A murdered lawyer, a Facebook troll, an opposition party once reviled as a stooge of the apartheid government, but now supported by part of the country … No, these are not the elements of a John Le Carré novel, but pieces of a political and personal tragedy unfolding in Mozambique. Last Tuesday, Gilles Cistac, a well known constitutional lawyer and professor, was gunned down in broad daylight on a busy street in Maputo after taking his breakfast at a popular café. His assailants drove away, leaving Cistac face down on the street covered in blood. He died four hours later at the Central Hospital of Maputo just down the street.
The motive for the murder is as controversial as whoever ordered it. Was he … a French spy? … too close to the American Ambassador?… Part of a white conspiracy to discredit the black government of Mozambique? All of these allegations have been made by various sources, including some rogue troll on FB named Calado Calyshnikov (silent Kalyshnikov). Apparently, Cistac felt so unnerved by these threats in the last few weeks that he had complained to the Attorney General.
But there are more compelling explanations for Cistac’s death than Cold War, back to the 1970s, retro diatribes about whites and spies. Cistac may have been gunned down because his opinions were increasingly legitimating a demand made by the opposition party, Renamo, that it should be allowed to govern autonomously the provinces it won in the recent elections. Those of us who remember the Renamo of the 1980s have a tendency to dismiss such demands as misguided, even reckless, efforts by the party’s leader to call attention to himself and his band of aging reactionaries.
But if what I witnessed during a Renamo rally in Maputo last July was any indication, then this party and its claims are not relics of a bygone era. It and a smaller opposition party, the Mozambican Democratic Movement (MDM), have attracted a new generation of supporters who are sick of corruption, inequality, and elite privilege concentrated in the south of Mozambique and in the ruling party, Frelimo. These supporters see Renamo and the MDM as the only organizations capable of confronting Frelimo’s utter monopolization of power.
Talk about decentralizing power and granting more local autonomy has gone on at least since Frelimo and Renamo agreed to settle their differences at the ballot box rather than on the battlefield by signing a peace accord in 1992 to end 17 years of civil war. Since that time, the Frelimo government has devolved a certain degree of power to local municipalities and provincial assemblies, but it is the President who appoints provincial governors. Renamo holds no governorships.
Renamo’s continued complaints are finally getting some traction. In the recent elections, the party gained seats in the National Assembly and performed well in the elections for provincial assemblies. The Renamo presidential candidate outpolled the Frelimo candidate in five provinces in the center and north of the country demonstrating that although it won the Presidency and holds a majority in the national and provincial parliaments, Frelimo is not invincible.
The recent election results have given new life to the opposition and reignited a persistent debate over local autonomy. And the conflagration has erupted at the very moment when Mozambique is on the brink of being a major mineral producer. The location of the resources? Tantalizingly close to those provinces in which Renamo polled well. Coal is already being mined in Tete province in the north, where Renamo just won a majority in the provincial assembly. Contracts are now being signed to exploit gas reserves off the coast of Mozambique — from Frelimo’s stronghold in Cabo Delgado all the way to Renamo’s base in the center.
Scorching a black border around this emerging economic geography was Cistac’s recent declaration that the current Mozambican constitution makes provisions for autonomous provinces. This pronouncement by a reputable lawyer has given Renamo supporters the legal opening to connect the political dots. If the expected revenue from resources were managed by autonomous provinces rather than by the central government then a whole new cast of characters would reap the benefits of Mozambique’s newfound wealth. Frelimo political elites with linkages to the energy sector would suddenly have to share.
Are the implications of Cistac’s legal pronouncements so threatening that he suffered the same fate as the famous journalist, Carlos Cardoso? Cardoso rattled powerful ruling party members by exposing evidence of high-level corruption over a decade ago. He paid for it with his life.
A spokesperson for Renamo has alleged that the Frelimo party ordered Cistac’s assassination. Just as vehemently, Frelimo denies the charge, pointing instead to criminal elements as responsible for Cistac’s murder. In the court of public opinion, the case has already been heard: Cistac died because he supported freedom of speech, human rights, and democracy. On Saturday, those who mourn him will dress in black and march on the street where he was killed. Ironically, the street is named for Eduardo Mondlane, the first leader of Mozambique’s liberation movement, who was also assassinated for his beliefs.