote. ``It is very easy to contest the result of the election if there has not been an agreement before the election to accommodate the loser,'' he says.
Dhlakama insists that Renamo will have a say in determining whether the election is free and fair and will not automatically accept the judgment of the independent National Election Commission. ``If the elections are not free and fair, we will ask for a repeat of the ballot,'' Dhlakama says.
A series of mutinies and demonstrations in both Frelimo and Renamo assembly areas in recent weeks has set off alarm bells at headquarters of the UN operation in Mozambique.
UN initiatives have been devised to speed the demobilization of government forces ahead of the Aug. 15 deadline, and soldiers from opposing armies are being encouraged to sign up for the new national Army. Tension around the military process has raised fears in some quarters of a repetition of the Angolan disaster.
``Dhlakama is not Savimbi,'' Ajelo says. ``Renamo is much more flexible. Dhlakama is a much younger man and is ready to reach agreement on a much more reasonable basis.''