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Analysis: Ominous signal in Mozambique food riots

Economic growth not enough to prevent population from violently reacting to rising food prices.

Mozambique food riots
Mozambican demonstrators burn barricades during riots to protest rising food and fuel prices in the capital Maputo, Sept. 1, 2010. (Grant Lee Neuenburg/Reuters)

BOSTON — Mozambique's food riots — in which 13 people were killed and more than 600 injured when government troops fired on them — are heartbreaking and worrying.

Mozambique reversed its bread price increases Tuesday but that is of little use to those killed.

The riots last week show that rising international food prices threaten the stability, not only of Mozambique but of all countries with impoverished populations.

Journalist Mercedes Sayagues found herself surrounded by the riots on Maputo's streets and was surprised when police began firing at the crowds.

"I was 50 meters away when the bullet hit Helio Rute, slicing a chunk of his skull. Helio was 12 years old and heading home when he was caught between rioters and police on Acordos de Lusaka avenue in Maputo. He died on the spot, one of more than half a dozen killed," writes Sayagues in her Knight Fellowship blog. After helping two injured men Sayagues walked over to the boy to find "his school satchel lay to his left, a pool of blood to the right."

Violence and death are unusual for Maputo's bustling streets.

A beguiling mix of African, Latin and tropical influences, Mozambique made great progress in overcoming a 16-year civil war and has achieved significant economic growth in recent years. The former Portuguese colony generally enjoys a relaxed but law-abiding society, despite widespread poverty with a per capita income of just $900 for its 20 million people.

But all the gains threatened to unravel last week when the government removed food subsidies resulting in a 30-percent rise in the price of bread. This followed the news of significant increases in electricity and water prices, effective Sept. 1. When people complained about the price hikes, President Armando Guebuza’s government announced the increases were “irreversible.”

Angry, and hungry, people took to the streets of Maputo, the capital city, looting 66 shops and burning tires as roadblocks.

Riot police arrived but they were ill-equipped to deal with stone-throwing youngsters. They opened fire on the crowds, killing several including the boy seen by Sayagues and injuring hundreds. Many in Maputo are charging that authorities reacted with excessive force and should be held accountable.

An uneasy calm has been restored in Maputo, its sprawling townships and in the central city of Chimoio, where riots also broke out. Police have arrested some 280 on suspicion of instigating the disturbances.

It appears that cell phones and text messages were key tools in organizing the riots.