Mozambique: Lynchings Symptom of State Failure

Theater poster for "T3." (Photo: © David Morton/IRIN)

In the climactic scene of what has been the most popular play showing in Maputo, the citizens of a crime-ridden suburb, fed-up by police indifference, take matters into their own hands. They hang a tire from the neck of a notorious neighborhood criminal, pour gasoline on his head, and burn him alive. At a sold-out performance last week in the Mozambican capital, the audience roared its approval.

"T3" ended its five-month run at the "Teatro Gungu" at the weekend, having pulled in some 50,000 theatergoers. The play owes its success to its ripped-from-the-headlines theme: public lynchings swept through the outer suburbs of Maputo in 2006 and early this year.

At least 20 suspected criminals were murdered in real-life scenes similar to the one in the play, some of them televised. In the most publicized lynching in the T3 neighborhood in May, a crowd of some 300 people murdered two brothers, one of whom was accused of using witchcraft to sexually assault women.

An apparent spike in crime, and the police force's inability to deal with it, was said to be behind the lynchings. "What normally happens is people drag criminals to the police, but the police don't do anything," explained Custodio Duma, an attorney with the Mozambique League of Human Rights. "The criminals pay off the police and the police let them go: it's a question of corruption."

The league condemned the vigilante behavior, but called on the Ministry of Interior to clean up a dirty police force the group alleged had lost the public's confidence.

A Protest Against Disorder

In a country with a still-fledgling independent media and a lack of reliable crime statistics, it is difficult to pinpoint just how bad crime has become, how common the lynchings are, or what exactly motivated them. Why, for instance, did similar killings not happen in other Mozambican cities in response to crime? Or do vigilante lynchings occur, but the media simply has not reported them?

Earlier this year, the Social Diagnostic Unit of the Center for African Studies at Maputo's Eduardo Mondlane University initiated what will be a yearlong study of the recent vigilante phenomenon. The center's director, sociologist Carlos Serra, says the topic begged for further research, given that the lynchings seemed to demonstrate what he called "a profound dissatisfaction with the State."

"A lynching isn't a manifestation of disorder," said Serra, quoting a Brazilian sociologist on the subject. "It is a protest against disorder."

Serra and other researchers have already begun the process of interviewing the residents of neighborhoods where the recent lynchings occurred. This is, by necessity, a delicate process. People were too frightened to be interviewed where they lived, so employees of the university who knew of lynchings were invited to the center to talk about their experiences. By and large, interviewees told of their disgust with the police, who are often seen as indistinguishable from the criminals themselves.

In one particularly poignant interview, a mother told the researchers about her son, who dealt in stolen goods in one of the outer suburbs. Her neighbors complained to her about how he was in league with the criminals who robbed their homes. So, aware of her son's bad nature, and worried about her neighbors' dwindling patience, the mother turned her son over to some neighborhood vigilantes, who beat him into submission. "It was a mother's fatigue," said Serra.

The Domino Effect

As Serra points out, the T3 incidents are not the first time lynchings have occurred in Mozambique. In 2001 and 2002, in the northern Nampula province, a cholera outbreak incited people to kill people suspected of poisoning the water supply. Between 2002 and 2003, lions mauled dozens of people in the remote north of the country, and in response, mobs lynched those accused of having somehow commanded the lions to kill.

But the most relevant incidents might be the lynchings that occurred in Maputo in the early- to mid-90's, following the end of Mozambique's long civil war. Hundreds of thousands of Mozambicans returning from other countries and immigrants from devastated parts of Mozambique flooded the city faster than government services could deal with the influx. Crime flourished in the chaos, and the public often resorted to vigilante justice. The use of burning tires in the lynchings seemed to follow the example of nearby South Africa, where many Mozambicans had lived and worked.

In the most recent wave, the vigilantes of one neighborhood inspired vigilantes in another. Gilberto Mendes, a former national assemblyman who wrote and directed "T3," says that he knew there would be a "domino effect" once he saw the first images of the lynchings broadcast on the news last May. "It was on TV all the time," he said. "In a way, it made the situation worse."

The same might be said of Mendes' play, given that audiences tend to cheer when the criminal gets lynched. Yet the audience gasps when, in the closing sequence, an angry mob burns alive an innocent man. In either case, noted Mendes, "Nothing justifies a lunching."

Mendes says this is a matter of principle, but he also objects for a practical reason. He worries about people lowering their standard of what offenses deserve the penalty of summary execution. "They'll hear a sound in the night, and it's 'Thief! Burn him!'"

Is It Over?

On a recent visit to T3, neighborhood residents were reluctant to discuss the lynchings with IRIN. Many simply said they weren't from T3.

"Happily this matter already is behind us," said Lucas Chiponde, the district administrator responsible for the suburb, during an interview at his office.

"There's now a greater police presence," he added. "With a bigger police response, there's a greater connection with the community. This helps to diminish criminal activity."

Indeed, there have been no reports of lynchings anywhere in the Maputo area in more than two months. A reduction in crime, if there has been one, could be one reason for that: then again, it may be that crime was reduced because the lynchings had their intended effect. "It is possible that people are too scared to rob," commented Serra. ©IRIN

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

From Integrated Regional Information Networks.