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Western Union suspends services in, and for, Cabo Delgado

Western Union has suspended money transfers for people in, and from, Cabo Delgado — apparently for fear of terror financing, though neither it nor the regulator has said why

It is now considerably more difficult for Mozambicans in the conflict-hit province to access financial services

By Luis Nhachote, for The Continent

Of the many trials and tribulations that the war has brought to the people of Cabo Delgado, an overlooked one is losing access to financial services.

Money transfer giant Western Union has suspended services in the province, without an explanation either from the company or the government. The suspension causes hardships not only for regular customers wanting to send money, but also for its large network of agents who earn a living from the fees charged to handle the transfers.

Now, in order to be able to receive help from friends or family members abroad, people from Cabo Delgado, or who reside in the province, need to go to Nampula, the biggest city in northern Mozambique. That’s 400km from Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado, and some 650km from Palma, one of the places worst hit by the war.

This has very real world consequences for people who have already suffered immensely.

Take Habiba Aboobakar, a mother of three. She has already been forced to flee her home twice: first to Palma, after her village in Mocímboa da Praia district was attacked by armed insurgents in March 2020; and then to Pemba, in March this year, when Palma was attacked. Both times, she had to leave everything behind.

Recently, she received help from a cousin who lives in Europe who sent her some money through Western Union. But when she arrived at the Pemba branch of Millennium BIM, which carries out Western Union transactions in Mozambique, she was told that the service was not available in the province. She took a bus 400km to the city of Nampula, but “there, too, I was not paid because my document shows that I was born in Mocímboa da Praia [a town in the northern province]”.

“We are not terrorists, we are victims of terrorism,” she tells The Continent.

Who else is moving money?

Western Union confirmed to The Continent that its services in northern Mozambique have been suspended.

It did not say why, but said it “takes its regulatory and compliance responsibilities very seriously,” and takes decisions “based on a risk assessment of our products and services, our consumers and our agents, and where we do business.” It promised it is “committed to responsibly resuming operations [in northern Mozambique] as soon as possible”.

Barring people from using formal systems to move money around could backfire, according to a new report into how the insurgency in Mozambique is financed.

The report, by Amanda Lucey and Jaynisha Patel for the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), notes that concerns have been raised about the use, in particular, of mobile money transfer services to fund the insurgency.

For example, the Eastern and Southern Africa Anti-Money Laundering Group has said that “the main conduits for laundering the proceeds of crime appear to be through banks, bureau de changes, cash couriers and hawala systems” — this last being informal networks of money transfer agents, widely used in coastal East Africa in particular.

But these same networks are also vital lifelines for communities that have little access to the formal banking sector. “Any intervention must consider first the impact it might have on those already living on the economic margins of society,” argued Lucey and Patel in the Mail & Guardian earlier this year.

The Bank of Mozambique, which regulates the financial sector in Mozambique, did not respond when The Continent asked if it was aware of Western Union’s decision to suspend operations in Cabo Delgado.

Despite having more than a week to respond to questions, Millennium BIM failed to do so.

The solution for Habiba was to call her cousin to change the name of the recipient to someone else, who is from Nampula. She had to pay some of the money to that person, to do the pick-up for her.

Mozambican journalist Estacio Valoi, who has lived in Pemba for seven years, complained about Millennium BIM's “lack of respect and consideration for its customers”. “There is no official information that the service is cancelled,” he said. “Every time I have to use the service I have to travel to Nampula province and this has very high costs”.

Unlike those born in Cabo Delgado, Valoi, originally from Maputo, is at least able to pick up money himself in Nampula. But those with the misfortune of being from Mozambique’s most resource-rich province are finding themselves more and more excluded from any hint of prosperity in the country.

This article was first published in The Continent on 19 November 2021