Mozambique’s quiet assassination epidemic

2018-04-30

On 27 March, Mozambican journalist and activist Ericino de Salema was leaving the National Union of Journalists in the capital city, Maputo, when two men tumbled him into an unregistered Toyota, drove out along the Maputo Ring Road to a spot in Muntanhane, and beat him savagely. De Salema was badly injured in the assault, but a group of passing school children reportedly saw the attack taking place and alerted some adults. The attackers drove off before more serious damage could be done.

De Salema is a well-known figure in Mozambique: he regularly appears on the independent television station, STV, where he voices criticism of President Filipe Nyusi for his alleged corruption and excesses. The incident sparked angry condemnations across the country. There were calls in Parliament for the police to arrest the attackers, and the head of the country’s media watchdog reportedly told a press conference: ‘The perpetrators of this crime acted in broad daylight and on the public highway, which expresses a certain sense of impunity.’ Another news website noted dryly that it is illegal to drive vehicles without license plates – yet in this instance, one was allowed to drive through the streets of the capital without being stopped.

But amid all the anger, there was a remarkable absence of surprise. Incidents like this have become worryingly commonplace in Mozambique over the past few years. In fact, the spot at which De Salema was assaulted was very close to the scene of another crime – where José Macuane was shot in 2016. Macuane, an academic by profession, had also appeared as a frequent guest on STV, where he also criticised the government.

Assassinations in Mozambique are a worrying sign that violence is increasingly preferred to dialogue

In fact, as the table below shows, there have been at least 21 assassinations or attempted assassinations in the country since October 2014. In South Africa, Global Initiative’s (GI’s) Assassination Witness project recorded 159 reported assassinations in 2017 alone. While the numbers for Mozambique may not be as high as its neighbour’s, data collection efforts in Mozambique have not been systematic and media coverage is hampered by self-censorship. The real figure is therefore likely to be higher.

The table, in any case, is a useful quantifier of something that many in Mozambique appear to feel: that the surface of life in the country conceals violent undercurrents that threaten development and stability alike.

So, why are these assassinations happening? One pattern that is hard to miss from the table is the significant number of victims from the opposition movement, RENAMO (eight in total – versus one from the ruling FRELIMO party). This points to an important dynamic behind the recent spate of assassinations in Mozambique – namely, renewed hostilities between the two parties.

FRELIMO and RENAMO fought a protracted civil war that ended with a negotiated settlement in the early 1990s. However, since then, peace has been far from sustainable. Most recently, a series of RENAMO attacks on government locations in 2013 yielded a government assault on the home of the late Afonso Dhlakama, the movement’s former leader, which led it to announce that the peace deal with FRELIMO was over.

Assassination is a tool that allows for the manipulation of individuals, institutions and society at large

Conflict erupted again following FRELIMO’s victory in the October 2014 elections, which RENAMO rejected. Dhlakama’s convoy notably came under fire twice in September 2015, with claims that a police hit squad was behind the ‘assassination’ attempt. (An interview with an anonymous agent from the Special Forces Rapid Intervention Unit, published in English by the Daily Maverick, seems to confirm this.) Since then, low-intensity conflict has continued, with Mozambicans considering this to be a third (albeit quiet) civil war.

The assassination of RENAMO figures is a worrying sign that violence is increasingly preferred to dialogue among the countries two main political forces. Another pattern that emerges from the table below is the targeting of civil society figures such as lawyers, journalists and academics (at least seven). This suggests a second set of dynamics at play – namely corruption and state penetration of organised crime.

Assassination is a tool that allows for the manipulation of individuals, institutions and society at large, which these individuals use to maintain the chaos they need to operate unimpeded. Indeed, journalists who spoke to GI describe how they self-censor, fearing the repercussions of associating the killings with organised crime and corruption.

There is growing awareness of the inextricable mix of corruption, politics and violence in Mozambique

The forced silence notwithstanding, there is growing awareness of the inextricable mix of corruption, politics and violence in Mozambique – like in many other parts of the world. For expert observers, a watershed moment was perhaps the murder of ex-FRELIMO member and pioneer investigative journalist Carlos Cardoso in 2000. Cardoso died while investigating a massive bank fraud in which the son of then-president Joaquim Chissano was implicated. Nini Satar, a gangster, was jailed for the murder but was alleged by some to continue his criminal activity from behind bars. (Satar is now on the run.)

The assault on De Salema and other vocal civil society figures suggest that criminal violence has only deepened its mark on politics and society in Mozambique. Questions about who is behind these assassinations abound. Are they figures from the underworld; or elite government hit squads of the kind described in the Daily Maverick article? But there is also fear, as one Mozambican analyst put it, when commenting on the assassination of the mayor of Nampula in October 2017, that ‘we may never know the face of the murderers’.

It is this lack of accountability and impunity in the way that the powerful wield criminal violence that is perhaps most insidious for democracy and stability in Mozambique. This makes the need to shine a light on this quiet epidemic all the more urgent.

Rupert Horsley, Senior Analyst and Simone Haysom, Senior Analyst, Global Initiative against Transnational Organised Crime

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