Global Affairs

An Overview of Islamist Violence in Northern Mozambique

Mozambique, like many African nations, hasn’t exactly had a bloodless history. But the recent episode of an Islamic fundamentalist insurgency in its northern province of Cabo Delgado is a whole new chapter. With over two thousand dead and amid concerns for the safety of children and non-combatants, this conflict, despite its staggering volume, is deeply rooted in Mozambique’s modern history and in the socioeconomic conditions afforded the inhabitants of Cabo Delgado, a province of great mineral riches with some of the highest levels of poverty in Mozambique.

The province of Cabo Delgado lies in the northeast of Mozambique, bordering Tanzania. With a population of a little over two million people, the province has just over 82 thousand square kilometres, and its capital, Pemba, is about 2,600 km north of Mozambique’s capital, Maputo. Even though the majority of Mozambicans are Christian, Cabo Delgado is one of two Islamic-majority provinces, along with neighbouring Niassa. According to 2017 data from Mozambique’s National Institute of Statistics (INE), 53% of Cabo Delgado’s population is Muslim, while 36% is Catholic, 7% is either not religious or animist, and 2% is evangelical. 

Shortly after its independence from Portugal in 1975, Mozambique collapsed into civil war. The armed conflict that pitted the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) against the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO) during the Mozambican Civil War (1977-1992) led to one million dead and five million displaced. The conflict heated up again in 2012, and a cease-fire in 2014 didn’t prevent an escalation of tensions during the electoral campaign then underway. The 2014 elections were marred by incidents and confrontations, and RENAMO promptly rejected the electoral results that pointed towards a FRELIMO victory.

The ambushes of several RENAMO leaders, accelerated mobilisation and frequent outbreaks of armed conflict led to great instability in Tete and Zambézia provinces, which bordered Malawi. More than 11 thousand Mozambicans sought asylum in Malawi at the time. In 2019, FRELIMO and RENAMO eventually signed a peace accord that led to RENAMO’s partial disarmament, despite huge internal opposition from various RENAMO officials.

In 2019, when parliamentary and presidential elections were held at the same time, the turnout rate was barely above 49% in the province (national turnout rates were around 50%). An overwhelming majority of 74% of the voters in Cabo Delgado re-elected President Filipe Nyusi, born in the province, and voted for FRELIMO, the party led by Nyusi. These values were only slightly above the national averages: 73% of Mozambicans voted for Nyusi, and 71% for FRELIMO.

Some academics, like Bussoti and Torres (2020), argue that the focus on fighting RENAMO (as well as Somalian pirates) led to negligence of the threat posed by  Islamic terrorism which was initially seen as a distraction.

One of the first incidents took place on October 5th, 2017, when about thirty youngsters attacked public buildings, including three police stations, in Mocímboa da Praia. The assaulters were allegedly young local Muslims in favour of the adoption of Islamic law (sharia). However, some academics believe that the main factors propelling the protests were the high levels of unemployment, widespread poverty and the fact that the local population has not benefited from the province’s natural wealth.

Though Mozambique had no history of Islamist activity, the violence caused some concern amongst the investors in several offshore natural gas projects along the coast of Cabo Delgado. The natural gas discovered in the Rovuma basin has been touted as a lever of Mozambique’s economic transformation, but, some progress notwithstanding, the potential has yet to be realised. Not only does the gas need to be extracted, but it must also be transformed into liquified natural gas (LNG) in order for it to be exported to energy consumers in Asia. This transformation cannot be done on maritime installations offshore, but on infrastructure in solid ground. 

The project, developed by foreign companies that employ very few locals, doesn’t benefit the province’s inhabitants very much. Moreover, the increase in the supply of LNG limits the project’s profitability, which is further affected by Mozambique’s political and economic instability.

In addition to the FRELIMO and RENAMO conflict, the African nation faced a debt crisis in 2017. It was discovered that three Mozambican state companies had contracted a secret debt of about 2 billion U.S. dollars without the required parliamentary approval, with at least a quarter of that amount found to be missing. The IMF eventually suspended its credit to the country after the Mozambican government defaulted on two consecutive payments.

The economic importance of the ongoing natural gas projects in Cabo Delgado should not be underestimated, then. In May 2018, hundreds of young people took to the streets in Palma, a city in the north of the province, to demand jobs with the foreign gas companies operating in the region. Cabo Delgado and other northern provinces, such as Niassa or Nampula, have a huge agricultural potential and great mineral wealth – but they also have some of Mozambique’s highest poverty levels.

The profound dissatisfaction of so many young people found an outlet with fundamentalist preachers, who consider traditional imams as mere allies of the political and economic elites who benefit from the natural wealth of the province, and teach a false and corrupted version of Islam. In Cabo Delgado, 54% of those over 15 years of age, and 61% of those over 5, didn’t know how to read or write in 2017. Only 24% of children between 5 and 15 years of age knew how to read and write, while 71% of the population is younger than 30.

