Conflict, climate and COVID-19 contribute to Cabo Delgado crisis


Mozambique’s Cado Delgado province has seen an alarming rise in insurgent attacks in the first half of 2020. Violence associated with various Islamist groups started in 2017 and according to the United Nations, more than a 1 000 people have been killed and over 210 000 displaced. The rise in scale and frequency in violent attacks on villages in Cado Delgado in the first half of 2020 and insurgents capturing Mocímboa da Praia, a port strategic to gas companies operating in the region, has raised concern throughout the region and beyond.

Prior to this year, authorities in Mozambique had been relatively secretive about the burgeoning insurgency. Now the humanitarian impacts of the violence, the scale of the attacks, fear of regional spread and potential economic impacts have led to a call for help.

Cabo Delgado’s crisis is representative of so many others around the world. A deadly combination of underdevelopment, disenchantment with government and perceived exclusion leading to violence with local groups and grievances seemingly getting subsumed to global and regional networks, according to a webinar recently held by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to discuss the deteriorating situation in Cado Delgado.

There is also an intersection of conflict, climate and COVID-19. The region is still recovering from the shocks of cyclone Idai and Kenneth which is intersecting with outbreaks of armed violence now complicated by the response to COVID-19.

As of 28 July, The International Committee of the Red Cross no longer referred to the situation in Cabo Delgado as armed violence and began referring to it as an armed conflict. With the majority of attacks in the rural areas, thousands of homes burnt down, hundreds of people killed in the most horrendous manner and many more missing, the armed conflict is actually a war, according to Mamadou Sow, head of the regional delegation for Southern Africa, International Committee of the Red Cross. People fled the rural areas and sought refuge in small towns in the province such as Macomia, which Sow said had a spike in its population.

The story of the population in Macomia is a tale of multiple sufferings, with cyclone Kenneth and insurgents repeatedly destroying livelihoods – Sow said Macomia is now more or less empty along with many parts of the rural areas in Cabo Delgado due to repeated attacks, with civilians fleeing to the bigger cities of Nampula and Pemba, the two epicenters of COVID-19 in the province.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, Southern Africa, is looking at ways to help and assist the people that are still hopeful to return to their rural areas and small towns.

The three-year-old insurgency is dynamic and resilient as it grows in capacity, territorial presence and strategic thinking and development, according to Emilia Columbo, senior associate for the CSIS, Africa Program. At the same time, Columbo believes the government is struggling to define what the insurgency is and how to address it.

Although there are no numbers on their fighters or logistics network, there has been a clear strategic development of the insurgency in attacking villages to attacking small towns. Mocímboa da Praia was taken over by insurgents earlier in the year and left at will, with insurgents attacking another area within 48 hours.

The territorial presence of the insurgents is rooted along the coastline as they have some capability to launch attacks by boat. However, they have been having success expanding inland this year.

This insurgency has avoided making many of the strategic mistakes nascent insurgencies commit, the webinar heard, such as overreaching and moving into the next stage of the insurgency before it is ready, and even rebounding from operations that the government has launched against it. Once they are in these small towns, insurgents target and burn down the administrative buildings, medical facilities, police stations and even churches. “Anything that is part of the old order, that they are trying to overturn and recreate in their own vision,” Columbo added.

CSIS is getting reports of the insurgency providing people with food and money, warning civilians of impending attacks, although these reports are greatly outnumbered by the reports of violence against civilians. There is also a report of insurgents meting out justice, as one civilian was shot for public drunkenness.

Columbo believes the insurgents’ association with ISIS is part of their strategy and propaganda. In March, when the insurgents flew the ISIS black flag and laid out their demands, they aligned themselves to a fierce and well-connected organization while being oriented to local grievances.

At the same time, the government has struggled to figure out who the insurgents are and what to do about them. Political leaders spouted different explanations such as evil-doers, bandits, disgruntled miners and now a threat imported from abroad, funded and fomented overseas. They ignore the social and economic grievances underpinning the conflict causing further delays to a meaningful resolution, the webinar heard.

Private Military Contractors (PMCs), Mozambique Republic Police and Mozambique Defence Armed Forces that the government uses to address the situation in Cabo Delgado have not had much success either. CSIS are getting reports of lack of supplies, low morale, and desertions in the face of combat. There are also reports of arbitrary arrests, including journalists reporting on the conflict and security forces ‘shaking down’ civilians.

Civilians are in a very difficult situation as they are between an insurgency that although seemingly supports poor Muslims, kills and displaces civilians, while security services cannot protect them.