Police used excessive force against people who left their homes to look for food during the COVID-19 lockdown. There was a spike in gender-based violence as victims were trapped at home with abusive partners. Violence in the province of Cabo Delgado intensified, becoming an armed conflict which resulted in more than 2,000 deaths. The authorities failed to hold to account perpetrators of crimes under international law and serious human rights violations and abuses. Repression of freedom of expression took a new turn when a newspaper office was firebombed.
In January, the President began a second term following a controversial election which took place amid armed violence in the north of the province of Cabo Delgado, an area which remained closed to the media. The government’s secret loans scandal destabilized socioeconomic conditions. Meanwhile, flooding in 2019 and 2020 destroyed infrastructure, further isolating the population in northern Cabo Delgado. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the authorities imposed a state of emergency between 30 March and 6 September. The measures contributed to poor living conditions nationwide, and in particular exacerbated the precarious conditions in Cabo Delgado when an armed opposition group, known locally as al-Shabaab (although there is no known relationship with al-Shabaab in Somalia), used the period to intensify its attacks.
State of emergency provisions were punitive and led to increased food insecurity in marginalized neighbourhoods, particularly as most people depended on the informal economy to earn a living on the streets and in markets. Those who left their homes to work or find food were subjected to excessive force by the police, and an increased risk of contracting COVID-19. The authorities did not put in place adequate social security measures to protect them from hunger and ill-health.1
Gender-based violence increased sharply during the COVID-19 restrictions, when women and girls were trapped in the home and exposed to heightened risk of domestic violence. Women’s prevalence in the essential services workforce put them at greater risk of violence outside the home; restricted public transport exposed them to the threat of violence because they had to travel late at night or in the early morning hours. School closures put more girls at risk of child marriage.
The armed conflict between the so-called al-Shabaab and government forces created a humanitarian crisis in Cabo Delgado. By the end of the year, over 500,000 people were internally displaced, and more than 700,000 needed humanitarian assistance. The government failed to provide shelter, food, water, education or health services and many people relied on the goodwill of local families to give them shelter in Cabo Delgado and the neighbouring provinces of Nampula and Niassa. At the end of the year, it remained unclear whether the government’s Northern Integrated Development Agency had had an impact on the humanitarian crisis.
Impunity for crimes under international law and serious human rights violations and abuses carried out in Cabo Delgado’s armed conflict remained widespread. By December, more than 2,000 people had been killed, including civilians caught in crossfire or deliberately targeted by armed opposition groups and government forces. Throughout the year, armed groups beheaded civilians, burned houses, looted villages and kidnapped women and girls. Meanwhile, civilians, alleged members of armed opposition groups and journalists reporting on the attacks were subjected to detention, torture and other ill-treatment, enforced disappearance and extrajudicial execution by security forces.
In June and July, photographic and video evidence emerged of what appeared to be Mozambique Armed Defence Forces soldiers and officers of the Mozambique Rapid Intervention Unit2 committing crimes against suspected armed group fighters. The victims were tortured, extrajudicially executed and their bodies dismembered, and corpses were apparently dumped in mass graves. The authorities had not investigated the crimes by the end of the year.
On 7 April, community radio journalist Ibraimo Abú Mbaruco, from the Palma District in Cabo Delgado, disappeared after being approached by army officers on his way home from work at around 6pm.3 The authorities did not respond to his family’s request for information on his whereabouts, which remained unknown at the end of the year.
On 11 March, the security forces arrested Roberto Mussa Ambasse and Muemede Suleimane Jumbe, two local activists and community leaders, from their homes in Palma district. They were later found dead among 12 other civilians. Despite numerous calls for investigations, the authorities had not conducted any meaningful investigations leading to an arrest by the end of the year.
There was an escalation in the repression of the right to freedom of expression, characterized by intimidation, smear campaigns, harassment, arbitrary arrests, and prosecutions of journalists, human rights defenders and government critics.
In June, the Public Prosecutor charged Matias Guente, Executive Director, and Fernando Veloso, Editorial Director of the independent newspaper, Canal de Moçambique, with “violation of state secrecy” and “conspiracy against the state”, after the paper had published an article, in March, about an unlawful secret contract between the Ministry of Defence, the Interior Ministry and natural gas companies in Cabo Delgado. On 23 August, police arrested investigative journalist Armando Nenane in the capital, Maputo, for failing to comply with COVID-19 regulations. This followed his depositing funds in the former Defence Minister’s bank account, the details of which he then published as a means to corroborate Canal’s story. Following this, government supporters launched a social media campaign demanding that he be prosecuted for “violation of state secrecy”.
On the day of Armando Nenane’s arrest, unidentified assailants firebombed Canal’s offices in Maputo.4 The attack came just four days after the newspaper had published allegations about an unethical procurement process involving senior Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy officials, and governing party elites. Government sympathizers responded with a social media campaign calling for the newspaper’s closure.
D. Luíz Fernando Lisboa, a Brazilian national and Bishop of Pemba, the capital city of Cabo Delgado, repeatedly raised concerns about the human rights situation in the province. In August, the President indirectly denounced him saying that “certain foreigners” disrespected those who protected them “in the name of human rights”. Following this, government supporters, and at least one pro-government newspaper labelled the Bishop a criminal, accused him of supporting insurgency and called for him to be expelled from Mozambique.