On Tuesday, we received an SMS on the cell number at the JA! office in Maputo. The person called himself Steven Bongane from South Africa and said he was bringing some goods for us. JA’s Program Officer spoke to “Steven” who spoke in English. When asked what he was bringing, he mentioned “air sampler”.
Indeed, we were expecting our air sampler (called mini-vol or Air Matrix) which was to be sent by our partner organisation, groundWork in South Africa. But we had received no notification that it was on its way, so we were very surprised.
“Steven” called back half hour later, saying that he had been stopped by the Mozambican police in Moamba (60 kms from Maputo) but didn’t know why because he didn’t speak Portuguese. The JA person spoke to the police, who said that the fine was 3000 meticais, because the driver had been speeding and his car didn’t have a front license plate. But “Steven” claimed he had no money with him to pay the fine.
Then the policeman told JA person that JA could pay the money by phone by sending mcel credits (a usual way or transferring small amounts of cash in Mozambique), and that we should trust “Steven” will pay us back when he reaches Maputo. We responded that we cannot send money this way, as it is not official, but we would rather send someone to the police station in Moamba, 60 kms away, to officially pay the fine. The police were hesitant at this suggestion.
Now the plot thickens.
Just the day before, the Program Officer had talked to groundWork using that same cell phone, requesting them to send us the air sampler whenever it was convenient so we could do air quality tests. groundWork responded that they would check with the team that is currently using it. The strange thing is that, Steven and Bongani are real people that are part of the team using the air sampler, but they are two different people!
This is most likely a scam. However, is it something more? How did “Steven” know that JA was waiting for the air sampler? It is a very specific instrument used for air quality control, and not something that normally people use. Furthermore, how did he know Steven and Bongani’s names? And then he mashed the names together.
JA has for long suspected that our phones are tapped and the Mozambican secret service monitors JA’s work and members. This isn’t the first time that such suspicious things have happened. Last year, our e-mail server showed highly unusual activity and suddenly started uploading over 20GB of information. We could only stop it by switching it off. Who was uploading if not us? Were they taking all our email communications? Then in December 2011 our mail servers began receiving thousands of spam mails to the point that it made the system crash. Till date we have not been able to get them functional again.
On another occasion, during a Skype conference chat from our Director, Skype sent her a warning message saying “the authorities tapped on the call”! See the screenshot photo attached.
Is Tuesday’s incident proof that they tapped our phones or emails when we corresponded with groundWork the day before? We don’t know for sure, and maybe never will, but this much is for sure- civil society space is shrinking especially in Mozambique.