The Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado is becoming increasingly well coordinated and militant, escalating to levels never predicted by the Mozambican state. The resulting response by the Mozambican government has been insufficient, according to a panel of experts, and in some ways is making the situation worse.
The panel was speaking during a webinar held by Chatham House Africa in mid-June entitled, “Finding solutions to insecurity in Cabo Delgado”. The speakers noted that attacks in Cabo Delgado started in early October 2017. The Mozambican state initially considered these as violence against public order and by December 2017, the Mozambique Republic Police (MRP) became deeply involved.
Fast forward to March 2020 when armed violence reached levels never seen previously. Over a thousand people are thought to have died along with the destruction of an unknown number of public buildings and homes. Reports suggest that more than 100 000 people have been internally displaced by these attacks.
What the Mozambican authorities initially considered a mere act of violence transformed in a few months into a complex armed conflict that they do not have a short term or long-term solution to, at least not one that is working.
Dr Salvador Forquilha, director and senior researcher at the Institute for Social and Economic Studies in Maputo, Mozambique, said the factors causing this insurgency appear to be driven by ethnic, historical, social and political “cleavages”. Around 18% of Mozambicans identify as Muslim while 54% of Cabo Delgado citizens identify as Muslim. The insurgency seems to be growing amongst a population that is marginalised by the state, at conflict with the state and traditional Mozambican society as seen with their adoption of Islamic fundamentalism.
Forquilha said the insurgency is leading opposition to the state order, accelerating social discontent and radicalising social-political divides. “This has allowed the insurgency to find support from more marginalised sectors, particularly young people who in some cases saw what little they have and went to join the group.” In doing so, the insurgency has been able set up logistical and information gathering support through young people divided into small groups inserted into communities. Forquilha said these youths are informing the insurgency on security and defence force movements in the area, providing greater mobility to the insurgents.
The Mozambican state underestimated the scale of the threat that the ‘Cabo Delgado phenomenon’ represented, Forquilha said. “The state prioritised the threat as a foreign conspiracy to the detriment of the domestic factors which are feeding the insurgency.” While it is true that the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for attacks, showing outside factors involved with the conflict, Forquilha said the insurgency has been shaped by internal factors. “It should be a mistake to think that Al-Shabaab, as the group is known in northern Cabo Delgado, are a creation of Islamic State.” Al-Shabaab’s creation came from a combination of social, historical, ethnic and political divides enflamed by a state that marginalises them.
Forquilha said the armed conflict in Cado Delgado requires a comprehensive strategy and response from the Mozambican state, which should see it as an internal threat. He added that it should be a top priority for the Mozambican government to deal with the insurgents.
Dr Liazzat Bonate, lecturer in African History at the University of the West Indies, Trinidad and Tobago, told the webinar that the insurgents are becoming more militant and are improving their recruitment and coordination skills. Security forces are not being held accountable for human rights violations, resulting in harassment of the local population and judicial killings.
Bonate said there have been several studies conducted but there is still very little known about who the attackers are, their objectives and who is providing them with international support. “The major problem is the lack of serious research and solid empirical data which have been hindered by governments restrictions on journalists and researchers. Some of the research and media reports are engaged in othering and ‘foreigning’ of the insurgents as well as criminalising them, not only because of their terrorist actions…but also by linking them to criminal networks…The insurgency happened in stages and there are clear and well-established grievances that justified the insurgency.”
Bonate’s research highlights the local population’s dissatisfaction with massive oil and gas projects, particularly the loss of land. “Their land represents not only livelihood but also the historical side of their Islamic identity, culture and ancestors including the graves of their ancestors taken away and reduced to a 7.5 metre size.”
Bonate said some of the problems with dealing with the insurgency are a lack of information on insurgent leaders, selective use of sources by journalists and researchers, government hindrance and a lack of insight from the insurgents’ point of view. The Mozambican government has, in addition, asked foreign governments and security companies for help without engaging its own citizens. This has only served to escalate the problem as the Mozambican government “actively seeks scapegoats instead of taking responsibility. It does not engage the population and does not seek the root causes.”
In light of the fact that the Mozambican government is “corrupt and weak,” international oil and gas companies should support civil society organisations to help find solutions, deradicalize the youth and reduce popular support for the insurgents, Bonate believes. Businesses should invest in research directed at finding the true root causes of the insurgency and work towards eliminating the major grievances that have contributed to it, such as the land grab by government and businesses and absence of employment. The environmental consequences of gas extraction should also be addressed.
According to Pedro Esteves, managing partner of Africa Monitor, Mozambique’s insurgency has seen indiscriminate violence replaced by increased interaction with communities, more propaganda and the destruction of state property. The insurgents have also been acquiring more modern firearms, boats, motorcycles and other vehicles most likely from the civilian population.
“The lack of operational leadership and coordination between the groups in the initial phase seems to have been replaced lately by increasing recruitment, by some reinforcement of capabilities and large groups are now identified coordinating and attacking several key villages,” Esteves said. The insurgents’ modus operandi is now getting closer to guerrilla warfare, seeking to liberate areas and recruit civilians.
Assistance against this insurgency, which is developing nationalistic tendencies, may come from Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) members. Esteves said that Zimbabwe’s president Emmerson Mnangagwa, and Mozambique’s president Filipe Nyusi, have met and agreed on some form of cooperation against the insurgency in the future. Tanzania has “not been enthusiastic” in getting involved in the conflict but has apparently tightened its border security to stop extremists entering Tanzania from northern Mozambique. Angola and South Africa look keen to assist Mozambique but Esteves questions what kind of support South Africa could provide given the South African National Defence Force’s (SANDF’s) current equipment condition, stating its military aircraft are “not in very good shape”.
On bilateral cooperation, Esteves states Mozambique has had several offers that they have yet to decide on, “because it would imbalance their alliances with certain states by welcoming new states that they know can be useful but will affect their traditional alliances.”
For the short-term solution, Esteves states that Mozambique should look to domestic military and security forces, as private military contractors (PMCs) have expressed their unwillingness to work with Mozambicans. “[Russian PMC] Wagner complained they didn’t want to work with Mozambicans and apparently also South Africans have now raised that question,” said Esteves.
What is even worse for Mozambique is the military is unhappy with how the police are approaching the conflict. “They feel that they are subordinated to the police and this aggravates the lack of coordination and morale from the military.”
One way the government could get involved is by providing amnesty, Esteves said. This could precede the laying down of weapons and cooperation with authorities.
The Webinar was chaired by Dr Alex Vines, director of Chatham House Africa Programme (CHAP). CHAP in partnership with The World Bank has held a series of consultations to develop an understanding of the structural causes of fragility and factors of risk in Mozambique. Vines said the webinar is part of the World Bank’s risk and resilience assessment which will be released as a report along with its own investigations.