The Mozambican riot police (FIR) on Tuesday morning used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon to disperse a demonstration by a group of demobilised soldiers in central Maputo.
This was the first time water cannon have been used on the streets of any Mozambican city. In September 2010, when rioting broke out in Maputo over price rises, the police were severely criticized for not using non-lethal methods such as water cannon, and resorting to live ammunition instead.
But there was no riot on Tuesday. Instead the police struck to prevent members of the Forum of Demobilised Soldiers, led by Herminio dos Santos, from gathering at the Antonio Repinga athletics circuit, near the office of Prime Minister Alberto Vaquina.
The Forum has held sporadic demonstrations here, the last one on 12 February, demanding an increase in pensions paid to demobilised troops. The current demand is for a pension of 20,000 meticais (about 664 US dollars) a month.
This sum is more than three times higher than the largest of the current statutory minimum wages. The monthly minimum wages in force since April last year range from 2,300 meticais for agricultural workers to 6,171 meticais for workers in financial services.
It is not clear how many people, the Forum gathered on Tuesday. Judging from the TV footage of the clashes it was considerably fewer than the several hundred who demonstrated ion 12 February. According to a report in the independent newsheet “Mediafax”, former agents of the state intelligence service, SISE, who are also demanding higher pensions, joined the demonstration.
The Forum chooses Tuesdays for its demonstrations since this is the day of the weekly meeting of the Council of Ministers (Cabinet) at Vaquina’s office.
The police version of events is that they charged the demonstrators when they tried to break through a security cordon barring access to the Antonio Ripinga circuit.
The police operation lasted for about half an hour, and was not restricted to the immediate area of the Antonio Ripinga circuit. The police chased demonstrators onto the main thoroughfare in downtown Maputo, 25 September Avenue. Ordinary passers-by and informal traders were also caught up in the violence, suffering the effects of the tear gas and the water cannon.
So were journalists. Police ordered reporters to move “because we want to work”.
The reporters stayed, of course, and so TV cameras were also hit by jets from the water cannon.
The demonstration was organised by the Forum’s spokesperson, Constantino Wiliamo, since the movements of Herminio dos Santos are restricted since his arrest on 13 February. Wiliamo’s whereabouts are unknown, but dos Santos, contacted by telephone, told reporters that he had been detained. “We don’t know what police station he’s in”, said dos Santos.
Asked about the clashes as he was leaving the Tuesday meeting of the Council of Ministers, the Deputy Interior Minister Jose Mandra defended the police action, on the grounds that it was necessary to maintain public order. The Forum had not communicated to the authorities its intention to demonstrate, as the law requires.
Furthermore, the Forum was knocking on the wrong door. Mandra said that any complaints from demobilised troops should be addressed to the Ministry of Veterans’ Affairs. He added that the demand for a monthly pension of 20,000 meticais was way beyond the budgetary capacities of the Mozambican state.
“The government is sovereign and doesn’t need to be pressured to act”, said Mandra.
“The demobilised should just comply with the law”.