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Mozambique: Why were the ‘experts’ surprised by the occupation of Palma?

By Joseph Hanlon
Posted on Thursday, 8 April 2021 13:19

A Dyck Advisory Group helicopter lands in Palma
A Dyck Advisory Group helicopter lands in Palma, Mozambique in this picture taken between March 24 and March 27, 2021 and obtained by Reuters on March 30, 2021. Dyck Advisory Group/Handout via REUTERS

Insurgents took the town of Palma on the coast of the far north of Mozambique on 24 March and held it for 10 days. Surprised media claimed it was an escalation of a war backed by Islamic State -- despite IS having cut links with the Mozambique insurgents in mid-2020. In this deep dive into the historic roots of the crisis, leading Mozambique analyst Joseph Hanlon unpacks the modus operandi of the insurgency in Cabo Delgado. As South Africa sends troops to Palma, he asks: do we risk creating an 'Afghanistan' out of Mozambique by relying on inaccurate information and an out-of-date counter-insurgency playbook?

Palma was a sleepy Mozambican beach town until gas was discovered. Two years ago it became a booming town of contractors for the Total gas project on the nearby Afungi Peninsula.

Mocimboa da Praia, a small city 70 kilometres to the south and the port for the northernmost coast, was much more important. An Islamic-inspired insurgency started here in 2017 and spread rapidly. Nine districts are now affected, in a block of 250km north-south along the coast, and up to 100km inland.

How did we get here?

This zone is dominated by the Mwani, who are Muslims with historic links to Zanzibar going back centuries. The independence struggle by Frelimo (1964-74) was started by the Makondes on the Mueda plateau, inland and higher up than the Mwani coastal zone. The first shots were fired at Chai, just 65km southwest of Mocimboa da Praia.

Many Mwani joined the independence struggle and several Muslim leaders were executed by the Portuguese colonisers.

The Mwani argued that the Makonde took over Frelimo and marginalised them. Cabo Delgado became the forgotten province, one of the poorest, most unequal and least educated. Young people who saw no future became restive.