Mozambique: Can Cabo Delgado’s Islamist insurgency be stopped?
“The world still has no idea what is happening because of indifference, and because it seems that we have already become accustomed to wars. There is war in Iraq, there is war in Syria and there is also now a war in Mozambique.”
In an interview with Club Mozambique, the bishop of Pemba, Luiz Fernando Lisboa, recounts the constant daily struggles in the regional capital of Cabo Delgado.
Outside of the province, many people have little idea of the growing violence taking place in Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique that is affecting more than 700,000 people.
Northern Mozambique is known for its oil-rich land and also its growing fight against Islamist extremism.
The French oil giant Total recently noted that the insurgency will continue to wreak havoc on its planned liquified natural gas project in the province.
Since October 2017, 700 civilians have been killed in attacks, at times claimed by the Islamic State armed group or other militants hailing from Kenya and Tanzania who have joined a homegrown group called either Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama or Ansar al-Sunna (meaning ‘supporters of tradition’). That group is often called locally Al-Shabaab, but it has no practical connection to the Somali rebel organisation.
The Cabo Delgado violence erupted several years as companies discovered massive oil and gas deposits in the region.
In the first four months of 2020 alone, violent incidents in Cabo Delgado rose by 300% compared to the same period in 2019 estimates the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).
In July, “reports of insurgent violence…included five incidents across Macomia, Mocimboa de Praia and Ibo districts,” notes ACLED in a recent update.
The NGO MSF reported an armed attack in the early hours of 28 May in Macomia. Villagers fled into the bush and neighbouring villages to escape the attack, while the insurgents set fire to homes, shops, schools, religious and government buildings.
To date, the deadliest attack was in April, just as the coronavirus pandemic was making its way across Africa. Attackers killed 52 people in the village of Xitaxi. No group has yet to claim responsibility.
Who’s to blame for the instability?
What is not clear is if the groups are connected or are fighting each other and the inhabitants for control. In addition to a growing death toll, the militants have also:
- Targeted security forces;
- Destroyed public infrastructure;
- And stolen weapons from Mozambican troops.
But why the insurgency?
A decade before the violence, there existed a religious sect, Al-Shabaab, which was active in a few districts of Cabo Delgado. As a religious group, it sought the practice of radical Islam and Sharia law, and opposed all forms of collaboration with the government. But over time, it began to expand, including military cells along with a tougher discourse as of late 2015, until its members started fighting in 2017.
To feed the movement, the rebels looked to the local Muslim population that has been marginalised and neglected for years by the government. Unemployment and poverty are widespread in the region.
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In turn, many young people in the region, who had few prospects, were lured by the armed militias. Even the colloquial name of the region, Cabo Esquecido, ‘Forgotten Cape’, hints at the region’s marginalisation since Mozambique’s independence in 1975.
David M Matsinhe, an Africa researcher at Amnesty International, wrote about how the government made an abrupt change from its noted absence in the past 40-odd years following the discovery of vast reserves of natural resources in Cabo Delgado. The new government presence has been marked by the aim of forcibly removing communities from their land.
Matsinhe also noted the government’s decision to license “the entire district of Montepuez to mining companies, leaving communities without land to grow their food”.
Similar action to force people off of resource-rich areas has deprived people of the land that provided “water, farmland, wild food, medicinal plants, rubies for income and construction material,” all of which become off-limits with the licensing to mining companies, the article explains.
In short, the central government was effectively sowing “political disaffection”.
Citizens complained, but little changed.
Those perpetrating the militant attacks were said to be of foreign origin, but most of them are the “disaffected and aggrieved young people” who have extensive knowledge of the local geography.
Response against the insurgency
The Mozambican army is trying to quell the insurgency. They have solicited the help of private military contractors including Russia’s Wagner Group and the South-Africa based security company Dyck Advisory Group. Estimates by the government put the number of killed insurgents at 100 in recent months. But the reality is the response has fuelled the movement; what was once a small uprising has now transformed into a larger threat.
The government troops have attacked the insurgents themselves and also community members accused of aiding them.
Although Mozambique shares borders with Malawi, South Africa, eSwatini, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania – all members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – the neighbours are yet to launch a coordinated response to the growing threat.
Many activists are urging SADC to respond swiftly before the insurgency begins to spill over into neighbouring states, as has been the case with Boko Haram insurgency. It started in Nigeria’s north-east and has crept into Cameroon and Niger.