By Marina Lopes
MAPUTO (Reuters) - When kidnappers seized a 17-year-old Muslim girl in Maputo last month, the Mozambican capital's Muslims reacted with outrage, but their cries for firm government action against a crime wave targeting the community fell on deaf ears.
At least, they did until a prominent elder threatened a "reorientation" of the Muslim vote and its sizeable financial clout from the ruling Frelimo party to the Mozambican Democratic Movement (MDM), a small but fast-growing opposition outfit.
The meeting with President Armando Guebuza that followed two days later is the latest sign of the waves MDM is creating in the southern African nation, home to some of the world's largest untapped reserves of coal and natural gas. The girl was rescued this week though no details of the operation have emerged.
Running on a slogan of "Mozambique for all", 48-year-old MDM founder Daviz Simango is building on his base as mayor of the million-population second city of Beira by tapping into popular anger that a flood of mining and energy investment is failing to make its way to millions mired in poverty.
A 2014 election looks too soon for the 3-year-old MDM to shake the Liberation Front of Mozambique, or Frelimo, at the ballot box, but analysts say its growing popularity may mark the beginning of the end of a 37-year strangle-hold on power.
"Is MDM a threat to Frelimo? Not in terms of president or the majority in parliament," said Joseph Hanlon, a senior lecturer at Britain's Open University and an expert on Mozambique. "But to the hegemony of Frelimo? Probably."
Simango is also emerging as the champion of young, educated Mozambicans who face scant chances of getting a job unless they have friends at the top of Frelimo, which has ruled since independence in 1975.
In a country ranked by graft watchdog Transparency International as the most bribery-blighted in southern Africa, the foreign mining mega-deals typically shrouded in official secrecy are an easy target.
"These contracts must not be signed to the detriment of the national interest. These contracts are being drafted without transparency, therefore these contracts do not serve Mozambicans," Simango told Reuters in a recent interview.
"We are not here to rob the investors. We are here to say that out of the money these investors will make, out of the money that the Mozambican government will make, something has to be left to the people."
Frelimo officials acknowledge MDM's popularity in Beira but question whether it has support beyond that and point out that its lack of a national party structure make it incapable of running a country of 23 million.
"THE PEOPLE SUFFER"
The former Portuguese colony, which emerged from civil war two decades ago, is estimated to have 23 billion tonnes of coal and gas deposits of at least 130 trillion cubic feet - enough to supply Germany, Britain, France and Italy for a decade or more.
But Frelimo is criticized for not yielding the benefits, leaving most Mozambicans to scrape by on an average $400 a year despite annual economic growth of around 7 percent in the last five years.
"You can study but if you don't know someone in power, you will never find a job. If your father is not a veteran, if he didn't take up arms for the party, it becomes very difficult," said 33-year-old graduate and MDM convert Nelson Euitolou.
"The people suffer while the government stuffs its pockets. The people don't benefit. Only one social class does."
Typically, Simango appears in casual clothes and his simple language goes down well with impoverished, rural audiences as he pushes the need for transparency and accountability.
A former civil engineer, he was raised in a political family, with his father, a church pastor, becoming the first vice-president of Frelimo. Both his parents were murdered in the late 1970s in what Simango says were political killings.
In 2003, he moved into politics by running for mayor of Beira, where he won 54 percent of the vote on the ticket of Renamo, the main opposition party and Frelimo's enemy in a long post-independence civil war.
Despite his strong showing in Beira, Renamo refused to name him as its candidate in 2009 elections, prompting him to go it alone with the MDM, which won 8.6 percent of the vote and eight seats in parliament, against 51 for Renamo and 191 for Frelimo.
Simango's record in Beira - he managed to get $240 million out of German and Swiss donors and investors to secure the city's picturesque beaches from erosion - has also earned him a reputation as someone who gets things done.
"I was never aligned with a political party," said Adeline Fransisco, 30. "But I saw him change Beira. Maybe he can bring some of that change to Maputo."
(Editing by Ed Cropley)