Feature: Unravelling the origins of Mozambique’s insurgency


Political and economic exclusion, poverty and radicalisation came together to create the insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, and although military intervention has driven the insurgents back, it will not solve the root causes that led to young men taking up arms.

This is according to a number of experts, who took part in a webinar hosted by the Africa Center for Security Studies on 29 October titled ‘Understanding the Origins of Violent Extremism in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado.’

Although the insurgency only really picked up in 2017, its origins date back to at least before 2010 when local youth began to show signs of conversion to Islam in Cabo Delgado, said Dino Mahtani, African Programme Deputy Director, International Crisis Group.

The locals, especially in the coastal districts of Cabo Delgado, felt excluded from the political economy as well as the illicit economy and natural resources, he said. “What we saw over time coincided with the return of a number of students sent abroad for religious instruction…when they came back there was almost a perfect storm of socio-economic grievances, and ethnic asymmetry, which created a group with a religious flavour.”

Mahtani said many of the young men drawn into what is locally called Al Shabaab felt excluded from the formal and illicit economies, were on the fringes of society and had not much but enough money to be frustrated when it was taken away at things like security checkpoints. This was compounded by the expulsion of locals from the ruby mines, which were then taken over by ‘oligarchical forces’.

When natural gas was discovered and it looked that Cabo Delgado would become a development hub, “many of these young boys who felt their future was being denied them, chose the way of the gun. These young men had access to the coastal smuggling economy, and could acquire weapons,” Mahtani said. Around 2017, there were crackdowns in Tanzania and a number of Tanzanian jihadists went to Cabo Delgado and this was a major factor in the forming of the insurgency.

Independent terrorism expert Jasmine Opperman, who will also be speaking at defenceWeb’s Countering the Insurgency in Mozambique event, believes that natural resources played a very significant role in the build-up to the insurgency in 2017, especially when the government decided to intervene in the artisanal mining sector and take away opportunities from locals, which added fuel to the fire. When locals were pushed off the land in Cabo Delgado to make way for oil and gas development, this accelerated the insurgency.

The LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) sector is not necessarily one of the causes of the insurgency, she maintains, but it has not helped the situation. “Irrespective of the LNG sector, the insurgency would have taken place. It may have taken longer but clearly the LNG sector has not lived up to expectations as Western companies had Western ideas of development that were not applicable and played a significant role in the frustration in play.”

Professor Adriano Nuvunga, director of the Centre for Democracy and Development in Mozambique, another panelist at defenceWeb’s event next week, explained that the political marginalisation of the political opposition, Renamo, in Cabo Delgado led to the Mozambican government not providing services and being present in this area. This led to the youth in this region feeling excluded and vulnerable, and open to recruitment of any kind.

Nuvunga believes the fact that Mozambique’s democracy is not inclusive has caused a lot of problems as it excludes a significant part of the population, especially young people. “When you have election/democracy capture and no meaningful mechanism for participation in democracy, you create an overall socio-economic and political environment for violent extremism to thrive. This is the reality in the context of Mozambique.”

Although Mozambique’s insurgency has been characterised as an Islamist insurgency with foreign jihadi influence, Mahtani believes it is “a Mozambican affair first and foremost. There is a cloak of Islamic extremism, trying to implement sharia law and recruit people into a compelling movement on the ground, but when you look at the motivations of local fighters they may start to desert or want to leave if their payments are not coming in.”

He said many insurgents are motivated by the privileges of the gun and financing that this brings. Somalia’s Al Shabaab, and Islamic State, have tried to co-opt insurgents in Mozambique, especially following crackdowns in Tanzania and Kenya. “That’s an Al Qaeda strain of radicalisation following down from Somalia. These young men were cracked down upon in Tanzania and fused with Mozambican militants,” he explained. As a result, a lot of money came through Kenya to insurgents in Mozambique, Uganda and the Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Mahtani believes some Mozambican insurgents were trained in camps in the DRC but the essence of the insurgency is Mozambican with “a foreign plugin”.

