In Mozambique, the assassination of an election observer has thrown into relief how assassinations are deployed to silence dissent and reform.

Anastácio Matavel was an activist and NGO leader who was heading election observations in Xai-Xai, capital of Mozambique’s Gaza province. He was assassinated on 7 October 2019 by members of the national police force in the run-up to the October 15 national elections, which handed President Filipe Nyusi and Frelimo a landslide victory, but which were rejected by the opposition as a ‘mega fraud’ marred by irregularities.1

Civil-society groups in Mozambique have condemned the ever-more restricted space for free speech amid the growing threat of political violence in contemporary Mozambique.2 Meanwhile, an EU observer mission referred to Matavel’s assassination as a key event ‘exacerbating an already existing climate of fear’.3 The main opposition party, Renamo, has called for the dismissal of the interior minister, Basilio Monteiro, under whose portfolio control of the police force falls.4

Matavel’s killers were members of a so-called government ‘death squad’, drawn from the police force’s Special Operations Group and Rapid Intervention Unit, two elite sections of the Mozambican police. Their identities came to light after the getaway car used in the shooting crashed, killing two of the assassins, Nobrega Justino Chaúque and Martins Francisco William. Two more, Edson Silica (son of a member of the Gaza police force and the only civilian member of the group) and Euclidio Mapulasse, were arrested following the accident. The fifth, Agabito Matavele, is still at large.

Two weeks previously, the same ‘death squad’ had mistakenly assassinated Carlos Ubisse, a police officer and former police commander in Chokwe and Chibuto districts, believing him to be Matavel. The two men drove similar cars, looked similar in appearance and were neighbours in Chongoene village, near Xai-Xai. Ubisse was kidnapped in a neighbourhood of Xai-Xai and was tortured to death in Chibuto district.

The same car was used in the assassinations of both Ubisse and Matavel.5 Investigations have revealed that the car belonged to the mayor of Chibuto, Henrique Albino Machava, a senior member of Frelimo and cousin of the former secretary general of Frelimo, Eliseu Machava. Henrique Machava has stated publicly that by the time of the killing, he had sold the car to Ricardo Manganhe, a teacher who leads the education sector in the Municipal Council of Chibuto and has close links to Machava. Machava said the car was still in his name only because the buyer had not yet completed the pay- ments.6 Manganhe has since stated that one of the assassins borrowed the car from him under the pretext of a family emergency.7

The investigations undertaken by members of the Eastern and Southern Africa Observatory network uncovered that the assassination of Matavel was ordered on 19 September by figures linked to the Provincial Police Command of the Republic of Mozambique, namely Tudelo Girrugo and Alfredo Macuacua, the commanders of Special Operations Group and Rapid Intervention Unit, respectively, and a high-ranking state official in Gaza.8 Both Girrugo and Macuacua have since been arrested.9 The provincial prosecutor has identified other police officers involved in these assassinations, some of whom are linked to the armed forces.

Observers of Mozambique’s political landscape argue that such ‘death squads’ are nothing new,10 and that Matavel’s murder is merely the latest in a pattern of similar killings that have intensified in recent years. This latest incident is unique, in that – thanks to the car accident following the attack – the killers have been identified as police officers and the role of high-level commanders in ordering assassinations is coming to light.

A pattern of targeted killings

On 23 May 2016, around 8 a.m., José Jaime Macuane, a prominent professor of political science at Eduardo Mondlane University, was arriving at his office in Maputo. Unknown individuals blocked his car, informed him that they were police and forced him to enter their car. A few minutes later, Macuane was found in the Marracuene district on the Maputo ring road. He had been shot and brutalized, was bleeding and had a broken leg. His attackers told him that they were aiming to disable him. The individuals remain unknown; the police state that ‘the incident is under investigation’. As a political scientist, Macuane was a commentator on a Mozambican Sunday- evening chat show, Pontos de Vista (‘Points of View’), broadcast on STV television, one of the main independent news channels in Mozambique.

