Mozambique: Counting attacks and arrests diverts quest for stability and development in Cabo Delgado

Mozambique: Counting attacks and arrests diverts quest for stability and development in Cabo Delgado
EN1 road bridge over Rio Lúrio, border between Nampula and Cabo Delgado provinces, Mozambique – Wikimedia Commons – Photo by F Mira

In an area where access to information is limited, perceptions count, fear is heightened and trust is eroded. The only actors to benefit from such an environment are the al-Shabaab cells.

The abduction of a South African businessman at a hotel in Palma in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province on 1 August 2018 was mired in confusion as to who the perpetrators were and what their motives could be. Rumours were that he was abducted following suspicion of his involvement in support of Shabaab cells responsible for attacks in the area. He was eventually found in a hospital under military guard, creating suspicion that the Mozambique military or police could have been involved in the kidnapping. The facts will, most likely, never be known, but the incident says a lot about the prevailing conditions of the people residing in Cabo Delgado. Most recent attacks in August 2018 at Pundanhar and Quiterajo respectively are indicative of cell structure activities creating fear and community vulnerability.

Villages are abandoned at night for fear of attacks by sects referred to as Shabaab and linked to Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo/Ansar al-Sunna, an extremist religious sect responsible for initial attacks in October 2017 in the area of Mocimboa da Praia in the Cabo Delgado region. Locals seek refuge at night in surrounding bush areas of villages or in towns whereas petroleum companies, lodges and guest houses go into lockdown at night with some using private guards armed with shotguns. Irrespective of the actual motives for attacks, capacity and strength, those responsible for brutal attacks have gained a mythical reputation among the local population, a reputation that instils fear.

This stands in contrast to Mozambique media statements on the current security environment in Cabo Delgado. On 15 August 2018, Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi praised the Mozambique Defence and Security Forces (FDS) for their actions against al-Shabaab Cult cell structures in regaining “order, social and economic stability” in the nation. He added that security forces should remain unyielding “to ruthlessly carry out operations against evildoers”. The success was attributed to the identification of six al-Shabaab Cult ringleaders.

However, little is known about these individuals, even by communities in Cabo Delgado. Contacts indicated that all six individuals listed have already fled to Tanzania and/ or Kenya, escaping arrest and prosecution.

In a situation of stress, statistics fail to tell the whole story of Cabo Delgado; the fact that actual exposure to violent attacks is not a prerequisite for the psychological agony currently observed among individuals. Their day-to-day lives have been disrupted and current militarised interventions will have little bearing on the long-term implications for communities in Cabo Delgado, inevitably leading to a feeling of alienation. Disconcertingly, accompanying such feelings is a mythical character assigned to Shabaab cells, a character that will outlive increased or decreased levels of attacks.

The mythical character of Shabaab cell

Initial attacks in October 2017 introduced al Sunnah as a group embedded in a geographical confined space seeking an alternative in religious custom and culture in Cabo Delgado. However, since the initial attacks, Shabaab cells remain blurred by the lack of a centrifugal ideology, structure and leadership. An extremist ideology as commonality between the cells cannot be discarded, but the lack of precise information implies that a motivation for attacks remains speculative.

That Shabaab is comprised of cells with a detailed knowledge of areas of attacks, footpaths being used by locals and knowledge of security force deployments at villages provide some explanations on the threat. Foreign influence from Tanzania in some of these cells is a probability. However, equating this with an extremist motive remains speculative in an environment known for organised crime syndicates involved in drug, weapon and poaching activities.

Continual attacks illustrate that Cabo Delgado is certainly not an area where the local population is experiencing calmness and a return to a life without attacks. This is attributed to persistent fears of attacks as well as high levels of frustration with how security forces treat the locals and a fear of persecution.

Consequently, Cabo Delgado is presented with three inter-related significant threats:

  • Stigmatisation;
  • Word by Mouth accounts on attacks; and
  • Ever-growing schism between the local population and the Mozambique Government.


Muslims have expressed concerns on unwarranted prosecution in Cabo Delgado. Coupled with this are the family members of those arrested and accused of involvement or abetting Shabaab cell structures. Consequently, the identification of culprits is reliant on rumour rather than evidence.

Reports on the Armed Forces for the Defence of Mozambique (FADM) regularly targeting and harassing Muslim members of the population will result in an ever-increasing divide between government and the local population. Hearsay leads to accusations, and without a factual informed understanding, these accusations create suspicions and ultimately a self-survival instinct. Communities tend to search for security in isolating themselves, talking only to those they trust and are suspicious of any person, institute or a person in uniform.

