Feature: Mozambique insurgency a result of years of marginalisation and discontent


The violent revolt against the Mozambican government in the northern Cabo Delgado province has been brought on by local social, economic and political inequalities, which have not been helped by the ruby trade and now oil and gas exploitation, according to a leading expert.

The revolt-turned-insurgency, which began in 2017, has left over 1 500 dead and displaced a further 250 000. Insurgents recently captured and continue to control Mocímboa da Praia, a port strategically important to oil and gas companies operating in the region. Insurgent attacks in the northernmost province have become more frequent in recent months as the insurgents display more capacity and capability in their attacks.

In 2019, Islamic State (IS), in line with their strategy of global expansion, claimed the Mozambique insurgency to be an affiliate of their network. Reports suggest that the insurgents refer to themselves as Al-Shabaab and not IS. Conflict expert Jasmine Opperman states that although the insurgency has not yet shown a capacity to control Mocímboa da Praia, if they can, Mozambique and the rest of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) run the risk of IS establishing themselves in Southern Africa.

Understanding the history, society and culture of the majority Muslim population in Cabo Delgado is now critically important in understanding how a violent insurgency bent on overthrowing the Mozambican government started amongst disaffected youth.

defenceWeb spoke to Liazzat Bonate, lecturer in African history at the University of West Indies, Trinidad and Tobogo with specialization in Islam in Africa, to understand the roots of the insurgency. Bonate started her research on Mozambique in 1997, doing field work and archival research in both Mozambique and Portugal.

History of Northern Mozambican Muslims

The northern Mozambican coast has a long Muslim history as archaeological data shows that people from across the Indian ocean came to Mozambique even before Islam was established. This movement of people across the Indian ocean continued and became more pronounced when Islam expanded across the Indian Ocean. “The Northern Mozambican coast has been Muslim for at least 1 200 years… But they became Islamised, notably from the 10th or 12th century…we have a lot of archaeological data to support that,” stated Bonate.

Bonate said that in the 1930s, Muslim chiefs and Sheikhs (rulers of territories and alleged members of royal clans) became a part of the colonial administration of Mozambique by virtue of their role in in controlling specific territories; were adopters of Sufi orders (esoteric modes of Islamic practice); and became a part of the colonial system themselves, taking advantage of being Islamic and cultural leaders and being intermediaries between the Africans and Portuguese.

The initial rivalry between the chief-based or Swahili Islam gradually ceased and a certain era of internal stability for the Muslim population along the northern Mozambique coast was established as the majority prescribed to Sufi orders. This lasted until the end of the Second World War, which is when Salafism (a fundamentalist movement within Sunni Islam) spread into northern Mozambique through local people, who studied in Salafi-oriented schools, and teachers from all around the East Africa and Golf countries, as well as South Africa. It is important to note geography as many African, Indian and Middle Eastern Muslims travelled in and out of Northern Mozambique and many of them were not Sufi order Muslims.

This was in line with the change the Muslim world was experiencing. It marked the beginning of an internal struggle for Islam in Mozambique that would last decades. Bonate pointed out data that suggests there were arrests over violence between the two Islamic ideals and even murder of Muslim leaders in Mozambique post World War Two. In addition to this internal struggle, Mozambique was still under colonial rule from Portugal, which imposed Catholic mission schooling. Muslims in Mozambique were then fighting for their identity, culture and religion. An example of their struggle with identity, as Bonate noted, was when the colonial administration gave northern Mozambican Muslims Christian names on documents.

Post-World War Two, Mozambique saw a long and bitter fight for independence from the Portuguese, and post-independence, saw an even bloodier civil war take place as atrocities and human rights violations were committed and ultimately never accounted for. The civil war between the Marxist Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) and anti-communist Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) left over 1 000 000 dead, including a large number of people dying from famine. RENAMO committed crimes against humanity including rape and child mutilation while FRELIMO forced Mozambicans into communal villages with conditions so bad people wanted to take their chances in the countryside, at risk from RENAMO.

