Increasingly tense times in Mozambique
Strike leader arrested and RENAMO skirmish
Things are getting increasingly tense in Mozambique – and the repressive response of the increasingly jittery authorities is only making things worse.
On Sunday, after a five-day national strike by doctors and other health professionals had brought the public health system to a standstill, the police arrested Dr Jorge Arroz – the leader and public face of the strike – on sedition charges.
Dr Arroz was released a few hours later thanks the timely intervention of the Law Society and the Mozambican Human Rights League and unprecedented public pressure – with a large crowd of doctors, activists, journalists and ordinary people surrounding the police station where he was being detained and demanding his release.
While it is a good sign that the police bowed to public pressure – and the dictates of law and reason – the arrest of Dr Arroz paints a seriously alarming picture about the trend towards greater repression and authoritarianism in Mozambique.
For a start, the police had taken threatening steps to prevent the striking doctors from meeting in public parks in Maputo by deploying heavily-armed police and cordoning off a number of places. Secondly, Dr Arroz was picked up while the government and doctors were engaged in negotiations to end the strike – a move that was clearly intended to intimidate him and his fellow doctors into ending their protest and going back to work.
But even more worryingly, Dr Arroz appears to have been arrested based on an old colonial era law, which was never even used during the civil war. Throughout southern Africa, countries – from Swaziland to Zambia – have turned to these archaic and repressive laws to suppress dissent. Mozambique now appears to have joined the club.
And finally, the Mozambican police claimed that they had arrested Dr Arroz because they had surveillance material indicating that Dr Arroz was about to commit an act of public disturbance, which could have serious consequences.
But this shocking defence of their indefensible actions also indicates something else – that the police are secretly spying (almost certainly unlawfully) on Mozambican citizens, who are engaged in peaceful and legal activities.
Indeed, at the centre of the strike is a simple wage dispute. Doctors take home between US$600-1000 per month – far less that customs and court officers. In January 2013, after a week-long strike, doctors and the government reached an agreement, which the doctors accuse the government of repudiating. They claim that the government had agreed to increase their salaries by 100 percent but only gave them with a 15 percent rise this month – triggering the strike.
The government claims it cannot afford more than that. And rather than sort things out peacefully at the negotiating table, the authorities clearly decided it was time to show Dr Arroz and his fellow strikers who was boss – a badly misguided decision given the outpouring of public support for Dr Arroz.
Meanwhile, the simmering tensions between the government and former RENAMO rebels are threatening to boil over again – after a bloody incident near Gorongosa. Guards working for the RENAMO leader, Afonso Dhlakama, claimed that they repelled an attack by Mozambican soldiers on Saturday, wounding 17 of them. There is no independent verification of this and the government is certainly downplaying the incident, claiming that the skirmish was trigged by shot fired by mistake and that the wounded were a result of a minor car accident.
Once again, the worrying event took place while the government was in negotiations – trying to peacefully iron out its differences with RENAMO, particularly in relation to the opposition group’s demands equality in the appointment of commissioners for the National Electoral Commission (CNE). The CNE is currently dominated by Frelimo thanks to its 2/3rds majority in Parliament and RENAMO has announced that they will boycott the upcoming local elections in November and general elections next year unless their demand is met.
RENAMO also points out – correctly – that all state organs and institutions, including the police, judiciary and army, are currently dominated by ruling FRELIMO party members. In fact, one cannot draw a line between the party and state institutions. And this allows the government to swiftly resort to repressive powers whenever it feels under threat.
And the party is definitely nervous. President Armando Guebuza, whose mandate elapses in 2014, has still not anointed a successor, spreading uncertainty and unsettling the party and the country. He, too, with his presidential days drawing to a close is growing increasingly intolerant of public criticism and – as this weekend’s events highlight – increasingly ready to send in the forces of ‘law and order’ to silence dissenting voices.
Dr Arroz is a case in point. As is the latest flare up near Gorongosa. And so was the use of military police to quell demonstrations by communities in Tete, who were protesting about the notoriously poor behaviour of the multinational mining giant, VALE, in its coal fields in the province.
And if this is not enough to convince people that the authorities are turning to the security services to protect them from their fellow citizens’ discontent – then you just need to look at recent budgets. In a country with high levels of acute poverty and where most people cannot access basic services, the government has allocated more funds to the security sector than to social services.