Feature: Cabo Delgado could become Africa’s next jihadist frontier


Fears are mounting that Mozambique’s Muslim-dominated province of Cabo Delgado could become the next frontier for prolonged jihadist rebellion on the African continent. Since 2017, Mozambican militants, backed by Tanzanians and other foreigners to some degree, have thwarted the weak Mozambican government security forces’ efforts to defeat them. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced and almost 3 000 people have lost their lives to the insurrection which the Islamic State claims to be behind.

In a recent report from the International Crisis Group (ICG) on stemming the insurrection in Cabo Delgado, the ICG said that the Mozambique government undoubtably needs to accept foreign security assistance but should avoid a heavy deployment. The government should aim to build trust with locals and open dialogue with militants and that regional government should enhance law enforcement efforts to block transitional jihadist involvement.

How it started

ICG notes that the region has been ripe for revolt since 2007, when frustrated youth in the province’s southern districts dominated by ethnic Makua began denouncing the authority of local religious leaders, especially those close to the country’s official Muslim council. “By the mid-2010s ethnic Mwani militants in the coastal district of Mocímboa da Praia had joined the fray. Their activism had an Islamist tinge: they pushed for alcohol bans while opposing the enrolment of children in state schools and the right of women to work,” the report said. Their economic exclusion amid the discovery of rubies and gas in the region added to their frustrations.

They also resented the influence of liberation-era generals who have business interests in the province and are drawn from President Filipe Nyusi’s Makonde ethnic group. “Amid this boiling resentment, authorities expelled artisanal miners from commercial mining concessions in early 2017, further feeding local discontent,” the report noted. Militants, known locally as al-Shabab, (not to be confused with al-Shabaab in Somalia) moved to armed revolt in October 2017.

What and who is al-Shabab?

In referring to al-Shabab as terrorists, officials are admitting the problem to be greater than initially thought but the ICG report said this fuels a perception that global jihadism is the only reason for a threat.

“Fighters from neighbouring Tanzania, many of whom are part of Islamist networks that have proliferated on the Swahili coast of East Africa, are, indeed, among the militant leaders,” the report said, adding that the bulk of the group is, however, Mozambicans, including poor fisherman, frustrated petty traders, former farmers, and unemployed youth. Their motivations for joining and staying in the group vary, but the ICG noted it is shaped less by ideology than their desire to assert power locally and, “to obtain the material benefits that accrue to them via the barrel of a gun. If the group is still growing, it is because it is managing to draw on recruits who see joining and staying with al-Shabab as a good career move.” The ICG added that some of the Mozambican militant core may well, by now, be committed jihadists.

What the Mozambican government has done

The Mozambican government’s response to the insurgency has been predominately a weak military response. It is struggling to contain a group that is growing in strength on land and can operate in waters off the coast. The Mozambican military (FADM), which significantly shrank after the 1992 peace deal ending the country’s civil war, is in disrepair, making it a soft target for militants who have overrun many of its positions and plundered its weapons stockpiles. The ICG noted the army is also stretched, having to guarantee security in the centre of the country while it tries to achieve the final surrender of a residual armed faction of the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (Renamo) opposition group. The navy is barely functioning while al-Shabab poses an increasing threat on the coast.

For a year, Nyusi dispatched elite paramilitary police units with air support from South African private military contractor Dyck Advisory Group. This joint force stopped the militants’ advance toward the provincial capital Pemba and destroyed some camps. However, in March, militants stormed Pemba, the gateway to major gas fields, prompting Total to halt development.

The Mozambican government has been pressuring its foreign partners to provide resources, including lethal assistance to build up its military, with Nyusi wanting the FADM to be the primary force tasked with fighting militants. Mozambique’s Western partners are eager to help but diplomats are reluctant to supply material to the military without going though significant training and reforms. Those partners are also concerned about reports of abuses committed against the population by security forces and potential leaks of government weapons into militants’ hands.

It was recently announced that a South African Development Community (SADC) Standby Force will be sent to Cabo Delgado to counter the ‘terrorist’ insurrection. SADC sees Cabo Delgado’s conflict as a threat to their own security. Last year, Islamic State threatened South Africa with terrorism if it were to become involved in Cabo Delgado. The ICG said, “Nyusi has been nervous about that [SADC intervention] happening. His critics say he wants to keep prying eyes out of the province, a zone for illicit activity including heroin trafficking that benefits elites.”

The ICG noted that external intervention needs to be able to respond to the security threat posed by militants but also allocate enough resources to protect civilians when they return to their native districts. The SADC is not alone in providing foreign assistance, as the USA is providing training to their police and judicial system to better handle and process terrorists and the European Union (EU) may provide training to Mozambican troops. Portuguese assistance is expected later this year.

Experts, journalists, foreign politicians, and analysts have emphasised that Maputo, the political capital of Mozambique, needs to address the local factors that have spurred on this incredibly violent insurgency. The military assistance that Mozambique receives, the ICG said, should not solely focus on a militant response but also be used to channel aid to communities and open a dialogue with Mozambican militants, possibly tackling their grievances.

The SADC countries that do contribute to the standby force should also take efforts to interdict foreign support for the insurrection, which may be very close to the illicit trade in the region. This should be done, according to the ICG report, by tasking special forces, “to spearhead restricted military operations to contain and then degrade al-Shabab. Patrolling territorial waters could also deny militants opportunities to move fighters and supplies via coastal waters.” If Mozambicans can be persuaded to return to the areas they vacated, the ICG adds Maputo should focus its other forces on providing security around these population centres to benefit civilians and humanitarian actors.

ICG recommendations

A security plan like the one mentioned by the ICG above, would pressure al-Shabab militarily but also leave space for authorities to seek a negotiated end to the conflict. “Besides needing to win back aggrieved locals’ loyalty, they also need to induce militants lured by weapons, money and abducted women used as sex slaves to give up violence,” said the report.

The Mozambican government keeps its head in the sand when it comes to the disenfranchised and impoverished citizens of the Cabo Delgado province. Many protests, reports, articles and webinars have cited citizens from this region don’t believe the government cares about them. Maputo should use its new development agency for the north to start dialogues with civilians in Cabo Delgado and to work out with them how best to spend donor aid, soothe local tensions and rebuild trust with communities who feel let down by the state. Such dialogues may also help authorities open lines of communication with Mozambican militants, given how deeply embedded al-Shabab’s own recruitment network is in society.

“If they can reach back this way, authorities could seek ways to encourage the militants’ demobilisation and possible participation in local security arrangements. Maputo may need to offer them security guarantees, and in some cases amnesties, after they exit,” the report added.

Law enforcement operations should be done to suppress any support to al-Shabab from transnational militants, including Islamic State, whose influence over the group appears weak for now. The ICG said these operations should focus on stopping attempts by individuals to finance, train or provide technology to al-Shabab, adding, “Their success will require Mozambique and Tanzania in particular to share information with their international partners about al-Shabab networks that have been operating across their borders.”

Three years into violence in Cabo Delgado, and Mozambique and its regional partners are gearing up to respond together to the threat. The citizens of Cabo Delgado are desperate for safety, fearing they may be abducted or killed. A security response is necessary. The government and its allies do, however, need to consider how they can address the grievances underpinning a rapidly expanding challenge that started out as a local revolt.