The history of violence for northern Mozambican Muslims dates back many decades, either fighting against oppression, both internally and externally, or being caught in a war for independence.

Ruby mining and gas projects

In more recent years, some Cabo Delgado citizens, as Bonate pointed out, have been fighting for their land as a result of natural resources exploitation. Northern Mozambicans have an ancestral claim to land, which is something they could rely on to provide some sort of sustainable life. In 2009, rubies were discovered in Montepuez, Cabo Delgado. *In 2011, Gemfields and Mwiriti signed a deal leading to the establishment of Montepuez Ruby Mining (MRM), 75% Gemfields and 25% Mwiriti. According to Mining.com, Montepuez is considered to be the world’s most lucrative ruby operation.

Bonate pointed out that many media outlets and online sources accused MRM of using violent measures to force artisanal miners out of the area. “They [MRM] sent security forces, private as well as special forces, and took the artisanal miners and tortured them. Sometimes they just killed them, sometimes they went and exploded [the mine] while they [artisanal miners] were still underground,” said Bonate, citing Estacio Valoi, who first exposed torture and human rights violations in a 2015 Al Jazeera film. The murders, detentions and torture are all alleged. There has been one matter of alleged human rights abuses against villages that was settled without going to court. Gemfields chose to pay $7.8 million to the community near a Montepuez ruby mine in a no admission of liability deal. A London-based law firm Leigh Day, representing the villagers, outlined the murder of at least 18 people allegedly by mine security forces and Mozambican police by shooting, fatal beatings, humiliation, taking land without due process and burial while still alive. Specifically, there were nearly 200 claims of beatings, torture, and sexual abuse – many leading to such serious injuries that people’s subsequent ability to work was limited. Some 95 property claims were related to the repeated burning of Namucho-Ntoro village. Gemfields said there is much to question about the allegations regarding a certain law firm that handles these cases and how much of Gemfields settlement goes to them, why the number of claimants in such cases is typically high and why the case was bought against Gemfields and not MRM. Gemfields also questioned why these cases are bought in the UK and mentioned that when human rights cases bought in the UK by claimants who have little to no money, defendants such as Gemfields are barred from reclaiming any of their legal fees regardless of if they win every aspect of the case. Irrespective of the outcome of the court case, Gemfields said this creates a sizable incentive for defendants to settle the case without going to trial.

According to Gemfields, MRM built several new primary schools and renovated another for villages in the mining companies’ area of operation. Additionally, MRM provide for the provision and ongoing operation of two mobile health clinics, established and support multiple farming associations as well as established and run a vocational training centre in partnership with the Mozambican government’s vocational training department.

In the matter of MRM wanting to relocate villagers, Gemfields stated that out of the seven villages sited in the MRM license for mining, one village is going to be relocated later this year as MRM says, “The legitimate and censused Nthoro residents (105 families) are due to move into the USD 12 million resettlement village later this year and we believe their quality of life will be vastly improved. The construction of the new village is nearly complete. It includes 105 homes with access to power and water, a primary school, a church, mosque, civil buildings, a market and agricultural land for each home.”

However, Joseph Hanlon in February 19, 2020 argued that “Land given to ruby, graphite and other miners and to gas companies cover such large areas that there are reports from both the ruby and gas zones that it has become impossible to find new farmland for the displaced villagers. This is adding to tensions caused by the eviction of traditional artisanal miners, who are an important part of the Cabo Delgado rural economy. Reduced opportunities have combined with growing inequality and the obvious mineral wealth to create support for the insurgents.”

The offshore gas projects in Northern Mozambique also have their share of controversy. The islands along the Cabo Delgado coast, Bonate said, have mostly belonged to Muslims from the 12th century. However, locals are being pushed out to make way for oil and gas exploration projects – Mozambique has one of the largest natural gas reserves in Africa.

“I was talking to someone in Palma, who was digging up the graves of the people on the coast, these generational and century old graves. [For the gas companies],” Bonate said.

