Vigilante justice rocks once quiet Mozambique

Lynchings of suspected thieves – and riots over lack of police protection – have shaken the southern African donor darling.

The robbers struck again during the early morning hours of Feb. 23 – the latest in a string of violent home invasions in this normally calm city.

Within days, at least two suspected bandits had been lynched, the police station had been damaged, a child had been shot, and Chimoio was added to the list of Mozambican cities that have been rocked by riots in recent weeks.

In early February, more than 250 people were injured and at least four killed during riots in Mozambique's capital, Maputo, after the government upped the cost of the minibus taxis that many rely upon for transportation.

In Beira, the country's second largest city, six suspected criminals have been lynched this past year, in riotlike conditions. And then there was the Chimoio riot – a disturbance that continued into last week with at least four more lynchings, including one of a man accused of stealing corn from a farmer's field.

Rising crime and vigilante justice are quickly becoming serious problems for this donor darling, long considered a stable, postconflict African success story.

The violence reflects growing inequality and increasing mistrust of authorities, observers say – sentiments often hidden beneath widely praised macroeconomic figures showing consistent growth.

"When people do not have trust in the system, when people do not feel that they are part and parcel of problem-solving, they organize themselves," says Themba Masuku, a senior researcher at the Centre for Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg, South Africa, who has studied vigilante justice. "And they take the law into their own hands."

"I've been predicting violence for a couple of years now," says Joseph Hanlon, a scholar who has researched and written about Mozambique for 30 years. "The poor are just being squeezed…. It's not a revolution, but it is something about people under huge stress lashing out."

Mozambique has been stable since 1992, when fighting factions agreed to end a civil war that had raged since soon after Portuguese colonialists left 17 years earlier. It has also followed International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank regulations closely – a fact Mr. Hanlon says helps explain why Mozambique gets more donor aid than any of its neighbors.

In a recent report about Mozambique, World Bank economists say that the country "has been astonishingly successful at restoring growth and improving welfare."

But the country is still among the poorest in the world. Almost 40 percent of people interviewed in a recent government survey said their living situations had worsened in recent years.

"[Mozambicans are] used to really rapid and high growth, and if not everybody gets that rapid and high growth that's a problem," says Louise Fox, the chief author of a 2008 World Bank report, adding that the government needs to become more responsive – especially to poorer residents.

"The government is not working," says Zacarias Milicia, a retired Army major who says his neighborhood in Chimoio was targeted by the thieves. "People capture a thief and deliver him to the police station and the police will free him after a few hours. The population is not happy."

In Chimoio and Beira, the main targets of the mobs were suspected criminals. In Chimoio, after police tried to protect some of the suspects, the crowd rushed the police station and lit police cars on fire. So far the Mozambican riots have had relatively low death tolls.

Stephanie Hanes is a 2008 Alicia Patterson journalism fellow.

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