As a response to local concerns, the influence of external organisations on Cabo Delgado’s fundamentalist insurgency appears to have been limited. Even though the group is known locally as ‘Al-Shabab’ (i.e., ‘The Youth’ in Arabic), there is no significant connection to the Somali-based group with links to Al-Qaeda that uses the same name.

American officials, however, believe that, since the conflict acquired international reach, the insurgency has attempted to establish connections with Islamic State. The US State Department named on March, 10th, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Mozambique (ISIS-Mozambique) as a foreign terrorist organisation (FTO) and named Abu Yasir Hassan as its leader. Hassan was born in Tanzania and lived in Mocímboa da Praia until circa 2014. However, some dispute the insurgency’s connection to ISIS (the main ISIS publications don’t even mention Mozambique since Autumn) and Hassan’s very existence (the Tanzanian Inspector General of Police has said his records show Hassan is no longer alive).

With firearms stolen from military bases or provided by RENAMO guerrilla warriors and FRELIMO soldiers, the insurgents started employing the old tactics of the Mozambican Civil War: building roadblocks to cut off traffic, attacking and pillaging villages and even foraying into striking isolated police stations or military outposts. The government’s response consisted in sending additional troops, but keeping them around military bases. The insurgents then adopted the strategy of storming, looting and destroying villages before pulling back, all of this in under two hours, before government forces could even arrive.

Mocímboa da Praia was twice occupied before the insurgents finally wrestled control over the coastal town. The insurgency spread towards the south as the fundamentalists sought to take over control of the roads to Pemba, the province’s capital. The only asphalt road linking Mocímboa da Praia and Palma to Pemba fell under the islamists’ control by August 12th, and the dirt road that was the only alternative route fell the next month. In September, they managed to completely cut off Mocímboa da Praia and Palma from any land access. After that, the fundamentalists attacked three islands, 10 to 20 km off the coast, seemingly with the objective to block the two cities by sea as well as land.

Government forces managed to escort lorries to supply Palma until February 7th, but the strong rains and the transference of troops to other fronts meant that the city’s population was surrounded, with foodstuffs running out. The siege was broken only when two ships sent from the province’s capital, Pemba, managed to dock carrying supplies.

Ostensibly in response to the insurgency, the Mozambican government enacted harsh measures that sternly restrict the freedom of the press, intimidating and threatening local journalists. A particularly vocal critic of these measures was Luiz Lisboa, the Bishop of Pemba, who described the situation in Cabo Delgado and called on the international community for help before being transferred to Brazil. In a 2019 open letter, Luiz Lisboa asked why the authorities would create such an environment of secrecy and silence: “What is the secret they neither want to reveal nor be revealed?

Despite the involvement of several western countries in offshore natural gas projects, the only country so far to provide military support openly was Russia. In 2019, 160 private contractors were sent to Mozambique through the Wagner Group, a private military company with strong ties to the Kremlin. However, these left Mozambique when seven of the mercenaries were killed in combat with the insurgents. The Mozambican government has since resorted to South African private military company Dyck Advisory Group, who have been accused by Amnesty International of war crimes, including killing civilians, in the course of their operations in Cabo Delgado.

Last month, the United States sent a small contingent of special forces in order to train Mozambican marines. In January, France had sent a frigate from Réunion to patrol the Mozambique Channel, seizing 444 kg of narcotics. A Portuguese official has announced that a small force of Portuguese troops would be sent in training missions.

In addition, Portugal, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, argued for a European commitment: sending forces from across the Union to train Mozambican combatants, in an operation similar to the non-executive missions currently underway in other African countries, like Mali or the Central African Republic. However, Defence Minister João Gomes Cravinho expects the European response to take three to four months to be organised – and the idea hasn’t even been discussed between member-states. The EU’s informal meeting of defence ministers is currently scheduled for May 28th.

The Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva visited Mozambique in January as a special envoy for the EU’s foreign policy chief, High Representative Josep Borrell, declaring that, politically, “all the objectives are fulfilled”, namely, expressing Europe’s solidarity, thanking the Mozambican authorities’ prompt welcome, and listening to their concerns. 

So far, the insurgency has killed over 2,600 people, leaving 670 thousand displaced – seven times as many as last year. Almost one million people face extreme hunger, and about half of those affected by the violence are under 18 years of age. Save the Children, an NGO, has reported that children as young as 11 have been beheaded, often before their parents.

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Originally from Portugal, Duarte is a Global Affairs Editor for the Oxford Blue. He is currently in his second year reading Philosophy, Politics and Economics at St Peter's College.