Military response

Since the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Rwanda intervened in Mozambique in July, some military successes have been recorded against insurgents, but Mahtani warned that those shouldn’t be exaggerated. “Security forces understand that they have not defeated this group; it’s far from being defeated but rather pushed to some extremities.” The insurgents are on the back foot, and will likely turn to transnational terror networks for assistance, such as with improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

Nuvunga said the Mozambican government’s response to the insurgency only made the situation worse. “How the Mozambican government initially responded with private military groups who did not always behave well…contributed to violent extremism,” he said, adding that he wants to see a change in the way Mozambican security forces treat local communities. It appears they want the private sector back in Cabo Delgado without addressing the fundamentals and inclusive dialogue. “Local communities are not being treated well, and there is tension in Pemba,” he said.

The perception that the Mozambican government is more concerned about saving the lives of foreigners than locals in Cabo Delgado plays into the hands of extremists, who say ‘we are here for you – government forces are not there for you.’ Incidents such as government security forces executing a naked woman and other human rights violations have created suspicion of the authorities, Nuvunga said.

Whilst Rwanda and the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) have made initial gains in Cabo Delgado, Idriss Mounir Lallali, Deputy Director and Acting (Interim) Director of the African Centre for the Study and Research on Terrorism (ACSRT), urged caution against “overstated victory claims”. He said insurgents are hiding in forests and returning to their communities, which protect them as they do not trust the government.

He expressed doubts that the SADC Mission in Mozambique is fit for purpose and questioned how long it can be financed. “I think it will last for six months – they will pack and leave, and the Mozambican government will find themselves in a difficult situation to manage.”

Opperman already sees issues arising between Rwandan forces and SAMIM, as Rwanda wants to be a leader in southern Africa whereas the SADC is saying it will sort out its own problems. She believes there are also tensions between the Rwandans and Mozambican military forces, especially as Mozambican soldiers are leaking information to the insurgents, resulting in ambushes in joint operations.

“What’s clear is militarisation itself is fragmented and that is going to result in standing deployments for other objectives rather than just defeating the insurgency,” as security forces protect oil and gas infrastructure and other areas and not Cabo Delgado as a whole. With reference to the oil and gas industry, Opperman said, “we might see a forever presence but for different reasons, and yet again the people of Cabo Delgado will lose out.”


Mahtani believes there are several ways to resolve the conflict, and one of them is to offer insurgents a way out – they need to be able to safely surrender. He believes that giving insurgents economic opportunities will also help them pull out of Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah (ASWJ).

He cautions against a purely military solution as a military approach will not defeat a grassroots movement, and “even Mozambican officials know they will never defeat this movement…there has to be some resolution dialogue to…reverse the flow of recruitment of the youth into the hands of Al Shabaab and towards the state.” This needs to be combined with transnational law enforcement and the arrest of foreign fighters.

Opperman believes that the people of Cabo Delgado have been forgotten and the government needs to listen to locals who are being ignored. “If we start talking development and the expectations of the people, LNG companies must start listening to the voices of locals. Roads, lights are not enough to restore human dignity. There need to be economic interventions, stability interventions, but to talk about addressing root causes – it’s not an overnight process.”

Socio-economic development and human dignity are needed to drown out the insurgent voices and for the population of Cabo Delgado to start trusting the government and security forces again, Opperman maintains.

This is echoed by Lallali, who believes that a state presence needs to be re-established in Cabo Delgado and that trust needs to be built. “Mozambique could do with a national dialogue that is comprehensive, inclusive and representative…Dialogue must include locals and their grievances,” Lallali said.

defenceWeb will on 16 November examine regional and international efforts to counter the violence in Mozambique, through a new virtual conference, with the theme ‘Developing a multi-theatre approach to restoring peace in Cabo Delgado’.

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To view the agenda or register to attend, please click here.