Last Thursday, the Mozambiquan government called off a planned 30% increase in the price of bread; the call off came in the wake of serious riots in Maputo, the capita and other cities. The riots left at least a dozen dead and more than 400 injured. In calling off the price increase, the government apologized for the killings and injuries, saying that it did not authorize the use of lethal force, while police authorities said they had to resort to live ammunition against the people, after running out of rubber bullets. The three days of rioting, which were described by THE ECONOMIST magazine as “alcohol-fuelled”, paralysed Maputo and led to the closing down of the city’s airport, while shops and banks were looted, cars were stoned and there were roads barricaded with stones and burning tyres. About 300 demonstrators were arrested, including nine accused of sending “inciting” texts to ask people to join the demonstrations.
The Mozambiquan government blamed the price increase on the soaring global prices of wheat. But according to THE ECONOMIST, the increase had more to do with the sharp fall in Mozambique’s currency, the metical, as well as the poor harvest experienced in south Mozambique, due to drought. Mozambique has vast acreage of fertile land, but only a small proportion is brought into cultivation. The country therefore depends on importation of food, mainly from neighbouring South Africa. The increases also came at a time when government was phasing out fuel subsidy which has affected transportation cost as well as affecting the cost of electricity and water supply. This is a country where most of the 23million people live on less than $1.25 per day, the UN’s measure of extreme poverty. Since the dismantling of its socialist experiment in the 1990s, Mozambique has almost no state welfare; the consequence is that a small rise in the cost of living becomes akin to a life and death issue for the people.
So in the light of the nation-wide demonstrations, the government announced an “action plan” which cancelled the utilities tariffs rises for the poorest segment of the population; a reduction in the prices of sugar and rice and the dropping of the 30% rise in the price of bread. The authorities also promised to freeze salaries of politicians and top civil servants, as THE ECONOMIST noted, the step was “to show that it is not irresponsibly spending its way out of trouble”. Furthermore, international donors were said to have been satisfied with the government’s rapid but sober response to the crisis. Mozambique is a country which depends on donor funds for its development, and since the civil war in the country ended in 1992, it has received billions of dollars in international assistance. The measures taken in response to the demonstrations are to remain in force till the end of 2010, when a long-term plan for economic and social stability is expected to be put in place. Despite being touted as having one of the world’s fastest growing economies (the IMF expects a 7% GDP growth in 2010), Mozambique remains a very poor country with very glaring inequities.
Mozambique in recent years has witnessed similar protests; the last one was in 2008 which left at least 6 people dead, and they came in the wake of the world-wide wave of protests against rising prices of food, as well as those of the fares of minibuses in urban cities of the country. In the recent demonstrations, THE VANCOUVER SUN newspaper of Canada, quoted the police as saying that after an initial lull, the demonstrators began to loot in the outskirts of Maputo, leading to the firing of rubber bullets. It quoted police spokesperson, Arnaldo Chefo, as saying that “rioting … resumed on the outskirts of Maputo in Benfica and Hulene. They are trying to carry on looting. Police are firing rubber bullets”. But as the days wore on, the police fired live ammunition, which cut down several demonstrators. The newspaper described the demonstrations as “the deadliest to hit the southern African country of 23 million since 2008”. Mozambique’s Trade and industry Minister, Antonio Fernandes was also quoted as saying that damages reached the sum of 122 million meticals ($3.3million), which is a considerable sum for this poor nation.
Opposition political parties and human rights groups criticized the government’s failure to gauge the anger that was unleashed by the planned increase in the price of bread and the hike in the prices of water and electricity. Alice Mabota of the Mozambican League of Human rights said that “the government underestimated the situation and can’t understand or doesn’t want to understand that this is a protest against the higher cost of living”. Mozambique suffers a 54% unemployment rate, and many citizens of the capital complained that the demonstrations caused significant damage to the city’s social structure. The World Socialist Website, also laid bare the difficult social indices which provided the backdrop for the demonstrations. Mozambique, it said, “is one of the most impoverished nations in the world, ranked 175th out of 179 countries on the UN Human Development Index. Seventy percent of the population of 23 million people survives below the poverty line…the statutory minimum wage is $37 a month. Annual per capita income for the population as a whole is only $807….More than 1 million of the country’s children do not attend school”.
The initial police reports of only using rubber bullets were belied by the casualties that were reported in hospitals. AFP quoted doctors in Maputo’s central hospital as saying victims streamed into the hospital in the evening, most of them with gunshot wounds. Doctor Antonio Assis da Costa was quoted by AFP as saying “we have treated over 100 people since the violence started yesterday, many patients had gunshot wounds. The last patients came around 1.00 a.m., most of them were young boys”. A street vendor told the agency that he had received text messages encouraging the demonstrations to continue while the state television showed images of running battles between the demonstrators and the police. Youthful protesters called for the resignation of the president, Armando Guebuza, of the ruling FRELIMO party, the former Marxist liberation movement, which abandoned socialism in the early 1990s and began implementing neo-liberal capitalist reforms. The World Socialist website quoted the BBC as describing the president, Guebuza, as a former member of FRELIMO’s armed wing during the struggle against Portuguese colonialism; but he is now “a millionaire businessman…who made his fortune in the energy, transport and port industries”.
President Guebuza addressed the nation on television in the wake of the demonstrations, saying that he understood the anger of the people over rising prices, but was upset about the violence of the protests. “It is sad that people used the right to demonstrate peacefully to turn it into violent protests….The government is aware of the poverty of the people. Combating poverty is part of the government’s five year plan”.
Guebuza had been re-elected in the October 2009 elections, with 75% of the vote; however, only 44% of the electorate had turned out for the elections. Significantly, it was the government-run Mozambique News Agency (AIM), which pushed the line that demonstrators interviewed on television “were clearly drunk”, that led to international journalists describing the demonstrations as “alcohol-fuelled”. That agency also said the hikes in electricity price, in a country where only 14% have access to electricity, was “a most unconvincing excuse for a riot”. What the demonstrations showed was that the people of Mozambique clearly reject the increases in the price of bread, and thankfully for Mozambique, there was no Marie Antoinette to urge the Maputo poor to eat cake instead, as the noble woman urged the Parisian poor on the eve of the French Revolution of the 18th Century. But as THE ECONOMIST magazine noted the ruling regime “will need clever juggling to appease Mozambique’s poor and angry majority as well as foreign aid-givers and investors”; it is a dexterous act that most regimes in the neo-colonial world find very difficult to master. That is the lesson which the bread riot of the past couple of days has taught in Mozambique.