YAOUNDÈ, Cameroon – Mozambique is experiencing increased “repression and totalitarianism by the state,” according to a leading Catholic peace activist.

On March 18, Mozambicans took to the streets of the capital Maputo and other cities to pay homage to the late protest musician Edson De Luz, known as Azagaia. The protests were peaceful, but were broken up by Mozambique security forces with teargas and rubber.

Johan Viljoen, Director of the Denis Hurley Peace Institute (DHPI) of the Southern Africa Bishops’ Conference, told Crux the ruling party FRELIMO “has long, long ago passed the stage where it was a popular movement … It is now clearly a group of oligarchs intent on enriching themselves as much as possible with no pretense even given to equality, or human rights.”

Such corruption was often the focus of Azagaia’s music. One of his hit songs – “Povo no Poder” – is a lamentation over the high cost of living. He also used his songs to accuse politicians of the ruling party of exploiting ordinary citizens in search of personal wealth.

The rapper died March 9 at the age of 38 from the effects of an epileptic seizure, and his death sparked protests across the country, causing a violent reaction by the security forces.

“Mozambicans across the board were deeply shocked to see the extent of force and violence that the security forces were willing to unleash on their own people,” Viljoen said.

“It is also disconcerting that President [Filipe] Nyusi refers to any person opposing the state as ‘an enemy of democracy’,” he added.

“This is not an isolated event and is the latest in an escalating pattern of repression,” Viljoen said.

He said Nyusi and his government have been helped because the war in Ukraine means donor nations are becoming much more prudent in their dealings with oil producers like Mozambique.

“In the past, donor governments insisted on a minimum level of human rights being observed. Since the outbreak of the Ukraine war, they are so desperate for oil and gas deals, that there is no mention of human rights, so as not to antagonize the state. The state now appears to think that it has carte blanche to perpetrate brutality on its own citizens,” Viljoen told Crux.

The crackdown on the protests comes at a time when the U.S. Department of State’s Human Rights report for 2022 details disturbing details of rights abuses in Mozambique.

“Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearance; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; serious abuses in a conflict, including unlawful and widespread civilian deaths or harm, abductions, physical abuses, rape, sexual slavery, and unlawful use of child soldiers by nonstate actors; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence and threats of violence against journalists, and unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly; serious government corruption; and lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence,” the report states.

Nyusi has reacted to the criticism by ordering the country’s interior ministry to “investigate the reasons that led the police to engage in physical confrontations with the youths,” according to state-owned Radio Mozambique, but very few people believe the investigation will lead to any significant outcomes.

FRELIMO has recently drafted a law on nonprofit organizations which the government says is intended to counter money laundering and terrorist financing, but critics charge will target human rights groups.

“This is an attempt to control civil society. The Catholic Church is regarded as a civil society, so it is directly affected,” Viljoen told Crux.

“The danger exists that not only will the state control NGO’s in their operations and media statements, but will also restrict funds. In Nampula, since the UNHCR and WFP stopped providing food to IDPs due to lack of funds, it is now only Caritas providing.  Should the state interfere, the livelihoods of tens of thousands of IDP’s depending on Caritas will be threatened,” he said.

Viljoen said the recent crackdown in a country already reeling from terrorist attacks in the northern Cabo Delgado region only means there is potential for even more violence.

“Violence always begets more violence. The current crackdown brings violence to the heart of the capital city – this time perpetrated by the state itself,” he said.