Mozambique insurgency remains rooted in local discontent, for now


In October 2017, insurgents in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province began a violent revolt against their government that continues today. The insurgency has left over 1 000 dead and 230 000 displaced. Recently, the insurgents captured 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, raising concern across Southern Africa.

It is widely reported by experts and media that the Mozambican government’s response has been inadequate, opting for a solely military response instead of addressing the underlying socio-economic problems that plague northern Mozambique.

What was perceived as a rebellion in 2017 has now grown to a point where experts, media and politicians are asking the Southern African Development Community (SADC), chaired by Mozambican president Filipe Nyusi, for a response and even a possible intervention. However, experts are unanimously certain that the solution to the Cabo Delgado insurgency needs to be more holistic in addressing the policy failure and economic exclusion that provided the breeding ground for revolt.

Late last month, in a seminar hosted by the Human Science and Research Council (HSRC), the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) academic foundation and the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA), experts discussed the rising violent attacks in Mozambique.

In seeking out the root causes for the insurgency and local dissatisfaction, Alex Vines, director for the Chatham House Africa Programme, mentioned there are geographical, cultural, religious and socioeconomic divides that cannot be ignored in northern Mozambique. Geographically, the Zambezi river separates northern and southern Mozambique. Around 19% of Mozambicans identify as Muslim while there is a majority (54%) Muslim population in Cabo Delgado. Poverty in the north is relatively high at 55.1% (2014) compared to the south at 32.8%. This has caused different trajectories for Mozambicans depending on the divides they fall into.

The citizens of Cabo Delgado feel they have been excluded religiously, culturally and physically and that their land has been handed over to gas projects in a disenfranchised manner similar to ruby mining in Cabo Delgado. Vines noted that Frelimo, the political party that aligns itself with communist ideals and which has ruled Mozambique since 1977, won the 2018 election despite a sharp decline in support over recent years, illustrating that although they may have won the election, dissatisfaction for the party is on the rise. Therefore, Vines concludes that social protest and political violence is a country-wide concern and is not to be taken lightly as violent attacks continue to rise in the northernmost province.

Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project analyst, Jasmine Opperman, said that there is some radicalization of youth taking place. However, the disenfranchised youth in the province that borders Tanzania must not automatically be linked to the Islamic State. “There has been some level of foreign influence, we have seen it with Ansar al-Sunna… But by no means should we deny that the local conditions have provided the ideal fertile ground for them [IS/Ansar al-Sunna] to propagate and to accelerate their support of the act of violence.”

In 2019, Islamic State claimed the Cabo Delgado insurgency to be a part of their network – however, as Opperman pointed out, the insurgents refer to themselves as Al-Shabaab and not as Islamic State. What role is the Islamic State then playing? Opperman stated that they are not playing a leading role in the insurgency. “They [Islamic State] are propagating this, yes but that is typical to their strategy of global expansion. The insurgency has allowed them the ideal opportunity for the first time in Southern Africa to step in and seek to find a footprint,” said Opperman.

Mozambique and Southern African Development Community countries now run the risk of Islamic State creating an institutionalized presence in Southern Africa, which Opperman said is extremely high. For now, the insurgency remains rooted in local discontent.

These factors, both external and internal, that drive the insurgency are mutually inclusive. “It is a combination of what is happening with any extremist recruiting troops and now they are relating back to Cabo Delgado,” said Opperman.

The attack and seizing of Mocímboa da Praia, Opperman states, has some irony in it. The insurgents have never shown a capacity to execute attacks and control an area for a long period of time. Now they are confined to Mocímboa da Praia and the border area. What is their next move? Opperman states that media reports that suggest the insurgents are going to hold Mocímboa da Praia and make it their new capital are a complete overestimation of the insurgents’ capacity and capability. “But they have to get out of MDP [Mocímboa da Praia], they can’t hold onto that port. They have not proven it; I have not seen much capacity and capability to be able to do it.”

Opperman added that the insurgents have created an attack with great propaganda value that exposes the government’s forces and the limitations of its containment strategy. It is currently unclear what effect the capturing of Mocímboa da Praia will have on the nature of the insurgency.

Opperman fears that due to foreign influence the insurgency will start reverting to underground networks to be able to execute attacks beyond Cabo Delgado.