A policeman shoots teargas grenades at protesters in Maputo, Mozambique.
FOLLOWING recent riots in Maputo, the capital, and in other cities in Mozambique that have left at least a dozen dead and more than 400 injured, the government has called off a 30% increase in the price of bread. Police said they had to resort to live ammunition against protesters after running out of rubber bullets. The government has apologised, saying it had never authorised the use of lethal force.
Shops and banks were looted, cars stoned and roads barricaded with rocks and burning tyres during three days of alcohol-fuelled rioting that paralysed the capital and shut down the main airport. Nearly 300 demonstrators were arrested, including nine accused of “incitement” for sending out mobile-phone text-messages urging people to join the protests against rising utility, transport and food prices.
Despite getting billions of dollars in international aid since the end of its civil war in 1992 and having one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, Mozambique remains grindingly poor and unequal. Most of its 20m people live on less than $1.25 a day, the UN’s measure of “extreme poverty”. There is almost no state welfare. The smallest rise in the cost of living can become a question of life and death.
The government has blamed the rise in the cost of bread on soaring global wheat prices. But that is not the main factor. It has more to do with a sharp fall in the metical, Mozambique’s currency, coupled with this year’s poor harvest in the country’s south, due to drought. Despite vast swathes of potential farmland, only a small proportion is developed, so the country relies on imported food, mostly from its rich neighbour, South Africa. In the past 12 months the metical has dived against the rand.
In February 2008 similar deadly protests in Mozambique were part of a worldwide wave of angry protests against soaring food prices. But they were also against a sharp increase in minibus-taxi fares, the main form of transport for poor people throughout Africa.
Police officers arrest protesters during a rally in the neighbourhood of Benfica, in the suburbs of Maputo
This time in Mozambique other factors are also again at play. The government is phasing out a fuel subsidy, which is pushing up transport costs, and is sharply upping electricity and water prices. It has now announced an “action plan” to cancel the rise in utility tariffs for the poorest, to reduce the prices of rice and sugar, and to drop the 30% rise in bread prices forthwith. However, to show it is not irresponsibly spending its way out of trouble, it has also promised to freeze the salaries of politicians and senior civil servants. Most international donors say they like the government’s rapid but sober response.
The latest measures will remain in force only until the end of the year. By then the government hopes to have a longer-term plan for economic and social stability. But it will need clever juggling to appease Mozambique’s poor and angry majority as well as foreign aid-givers and investors.
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