Mozambique’s public finances may even be out of control, but this did not stop the Assembly of the Republic acquiring 17 Mercedes Benz vehicles, model c-180, for use by their deputies. Each car costs around 220,000 US dollars, which equals around 3.8 million dollars in total.
The purchase, which has been causing indignation on social media, happened at a delicate moment for the country’s public finances. Mozambique’s previously booming economy was seriously shaken in 2016, when it became public that three companies had secretly contracted around 1.4 billion dollars – equivalent to 10% of the country’s GDP – in loans from British banks, with state guarantees but without the Assembly’s knowledge.
The state can now be subject to litigation by vulture funds which possess the bonds, similar to the example of what happened in Argentina in 2005. In the UK, the case gave fuel to the Jubilee Debt Campaign movement, a British activist group pressuring creditors to not block developing countries from renegotiating debt with British banks — something Mozambican President Felipe Nyusi is trying to do.
While the negotiations are not happening, the state finds itself obliged to penalize the population to balance the books in the short term: just last year, the government cut the 13th salary — a kind of Christmas bonus — of some public servants.
The purchase of cars was made by the Assembly’s Permanent Commission, the body coordinating its activities, without, however, having been subject to discussion by the lawmakers.
Even on 9 June, two days after the decision was made public, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Economy and Finances spoke to the press, defending the apparently exorbitant spending on the deputies’ private transport:
É de direito que os membros da Assembleia da República sejam transportados por carros protocolares daquele nível, como acontece com os membros de outros órgãos de soberania do Estado.
It is right that the Assembly of the Republic’s members should be transported by official cars of that level, as is the case with members of other bodies of the sovereign state.
The university professor and deputy of the Municipality of Quelimane, Manuel de Araújo, criticised the purchase and clarified that the issue is not deputies’ entitlement, but the timing of the vehicles’ purchase with the news of the three companies’ “illegal borrowings”, as Mozambicans are calling them:
Não nos entendam mal, não estamos contra os Mercedes Benz que vos dão estatuto, estamos é contra o momento em que tomaram a soberana decisão de os adquirir sem olhar para o contexto em que o país se encontra por causa da vossa preguiça em fiscalizar as ações do governo! Ou seja o país está onde está em parte porque vós não fostes capazes de fiscalizar ação do governo e como se não bastasse incluíram tais dívidas [ilegais] na Conta Geral do Estado, tentando legalizá-las para que seja o pacato povo a pagar as falcatruas de uns e de outros”.
Do not misunderstand us, we are not against the Mercedes Benz that law accords you, we are against the moment when they took the sovereign decision to acquire them without looking at the condition in which the country finds itself because of your laziness in supervising the government’s activities! In other words, the country is where it is partly because you were unable to supervise government activities and, as if that were not enough, they included such [illegal] debts in the State General Account, trying to legalize them so that it is the quiet people who pay for others’ fraud.
Many also highlighted the chaotic situation of the country's public transport network — demand in large cities is largely served by informal and private transportation, open-top vehicles called “my love”. Zee Mavye, a graduate student at Eduardo Mondlane University, posted on his Facebook wall:
Veja só como é irónico: o patrão [povo que paga imposto] está no My love às 5h apanhando banho de nevoeiro a caminho do gabinete para garantir a não falência da empresa, enquanto o empregado [deputado] ainda está dormir para depois fazer se transportar num Benz com vidros fechados quando forem 8:30 depois de um café garantido pelos impostos do patrão. Mas bem bem, estes não engasgam se ao pensar no sofrimento do povo?.
Look how ironic it is: the boss [taxpaying people] is in a My Love at 5am getting a shower of fog on the way to the office to ensure the company does not go bankrupt, while the employee [deputy] is still sleeping, to be later transported in a Benz with closed windows when it is 8:30 after a coffee guaranteed by the boss's taxes. But fine, fine, these people do not choke when thinking of the suffering of the people?
The situation motivated Venâncio Mondlane, deputy of the smallest party with parliamentary seats, to launch a campaign rejecting the vehicles. Of the 250 deputies, he is the only one that has publicly shown indignation so far.
Opposition leader Afonso Dhlakama, who has been operating in exile in the bushes of Gorongosa ever since the contested 2014 elections, described the decision as “regrettable” to the press by telephone — at a conference attended by Global Voices on 15 June — but said he would not mobilize his party to reverse it. “It must be emphasized that the party’s president does not give return orders. Why not give an order? Because it was the state that made the order and not us. Renamo’s deputies did not ask for luxury cars or choose the brands,” he said.
Jorge Matine, a researcher at the Public Integrity Center, a local organization working for public transparency, did not express much hope for reversing the situation: “The famous Mercedes are already in the possession of the respective leaders,” he said.
Será que não podiam ter esperado a normalização da economia, a redução do custo de vida no bolso do cidadão, não podiam dar prioridade à materialização do dossier Paz, aprovando os instrumentos que estão em discussão [no parlamento] para depois receberem os tais Mercedes como prémio pelo trabalho feito? Nem Paz temos, nem comida temos, nem transporte público temos, nem medicamentos temos, salários sem datas fixas, crianças a sentar no chão debaixo de árvores e alguém esbanja dinheiro por algo que não é prioridade.
Could they not have waited for the normalization of the economy, the reduction of the cost of living to match the people's budgets, could they not have given priority to the realization of the Peace dossier [to end the simmering conflict in the country], approving the instruments under discussion [in parliament], to receive such Mercedes afterwards as a reward for the job being done? We do not have peace, we have no food, we have no public transportation, we have no medicines, wages with no fixed dates, children sit on the ground under trees and someone squanders money on something that is not a priority.
Bitone Viage, a Mozambican graduate student in political science at the Federal University of Pará in Brazil, asked members of the Assembly of the Republic on Facebook not to view the place as a source of wealth:
Prezados não façamos da Assembleia da República um grande jackpot, onde o voto popular é visto como casa de loteria. Será que há mesmo necessidade de proverem Mercedes Benz aos nossos deputados. Aliás, estes por sua vez mesmo sabendo que estamos face a uma tal propalada crise, que moral prevalecerá para aceitar os ditos Mercedes?
We should not make the Assembly of the Republic a big jackpot, where the popular vote is seen as a lottery house. Is it really necessary to provide Mercedes Benz to our deputies? Incidentally, these people, for their part, even knowing that we are facing such an widespread crisis, what morality will prevail in accepting the so-called Mercedes?
There were also reactions on Twitter:
Governo gasta 228 milhões de MT a comprar ultimas Mercedes pra deputados 😤 com esta crise esse dinheiro podiam construir universidades 😡
— Bad gal Su 🔥🔥 (@SumayraNunes) 9 de junho de 2017
The government spends 228 million meticais on the latest Mercedes for deputies. With this crisis that money could have built universities
18 Mercedes quantas carteiras dariam? Esta é a questão que devíamos todos nós fazer https://t.co/k7z2rm8PrJ
— Stelão – BRATVA Sgt. (@StelaoBonGz) 12 June 2017
18 Mercedes how many school desks would that pay for? This is the question we should all be asking.