Noticeable is the Mozambique government releasing statements on law and order “successes”, setting up of military basis and deployment of soldiers. The need for such actions is not disputed, but what is clearly lacking is an effective communication strategy enabling an informed community on the actual state of affairs. Finger-pointing and fear within communities inevitably lead to increased aggressive behaviour, the creation of self-defence units and kangaroo courts. Those targeted will be based on religion, nationality or suspected family connections.

Clearly the Mozambique government currently lacks such a capacity or is blinded by the importance of “fact talking” as a centrifugal part of its current counteractions in Cabo Delgado. Communities left to their own devices will have a low level of tolerance to those viewed as outsiders, be it culprits, NGOs or humanitarian organisations.

Panic-stricken communities cannot be left to their own devices in comprehending developments surrounding them. The situation is too fluid and moves in too diverse directions to expect local communities to deal with such changes if left in the dark.

Word of mouth accounts

A lack of verified and detailed information on Cabo Delgado is a result of the security sector releasing blurred statements coupled with media outlets lacking access and resources. This results in the proliferation of unverified or fake information which has a tendency to inflate attacks, beheadings and casualties.

Besides the difficulty of reaching the remote regions that Shabaab cells operate in, the situation is further compounded by limiting a free media to report on attacks. The Mozambique government has restricted access to some of the affected villages in the districts of Palma, Nangade, Mocimboa da Praia, Macomia and Quissanga. Linked to this is a media clampdown where measures were implemented to control information. According to Amnesty International, the Council of Ministers approved new regulations on media accreditation fees, known as Decree No 40/2018, on 23 July 2018. The decree was signed into law by Prime Minister Carlos Agostinho de Rosário. It is expected to come into effect during August 2018.

The new laws propose an increase in licensing fees for media outlets and journalists. These regulations include compulsory payments of about $35,000 for radio stations to get broadcast licences. Fees for a community station will cost $830. Independent local publications will have to pay $3,300 in fees while operating media companies will have to pay between $34,500 and $69,000 for licences. Registration fees for new television stations will amount to about $52,000. Foreign correspondents will also not escape the proposed regulations, with a payment of $8,600 required.

The regulations mean that media freedom in Mozambique will become an expensive commodity, resulting in reporting being more controlled and not necessarily a shared and survival stream to those who need it the most: the people of Cabo Delgado.

The relatively scant reporting and coverage of the current hostilities in regional and international media is also responsible for the lukewarm response to the crisis by the regional and international community at large. The Mozambican government does not want much international focus on the current instability, for fear of scaring off potential investors.

Schism between the local population and the Mozambique government

Concerns by local communities relate to FADM use of unwarranted force feeding feelings of anger and mistrust.

Complaints of unlawful arrests of approximately 400 residents, detention of innocent civilians and absence of due legal processes are prevalent. There are concerning but unverified references to incidents of rape by both the militants and the security forces. According to the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office in Pemba a total of 249 individuals have officially been charged, 46 of whom are Tanzanian nationals and 18 of the detainees being female.

Excessive use of force could lead to the affected families joining cell structures, refraining from sharing information on cell presence and planned attacks or food and shelter to cell members. Sheikh Saide Habibe, quoted in Mail & Guardian, warned:

These young people begin to feel marginalised and seek to gain space, but this space is occupied by traditional leaders, and they find in al-Shabaab an opportunity to be realised. For many of these young people, the group also represents an opportunity to challenge local authorities, an opportunity to build a new social and political order.”

By its own admission, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) in Mozambique’s recent report could not make available exact numbers of communities in Cabo Delgado in need of socio-economic support programmes (food, medicine, shelter). Furthermore, definite impact on internally displaced people as a consequence of violent attacks remains unverified, with the IDMC estimating a conservative number of 2,000. During January 2018, approximately 1,100 families were displaced due to heavy rains. The IDMC report concludes that caution must be applied in attributing IDPs only to attacks by al-Shabaab cells. The need for humanitarian support cannot be ignored with NGOs and aid organisations gaining access to Cabo Delgado to access the actual impact of attacks.

Since my previous article in June 2018, Mozambique: Shadow violence that requires level-headed intervention, dissecting push and pull factors, attacks might have declined, but the need for hard and soft power interventions remains an undeniable reality. In an area where access to information is limited, perceptions count, fear is heightened and trust is eroded. The only actors to benefit from such an environment are the al-Shabaab cells.

People living in fear and in need of socio-economic support have a message to the Mozambique government: the Cabo Delgado region is still in urgent need of sustainable security and development. If left unattended, the psychological scars have their own detrimental consequences DM

Jasmine Opperman is Director, Africa Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium (TRAC)


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