Mozambique: The Cabo Delgado insurgency

An insurgency in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado increased in its ferocity during 2020. When the violence began in 2017 the government treated the situation as one of Salafi-Jihadist revolt and blamed foreign influences. This missed the root causes of socio-economic marginalization entirely and has left the government facing a classic insurgency that requires a multifaceted response beyond the security option pursued thus far.

The government of Mozambique would be expected to understand insurgency better than many others. Since independence from Portugal there has been a bitter civil war from 1977 to 1992 between FRELIMO and RENAMO and a return to fighting in 2013, with peace deals signed in 2014 and 2019. The insurgency that emerged from Cabo Delgado was different when taken at face value. Mozambique is majority Christian but with a significant Muslim minority, but in the northern region of Cabo Delgado this is reversed with 58% of the population being Muslim. There, a militant Islamic sect called Ansar al-Sunna had emerged and began to challenge the established Muslim authorities, drawing in the young and known by locals as al-Shabaab, but having no links with the Somali group of the same name. When some of the militants turned to violence the government treated it as a case of Salafi-Jihadist terrorism and responded in force and later also reached the conclusion that ISIS was also operating in the country. The focus on Islamic fundamentalism shifts attention from more local grievances about socio-economic marginalisation, lack of opportunity and an abject loss of trust in the local elites and the government. There is no consensus amongst analysts on the claims that ISIS is active in Mozambique or that the insurgents are an affiliate, but in 2020 the insurgents began to adopt a strategy of taking but not holding towns.

Gaining an understanding of the group responsible for the insurgency is difficult as it is particularly secretive and has avoided public pronouncements characteristic of Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The names ascribed to the group point to a distinct group that is focused on tradition and is young and local in its origin. Locals are reported to have distinguished between the militants of Ansar al-Sunna (supporters of the tradition) with a long presence and al-Shabaab (youth) that appeared more recently. One thing that is clear is that it is distinctly Mozambican in its origins and set up, although it does have foreign links and fighters and had brought in trainers from abroad. The little communication there has been asserted the rejection of state education and taxation and advocates the implementation of Sharia law. The most accurate description of the insurgency would be as coming from a situation in which local grievances about socio-economic marginalisation, lack of opportunity and an abject loss of trust in the local elites and the government have been exploited by a Salafist-Jihadist movement.  

The Mozambican security forces have struggled to deal with the insurgency and have sought help from private military contractors, first the Russian Wagner Group and then Dyck Advisory Services. The numbers of PMCs involved has been small, with the Wagner Group deploying approximately 200 before their withdrawal and Dyck Advisory Services providing helicopter support. Special forces from the South African National Defence Force and the South African arms manufacturer Paramount Group are reported to be assisting the Mozambican military. Recently, Tanzania has begun cooperation with Mozambique and a request for assistance has been sent to the European Union. Portugal is to become involved in training and logistics and has pledged to use its presidency of the European Union to push through EU assistance.

There are five issues that have affected the ability of the government’s counter-insurgency efforts. The first, and most damning, is the clumsy response of the police and armed forces when initially responding to the outbreak of violence. This includes attacks on civilians and indiscriminate arrests, with the full facts hard to come by due to the second issue, which is a clampdown on reporting and investigation by journalists and human rights organisations (in turn, not helped by the insurgent tactic of cutting communications). A third problem was the focus on two other security matters in the form of suspected piracy off the Mozambican coast and a RENAMO insurgency elsewhere in the country. Both these situations drew the attention of the government away from a deteriorating situation in Cabo Delgado where local civil society was warning of increasingly influential fundamentalists gaining ground in the region. This was due to a fourth issue, which is widespread grievance over inequality, widespread poverty and corruption that provided the antecedents for the insurgency in the first place. A fifth is the competing approaches and rivalry between the Mozambican military and the national police to the point of them launching separate air assaults. Local militias are adding to the complexity of the counterinsurgency efforts and there have been friendly fire incidents.  

Despite the secrecy and inconsistency of the insurgents and the attempts by the government to keep its counterinsurgency efforts under the radar of accountability, a picture has emerged of a major upheaval and an increase in insurgent capability and activity in 2020. The beginning of the insurgency can be pinpointed as the 5th October 2017 when three police stations in Mocímboa da Praia were attacked by insurgents, triggering a series of arrests and skirmishes. By the 13th December 2020 ACLED had recorded 698 organized violence events, 2441 fatalities, and 1237 deaths as a result of civilian targeting. While the insurgents have been responsible for a significant number of attacks on civilians as part of their strategy the security forces have also been accused of causing civilian deaths. Over 560,000 people are estimated to have been displaced. It has also brought the violence close to an international gas project, which promises to be the largest in Africa and could provide a hitherto unseen prosperity to Mozambique if the government managed it properly. As it stands, the riches from offshore gas exploration are more fuel for the fire of the insurgency as ordinary Mozambicans are unlikely to trust the elite to share the benefits.

The government has made two critical mistakes that are common, almost ubiquitous, when dealing with organised violence. The first is ignoring the warning signs that a situation is developing in the first place, including when civil society actors are warning of an increasingly militant sect that is gaining followers. The second is a counterterrorism dominated response to the problem that involves mass arrests and hits the general population as hard as it does the militants but fails to look at the root causes, or adherents in the situation. In this case it involved documented human rights violations by the security forces that go all the way up to killing non-combatants. The response is both heavy handed and inadequate – force is being applied that affects the general population, yet it is not focused and has not proven capable of slowing down an insurgency that is gaining in strength.

That the military approach has thus far not worked is clear, although the government is working on increasing the resources available to it by cooperating with neighbouring countries, including recent coordination with Tanzania, and freeing up the military through an agreement with RENAMO. There are also signs that they are working towards addressing the marginalisation of the population in Cabo Delgado and have approached the EU regarding this. They have also abandoned the idea that the insurgency is the work of foreigners and that the end goal to implement an Islamic state in the north. They are right to tackle violence head on, as it is their responsibility to ensure the security of the general population of Cabo Delgado, but this coercive element of the response needs to be open and accountable and target the insurgents only. This means that the open harassment of journalists and other critics of the government’s approach needs to stop. A government at war with the people it is trying to protect is one that is providing recruits to the insurgent cause. We should note that the security forces also need to be working together under an overall strategy and not as competing factions. The other two prongs of a joined-up strategy are conciliation and reform, the first gives those not involved in killing a way out, the second deals with root causes and is directed towards the general population. The insurgents have a limited support base but are tolerated by a population that sees the local elites as self-serving, exploitative, and corrupt, and the government itself as no better. For this to change requires an investment in the reform of civil governance and its visible accountability to the people.

The problems that the government faced prior to October 2017 are different to those that they face now as they now have an insurgency to resolve on top of dealing with the local issues that provided the fuel for the insurgency in the first place. This is difficult but not impossible, although the approach needs to change from one of oppression to one that combines coercion, conciliation, and reform. The established Muslim authorities have been battling Ansar al-Sunna for the hearts and minds of the young in Cabo Delgado. Their task will become easier if the government refrains from conduct that undermines their authority.

Dr Carl Turner, Conflict Resolution Analyst.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (#ACLED) hosts the Cabo Ligado: Mozambique Conflict Observatory. This is updated weekly and can be accessed at: https://acleddata.com/cabo-ligado-mozambique-conflict-observatory/ . This blog has been written using open-source news sites, which include Zitamar News, Club of Mozambique and The Conversation.

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