On 8 October the same year, Jeremias Pondeca, a senior official of Mozambique’s Renamo opposition party was shot dead by unidentified gunmen while exercising on Maputo beach. Pondeca was a member of the Council of State, an advisory body to the president, had been a Member of Parliament from 1995 to 2004, and, crucially, was a member of the Joint Commission set up to find solutions to the stand-off between the government and the Renamo opposition. As his murder came days before the commission was due to resume its work, this threw the future of the commission into doubt.11

On 4 October 2017, the mayor of Nampula, Mahamudo Amurane, was shot dead in Nampula. As was the case in previous hits, the gunmen remain unnamed to this day. As mayor, Amurane had focused on fighting corruption in the city’s administration.12

On 27 March 2018, unknown assailants kidnapped prominent Mozambican journalist and human-rights activist Ericino de Salema in Maputo as he left the premises of the National Union of Journalists. He was left unconscious, and with a broken arm and leg on the Maputo ring road. He had reportedly received threatening phone calls the previous day.13 Salema, like Macuane, was a regular guest on Pontos de Vista, during which he often took positions critical of government policy. On the Sunday before the attack, he had criticized during the TV show the government’s attempts to re- structure illegal debts contracted under the previous government and called for the resignation of Finance Minister Adriano Maleiane.14

In 2018, the former head of the Frelimo branch in Chokwe district, Gaza province, Nelson Ezequias Pelembe, was found dead in Xai-Xai. He had disappeared after leaving Chokwe to travel to Maputo, leading some of his allies to speculate that he had fled to the Kenyan embassy in South Africa to seek asylum. Months later, Pelembe’s body was found inside the morgue of the provincial hospital of Gaza, in Xai-Xai.15 Little information has come to light about his death, but interviews suggest that Pelembe was involved in disputes with other Frelimo members, including the mayor of Chokwe, Lidia Cossa.16

Fluctuations in assassinations in Mozambique, 2014-2019

Figure 5 Fluctuations in assassinations in Mozambique, 2014-2019

Note: The data presented here is preliminary; GI-TOC is in the process of creating an Assassinations Witness database for Mozambique using our standardized methodology.

On 11 November 2019, Carvalho Carlos Ecole, a professor at the Eduardo Mondlane University and a researcher at the Institute for Agronomic Research, was abducted by unidentified individuals and found dead three days later on Macaneta beach, Marracuene district, 25 kilometres from Maputo. His family posted a statement on social media saying, ‘Thank you to all who supported our appeal to help our family … Unfortunately, this is the choice: join the corruption dance or be honest and die earlier.’ Graça Machel, Samora Machel’s widow, and former first lady of both South Africa and Mozambique, sent a message to the family: ‘There is a special place in the heart of those who recognize and value a fair and honest man, who has done everything for his country. I didn’t know your husband and father. But he’s my hero too.’

These killings all share the same hallmarks: they all targeted government critics, members of civil society or officials in conflict with the vested interests of powerful state figures; they were carried out in an attempt to silence dissent, political opposition or reform. In all these cases, the police response has been to state that investigations are under way, but with no evidence then emerging. Although the full landscape of assassinations in Mozambique will undoubtedly include some linked to criminal interests, it seems probable that the majority of these hits by ‘death squads’ have been instigated by political figures, as seen in the assassination of Anastácio Matavel.


  1. David Pilling and Joseph Cotterill, Mozambique’s Nyusi wins landslide election victory, Financial Times, 27 October 2019,

  2. Frontline Defenders, Open Letter: Killing of activist Dr. Anastácio Matavel and restrictions on civic space mar upcoming elections, 14 October 2019,

  3. EEAS, MOE UE Moçambique 2019 preliminary statement, Well-organised voting preceded by a campaign marred by violence, limitations to fundamental freedoms and doubts about the quality of the voter register, 17 October 2019,çambique-2019-preliminary-statement_en

  4. Mozambique: Matavel murder – Renamo demands sacking of Interior Minister, All Africa, 9 October 2019,

  5. Club of Mozambique, Mayor’s car used for two murders, claims weekly, 8 November 2019,

  6. Club of Mozambique, Car used by death squad was owned by Chibuto mayor, 4 November 2019,

  7. Club of Mozambique, Owner of car used in assassination confirms he lent it to one of the killers, 5 November 2019,

  8. Dinguizwayo de Wilton Chiconela, Polícia confirma detenção do comandante do GOE, mas continua a esconder relatório de inquérito, Savana, 7 November 2019,

  9. Report Focus News, Mozambique police chief arrested over election observer’s death, 6 November 2019,

  10. Tom Bowker, Tensions high as Mozambique votes in high-stakes elections, Al Jazeera, 15 October 2019,

  11. Nqobile Dludla, Senior member of Mozambique’s opposition Renamo shot dead on beach, Reuters, 9 October 2016,

  12. Amnesty International, Mozambique: Killing of anti- corruption mayor must be investigated, 5 October 2017,

  13. Paul Fauvet, Prominent Moz journalist kidnapped and beaten after receiving threats, Iol, 27 March 2018,

  14. Ibid. 

  15. Interview with senior member of Frelimo party in Chokwe, Chokwe, 21 February 2019. 

  16. Interview with senior member of Frelimo party in Chokwe, Chokwe, 11 January 2017.