Kidnappings Cast Shadow Over Mozambique’s Gas-Fueled Growth

Antonio Castigo watched four men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles grab a woman by the hair and bundle her into a car after she dropped her kids off at the Portuguese school in Mozambique’s capital, Maputo.

The abduction was one of at least 15 kidnappings for ransom last month that has combined with worsening violence between the army and a militia loyal to the opposition Mozambique National Resistance party, or Renamo, to shake the southeast African nation, site of the world’s largest natural gas discovery in the past decade.

“I thank God every day when I get the child back home safely; then I start worrying about the next day,” Castigo, a 32-year-old father of four, said in a Nov. 6 interview as he sheltered from the midday heat waiting for the seven-year-old boy he drives to and from the school. “The president is not doing enough. We feel really unsafe.”

The growing sense of lawlessness caused by one-off kidnappings in cities and armed clashes between the army and Renamo in the countryside marks a sharp turnaround for Mozambique. Since the end of a 17-year civil war in 1992, the southern African nation has seen transportation, communications and coal mining boom and its economy expand by an average 8 percent a year for the past two decades to $15 billion, according to International Monetary Fund data.

The former Portuguese colony plans to open a liquefied natural gas terminal in 2018 to tap off-shore fields being developed by Anadarko Petroleum Corp. and Eni SpA. It will be the world’s second-largest export site after Qatar’s Ras Laffan.

Canadian Advisory

The worsening violence between Renamo and the army prompted Rio Tinto Plc last month to advise dependents of foreign staff to temporarily leave the country.

The Canadian government late yesterday advised against non-essential travel in the provinces of Nampula and Sofala, the scenes of recent clashes between Renamo and the army, and called for a “high degree of caution due to violent crime, including a recent significant increase in cases of kidnappings.”

“I’m not sure it signifies a return to conflict, but it reflects a heightened security risk in general,” Mike Davies, a Cape Town-based political risk consultant with Kigoda Consulting, which advises mining, energy and retail companies, said in phone interview yesterday. “It’ll lead to questioning over the exuberance brought by the gas discoveries. It’s not going to be an easy ride for Mozambique.”

Renamo Criticism

Renamo criticizes the government for allegedly politicizing state offices, setting up an electoral system that favors the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front, known as Frelimo, and persecuting its members.

After blaming Renamo for attacks on public transport and a government arms depot that disrupted coal shipments from mines operated by Rio Tinto and Vale SA, government forces last month attacked the former guerrilla group’s headquarters in the central Sofala province.

“Acting the way they’re acting they can kill many people for nothing,” former president Joaquim Chissano, who negotiated the 1992 peace deal, said of Renamo in an interview. “They are terrorizing people. Dialogue is the only way.”

Renamo on Nov. 5 rejected an offer from President Armando Guebuza to hold negotiations, saying the army was trying to kill its leader, Afonso Dhlakama.

Kidnapping Ransom

In Maputo, which was largely shielded from the civil war, the kidnappings, which aren’t related to the clashes with Renamo, started in 2011 against mostly Asian-Mozambicans with retail shops and factories. Now they are spreading in scope, Alice Mabota, the head of the Mozambican Human Rights League, said in an interview. Ransoms range from $500,000 to $2 million, according to the government.

A 15-year-old Portuguese boy who was kidnapped last month was released today after a ransom was paid, Jose Augusto Duarte, the ambassador to Mozambique, told RDP Africa, a unit of the Portuguese state broadcaster. Two other Portuguese nationals are still being held, one of them a woman who was taken on Nov. 5, he said.

In the past few months, many families who can afford it have sent their children abroad as the hijackings become more frequent and women and children become targets, Mabota said.

“People are very afraid; many are taking their families out of the country,” she said. “People are scared of contacting the police, because the police are involved.”

Police Involvement

Six people, including a member of an elite police unit that protects Guebuza and two other policemen, were jailed for 16 years on Oct. 28 for their role in abductions. The next day the police criminal investigations director in Maputo, Januario Cumbana, was fired.

A victim identified one of her captors in uniform at a police station where she went to report the crime after escaping her captors, Mabota said. Most attacks take place on the road. A 10-year-old girl was snatched from a school bus on Oct. 8.

Interior Minister Alberto Mondlane said the police force is changing its recruitment process to ensure it’s “purified.”

“Unfortunately we know that some of our members are not operating in the correct ways, but we cannot generalize it,” he said in a Nov. 6 interview.

The public’s fear erupted into anger after kidnappers killed a 13-year-old boy when his parents contacted the police. On Oct. 31, at least 2,000 people marched in protest over the increasing insecurity around the kidnappings and clashes between the army and Renamo.

“I’m worried I’ll be out of a job, because many foreigners are leaving the country,” Castigo said, before wandering across the road to pick up the boy he ferries to school. “My boss could do the same.”