For 15 years, Mozambique’s GDP rose by more than 6% a year, largely thanks to coal, titanium, hydro-electricity and other natural resources. Yet the majority of people did not benefit as poverty and inequality both increased. The ruby and gas field discoveries in Cabo Delgado in 2009-10 raised hopes of jobs and a better life for many local people, but those hopes were soon dashed as it was alleged many of the profits were being raked off by a small FRELIMO elite, according to Mozambique analyst Joseph Hanlon.

Local grievances

Bonate said that the dissatisfaction with government and local grievances in Mozambique are quite varied. For example, some of those loyal to FRELIMO who fought for them in the liberation war did not receive veterans’ pensions. In the last two elections, Bonate noted that FRELIMO was shocked to see some losses in the elections in Cabo Delgado and more notably Mocimboa da Praia, which Bonate said is a hub for liberation veterans.

The insurgency that started on 5 October 2017 when insurgents occupied Mocimboa da Praia for two days, Bonate said, originated as a last resort revolt amongst a predominantly Muslim youth. Elders still sought to deliberate with FRELIMO, which the youth had little faith in. Some elders, Bonate said, are Salafists supported by the Islamic Council, which supports FRELIMO. “If you look at their [Muslim youth] mentalities, they think they are fighting for higher moral values and justice. They think they are fighting for better things,” said Bonate.

The Islamic Council, Bonate said, was consistently denouncing the rebellious youth and chasing them away from mosques. The Islamic Council eventually got some of the youth arrested and those who were from neighboring countries were deported. Tanzanians and other East African people with strong convictions of establishing an Islamic state are involved in the insurgency but the extent of which is unknown, she said. Experts and media have reported on the insurgency having foreign elements to it – however, the overwhelming understanding of the insurgency is that it is rooted in local socio-economic grievances.

The insurgency is somewhat unusual as there were no clear leaders in the beginning or who have since made their presence known. “This is not a concerted thing because if it was, we would be able to identify those leaders right away,” said Bonate. A further critique of the Mozambican government is that it cannot answer basic questions about the insurgency that it should be able to answer, such as who the leaders are.

Bonate said that we cannot see the insurgency as well defined – people are involved for different reasons: some are miners, some are in it for criminal gain. What does help develop and define it, according to Bonate, is being under constant military threat from the government. Bonate said that the whole approach of the government is wrong and that they need to address the problem as if the insurgency is coming from their own disaffected citizens instead of a foreign threat. “You need the population on your side instead of torturing, kidnapping Sheikhs…this is really crazy.”

Bonate stated that the government needs to convince the people that it is impossible to set up an Islamic State in Mozambique. Locals speaking out against socio-economic grievances through protest or striking, according to Bonate, even before the insurgency, were only met with a military response from government. The continued militant response is clearly not resolving the local issues: “They [locals] are so poor, surely you can build basic infrastructure for them, give them housing and access to land so that they will be calmer because now they are running around with nothing.”

Bonate believes that another problem with the direct investment of foreign companies currently in Cabo Delgado is that there is no attempt or intention of improving the locals’ lives through either training, education or assistance, and thus integrating the local youth into the extractive industry and projects. Bonate questions why the government or the ruby companies cannot provide anything for a province currently producing some of the world’s best and most expensive rubies.

Bonate believes that another problem with the direct investment of foreign companies currently in Cabo Delgado is that the efforts of improving the locals’ lives through either training, education or assistance, and thus integrating the local youth into the extractive industry and projects have been very slow so far. Bonate questions why the government or the ruby companies are taking such a long time in providing these opportunities in a province currently producing some of the world’s best and most expensive rubies.

Bonate closed the interview in saying, “I am really concerned about all these security specialists and experts saying we need to continue with militarization and escalation of violence… Is it somewhat possible to look at them [insurgents] as people and be sympathetic and try to separate those that are supposed to be punished, taken to court and imprisoned from those that are there for various grievances?”

Some of Bonate’s publications on Muslims in Mozambique can be found here:  https://sta-uwi.academia.edu/LiazzatBonate

* This article was been amended following information provided by Gemfields and Liazzat Boante.