Immediately after lawyer and scholar Gilles Cistac was shot dead in broad daylight on Tuesday in central Maputo, Mozambicans started trading accusations and speculation over who was behind the attack.
Above anyone else, a finger has been pointed at ruling party Frelimo by both the independent media and the opposition – the latter called for “vengeance”. Cistac had publicly given juridical grounds to the opposition Renamo party’s current demand for autonomous provinces.
On Tuesday Cistac was leaving the famous Portuguese cafeteria ABFC on Avenida Eduardo Mondlane, one of Maputo’s main boulevards. Four men in a passing car opened fire on him, according to police reports. Severely wounded in the chest and the abdomen, he died four hours later in Maputo’s Central Hospital.
A 53-year-old lawyer and scholar associated with Maputo’s prestigious Eduardo Mondlane University, Cistac was one of only a few Mozambican experts in constitutional law. Most of the country’s lawyers and judges have at some point been students of this naturalised Mozambican of French origin who settled in the country in 1993.
Cistac was highly respected for his independence, even if he was sometimes controversial. He had counselled numerous Frelimo ministers, but was nonetheless a strong critic of the government’s behavior.
As friends and public figures gathered in front of the hospital to which the scholar had been admitted, they were in little doubt about the motive for the attack.
“I didn’t know him [to have] any links with drug or criminal cartels. This can only be political,” Fernando Lima, the director of independent weekly Savana, said.
Earlier this year, the jurist had been quoted in local media as saying that calls by Renamo for greater autonomy for the north and the centre of the country could be justified under the Constitution.
A former rebel movement that fought Frelimo in a 16-year civil war between 1976 and 1992, Renamo still disputes the results of last October’s election and believes the party should have the right to govern the areas where it polled the most votes.
Cistac’s entry into the debate spurred strong reactions from Frelimo officials and criticism from the pro-government media. Frelimo spokesperson Damião José called Cistac an “ingrate” for disrespecting the hospitality the Mozambican people had given him.
A Facebook campaign was initiated to demonise the lawyer. This included a profile going by the name “Calado Calachnikov” – Portuguese for “silencing with a Kalashnikov” – that labelled him as a French spy and insulted him racially. The week before his assassination, Cistac had filed a complaint with the city’s attorney general. The attorney is now investigating this Facebook profile as “a lead among others”, prosecution spokesperson Marcelino Vilankulo said.
On Thursday Frelimo issued a statement in which it strongly recused those accusations, saying they were “highly serious” and meant to sow confusion and division.
But the day after the murder, the gist of the accusations couldn’t have been more clear. “Frelimo assassins” was the main headline in Canal de Moçambique, an independent newspaper to which Cistac contributed regularly.
Renamo leader Afonso Dhlakama has also not held back: “If Frelimo radicals have decided to kill him [Cistac], thinking that it would demoralise Dhlakama and Renamo, they are mistaken,” he said on television on Tuesday night.
The most recent assassinations in Mozambique were of journalist Carlos Cardoso, killed in 2000, and banker Antonio Macuacua in 2001. Both were investigating possible fraud connected with the privatisation of Mozambique’s largest bank and involving some of Frelimo’s highest ranking officials.
Considering the post-election dispute between Frelimo and Renamo, Cistac’s murder has sparked widespread fears of even more political tension between the two parties.
“This is an affront to the rule of law and the freedom of speech. It depicts the total insecurity in which we are [living]: anyone can be shot for their opinion,” Custódio Duma, the head of the country’s National Human Rights Commission, said.
“The intention of this murder was to send a message to all who are like him [Cistac],” said Erik Charas, founder of @Verdade, Mozambique’s biggest selling newspaper, which is largely seen as supporting the opposition.
“We were past all of this. This sends us [back] decades. Now we are back to being barbarians.”