Afonso Dhlakama's death comes as his RENAMO rebel group is in peace talks with the government over decentralization and disarmament. His sudden death casts a shadow over the direction of peace talks.
Mozambique's longtime rebel leader and opposition politician Afonso Dhlakama has died aged 65, local media reported on Thursday, throwing uncertainty into an ongoing peace process in the African country.
Dhlakama was found dead, reportedly from a heart attack, in the central Gorongosa area.
For 39 years, Dhlakama led RENAMO, the rebel group that fought a 16-year-war against the ruling FRELIMO party until the end of the civil war in 1992.
The war was one of the most brutal in Africa, leaving an estimated 1 million dead and displacing millions more.
At the end of the war, RENAMO entered politics as an opposition party but retained an armed wing. Dhlakama failed to win the presidency in multiple runs, getting only 36.6 percent of the vote in his fifth defeat in 2014.
The conflict between RENAMO and FRELIMO erupted again in November 2015, nearly two years after Dhlakama went into hiding in the remote Gorongosa mountains alongside his militant loyalists. In December 2016, Dhlakama announced a truce with the government.
Read more: Mozambique: Peace deal?
Possible blow to peace talks
RENAMO, which also holds seats in parliament, has sought greater decentralization of power as well the integration of its fighters into the police and military.
Dhlakama had recently entered peace negotiations with President Filipe Nyusi.
The two last met in February to discuss disarmament and reintegration of RENAMO's armed wing.
The meeting was followed a month later by the country's three main political parties agreeing to constitutional reforms that are currently under debate in parliament.
Dhlakama's death raises questions about the future organization of the party he led for nearly four decades. It is unclear who will continue peace talks with the government, and what will happen with the party's armed men holed up in the mountains.
"Dhlakama was a fundamental actor in the peace negotiations with Nyusi and now — since he didn’t prepare his sucession — who could continue the conversations? The level of uncertainty is very high at the moment and one of the consequences can be the suspension of the peace negotiations," Silvestre Baessa, a Mozambican good governance expert, told DW's Africa-Portuguese service.
"The death opens up two possibilities: both a weakened RENAMO now, but also a dangerous one without a leader capable of establishing its control," he added.
The constitutional reforms would allow for the direct election of provincial governors, who are currently appointed by the president. RENAMO is strongest in the north, where it has won majorities in several provinces in past elections. The reforms would also require the disarmament of RENAMO's armed wing.
Responding to Dhlakama's death, FRELIMO spokesman Caifadine Manasse said the government hoped RENAMO would continue peace talks.
"We hope RENAMO will keep serenity and Dhlakama’s interest in the search for peace. FRELIMO will do everything possible for peace advances and we hope members of RENAMO will come together to assure the process initiated by Dhlakama keeps going," he said.
Mozambique is scheduled to hold presidential, legislative and provincial elections in October 2019.
The country has been ruled by FRELIMO since independence from Portugal in 1975.
Recent gas finds and exploration have raised hopes of an influx of foreign investment but also potential for a struggle over a windfall from resources in the impoverished country of 29 million people.