Analysis: Ominous signal in Mozambique food riots

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BOSTON — Mozambique's food riots — in which 13 people were killed and more than 600 injured when government troops fired on them — are heartbreaking and worrying.

Mozambique reversed its bread price increases Tuesday but that is of little use to those killed.

The riots last week show that rising international food prices threaten the stability, not only of Mozambique but of all countries with impoverished populations.

Journalist Mercedes Sayagues found herself surrounded by the riots on Maputo's streets and was surprised when police began firing at the crowds.

"I was 50 meters away when the bullet hit Helio Rute, slicing a chunk of his skull. Helio was 12 years old and heading home when he was caught between rioters and police on Acordos de Lusaka avenue in Maputo. He died on the spot, one of more than half a dozen killed," writes Sayagues in her Knight Fellowship blog. After helping two injured men Sayagues walked over to the boy to find "his school satchel lay to his left, a pool of blood to the right."

Violence and death are unusual for Maputo's bustling streets.

A beguiling mix of African, Latin and tropical influences, Mozambique made great progress in overcoming a 16-year civil war and has achieved significant economic growth in recent years. The former Portuguese colony generally enjoys a relaxed but law-abiding society, despite widespread poverty with a per capita income of just $900 for its 20 million people.

But all the gains threatened to unravel last week when the government removed food subsidies resulting in a 30-percent rise in the price of bread. This followed the news of significant increases in electricity and water prices, effective Sept. 1. When people complained about the price hikes, President Armando Guebuza’s government announced the increases were “irreversible.”

Angry, and hungry, people took to the streets of Maputo, the capital city, looting 66 shops and burning tires as roadblocks.

Riot police arrived but they were ill-equipped to deal with stone-throwing youngsters. They opened fire on the crowds, killing several including the boy seen by Sayagues and injuring hundreds. Many in Maputo are charging that authorities reacted with excessive force and should be held accountable.

An uneasy calm has been restored in Maputo, its sprawling townships and in the central city of Chimoio, where riots also broke out. Police have arrested some 280 on suspicion of instigating the disturbances.

It appears that cell phones and text messages were key tools in organizing the riots.

Mozambique is one of the world’s least developed and poorest countries — ranking 175 out of 179 in the United Nation's Human Development Index — but it is not far removed from the globalized world of new media. Reports and shocking photos of the dead spread through the internet, social media sites and cell phones.

The riots raise questions about Mozambique’s progress. For 10 years the country has racked up annual GDP growth rates of 9 percent and last year, despite the worldwide economic downturn, it achieved GDP growth of 6 percent. That economic growth reduced the proportion of people living below the poverty line from 69 percent to 54 percent, according to the U.N.’s children’s fund, UNICEF.

Since the end of the civil war in 1994, Mozambique has held three democratic elections. President Joaquim Chissano retired from office, preventing the problem of an aging leader holding on to power, such as Robert Mugabe in neighboring Zimbabwe. But the ruling party, Frelimo, has held onto power.

The government is pressed to keep up with the country’s demographic pressure. Seventy percent of the population is estimated to be in the rural areas, living barefoot subsistence existences, but there is a rapid flow of people to Mozambique’s few cities. Fifty percent of the population is under 18 years. HIV/AIDS is estimated to affect 16 percent of the population and lack of education is also a problem.

The Mozambican government has achieved impressive economic growth but from a very low base. The country has very little industry and no big deposits of oil that have boosted other African economies. However it does have coal and aluminum and several big mining corporations are planning to exploit those minerals. The government has been plagued by inefficiency and charges of corruption.

From its independence in Portugal in 1975, Mozambique has been ruled by Frelimo, which was until 1994 an avowedly Marxist party that ran a centrally controlled economy. The population was poor, but it could get cheap food by waiting in line. The move to unsubsidized food prices might have been urged by the World Bank and the IMF, but it has been rejected by the people who took to the streets.

Mozambique’s angry protests are an ominous signal that rising world food prices might well unleash more instability across the globe.