Never has the shutdown of democracy in Mozambique been more evident than last March 18th, particularly in the cities of Maputo, Beira, Nampula, and Xai-Xai. It is a reality that we urgently need to resist and fight against. Since 2008 freedom of expression, demonstration, and association have been repressed, but it was in 2020 that the government and its international partners used Covid19 as an almost plausible pretext to restrict citizens’ freedoms, with the announcement of a set of measures that gave rise to restrictions on the mobility of people and goods, restrictions on public and private meetings, and limitations of the right to protest – a right that is constitutionally conferred to us through Article 51 of the Constitution of the Republic.
The last few years have been marked with threats against freedom of speech and association. Activists, journalists and community leaders that stand up against inequality, government abuse or megaprojects have been intimidated, persecuted and some are missing until this day1.
Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, while at the same time owning vast natural resources. Coal, gas and oil have been exploited by transnationals, bringing riches to a few economic and political elites. Rural and peasant communities have been displaced, a violent insurgency has been ravaging the North of the country, and the government is focusing on a military strategy to deal with it. People from Cabo Delgado are being sexually assaulted, threatened and murdered by both insurgents and government military forces. On top of this, the government has been openly attacking civil society organisations accusing them of being ‘anti-government’ or ‘anti-development’, and drafting new laws aiming to restrict the freedom of association2.
On the 18th of March 2023, the Mozambican people – mostly youth – with or without party or institutional affiliation, people linked to civil society organizations or not, decided to march to celebrate the life and work of our musician and social activist, Edson da Luz, better known as Azagaia, who had passed away nine days earlier, on the 9th of March of 2023. The official announcement from his family said he died of an epilepsy attack, a disease he had long suffered from. Azagaia was a Mozambican rapper that spoke and sang boldly about what is going on in our country, sang about putting the people in power, and was fiercely attacked and intimidated by the regime in many occasions. He was boycotted by the main public media channels, but still became the hero and the voice of thousands of disempowered youth who desired change.
Saturday, the 18th of March, is a date that will go down in our country’s history as a day when our police forces, armed with armored cars, dogs, and tear gas weapons, used unprecedented police brutality to prevent a peaceful march. What we witnessed in the streets of Maputo revolted all of us.
All legal procedures were followed to ensure that the march in honor of Azagaia’s life and his legacy would run smoothly. According to Mozambican law, marches do not need authorization, but a letter must be submitted to the relevant authorities to inform them. This was done, and most of the municipalities gave the green light to the marches, with a well-defined itinerary. In Maputo, the starting point would be the Eduardo Mondlane statue, and we would march to Independence square, next to the Samora Machel statue – two symbols of popular power and freedom in our country.
Early that morning, messages started circulating noting the number of armored cars and heavily armed police agents positioned at various points around the city. We thought that maybe it was to ensure our safety. Naive and innocent thinking, typical of those who believe that one can still live in a democracy in Mozambique.
Dozens of police vehicles and agents were surrounding the statue of Eduardo Mondlane, the place where the march would start, and preventing groups of young people from getting there. According to ‘superior orders’, we were not allowed to gather in groups, even though we had permission to gather and march together. Suddenly, and without any warning, the police started firing tear gas everywhere. We all started running, but the desire to exercise our right to march and to pay tribute to Azagaia was strong. We needed to have this last tribute to one of the few voices, if not the only one in recent times, that represented us, that sang our pains, anguishes and revolts without fear of reprisals. The desire to march made us hide in street corners near the square, in smaller groups with our T-shirts stamped with the face of our young hero of the people, who fought for our freedom only armed with pen and paper. Our fists remained up in the air, but our screams for “people in power” were quickly swallowed up by the aggression that raged against us all.
All over the world tear gas has been used as a control mechanism and to disperse protests, but even so, its use is regulated and it cannot be thrown directly at people. However, on March 18th, the PRM (Police of the Republic of Mozambique) repeatedly fired tear gas bullets directly at the participants. A member of JA! team was grazed in the back as he dodged a gas capsule that was aimed directly at his body, a young woman next to us was hit in both ankles. There was also the case of young Inocêncio who lost his left eye after being hit by one of these bullets – that supposedly do not kill. One of the capsules set a car on fire. One of the organizers of the march in Nampula said he was tortured for hours, and videos of young people being beaten up and tortured by the police as they were being detained around Maputo were circulating. At the Madgermanes Park, a place in the city that symbolizes the struggle of former workers from the defunct German Democratic Republic (GDR) who have been protesting for their rights for more than 30 years. Several young people gathered there singing Azagaia’s song that gave the march its name: “People in Power”. The young people simply crowded around chanting some of their idol Azagaia’s greatest hits peacefully, but once again the police attacks came and this time with even more brutality. A smoke screen of tear gas descended on the park and everyone fled towards Independence Square. Not even the young people who took refuge inside the Maputo Cathedral escaped the fury of the PRM agents.
The street is the only place we can go to protest when our power is taken away from us and our rights are violated, and the police responds by poisoning the air?
In addition to the brutality and violence of the police, counterintelligence and surveillance actions were carried out by some non-uniformed officers. They took pictures of people who were on the march, registered license plates and even followed some people to their homes, in a real action of intimidation that we can no longer tolerate.
Azagaia said it well in his song A Marcha (The March):
“Now that we’re together,
I’ll tell you a secret
They can’t handle us
They’re the ones afraid now
And in our just cause
they can’t infiltrate…”
In the midst of all this, we are even more surprised by the PRM press release, where they tried – in a machiavellian way – to justify their brutal action against defenseless citizens in a peaceful demonstration. The PRM claimed to have used proportionality of force against ‘protesters who were throwing blunt objects’, in an ‘attempted coup’. A complete absurdity, a gross lie, and an insult to those who were there on the day. The countless images and reports of the events prove over and over again that the PRM acted outside the law and with tremendous brutality. It is a criminal and condemnable stance at all levels, both from the agents who carried out the repressive actions in the streets of our country, and above all from the superiors who gave the orders, who should be tried and convicted.
To the police and UIR officers (Rapid Intervention Unit) who repressed and massacred citizens on the 18th – no superior order justifies your actions, because the Constitution of the Republic enshrines the right to resist illegal orders. Do your part and march also for your right to resist, for your obligation to protect the people.
As to the international community, the big donors and development partners, the supposed benchmarks of human rights and democracy, they will mumble in the corridors and look away, because it is not convenient to criticize the government on which they depend to continue exploiting our gas, heavy sands, coal or rubies.
It is important that we stand together, strong and firm in the cause of the people. This will be the real tribute to Azagaia, the man who fought to decolonize our minds.
We will continue to march and sing for freedom and justice! We need to unite and stop the repression and the attacks on Mozambicans who believe in a better country! People in power!
Povo no Poder!