OP-ED

Mozambique: The forgotten people of Cabo Delgado

By David Matsinhe 29 May 2020

A large group of insurgents — presumed to be from the Isis-affiliated Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah (ASWJ) group, attacked the town of Mocimboa da Praia in the northernmost province of Cabo Delgado at about 4am on Saturday, security sources said. (Photo: supplied)

The government of Mozambique has failed over the past 40 years to build an effective administration in Cabo Delgado, thus failing to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of its citizens.

In the Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado, land dispossession, impoverishment, war, natural disasters and human rights violations are inflicting untold suffering on the population with no end in sight.

As the province’s nickname, Cabo Esquecido (Forgotten Cape), suggests, most of the region has received little attention from central government since independence in 1975. 

The Mozambican government, tucked 2,000km away in Maputo bay, has ignored, neglected and marginalised the province economically and socially. For 40 years, the government has failed to protect, promote and fulfil the economic and social rights of the people of Cabo Delgado. There has been little investment in education, health services, water and sanitation systems, public transport and telecommunication infrastructure. As a result, of the country’s 10 provinces, Cabo Delgado ranks at the bottom in human development indicators.

The government of Mozambique has failed over the last 40 years to build an effective administration in Cabo Delgado, and thus failed to respect, protect and fulfil the rights of its citizens to, among others, health, education, food, water and sanitation. As a result, the people of Cabo Delgado have had to rely on the use of their land and other natural resources to provide food, and on each other for health, water and sanitation. For education, the communities relied predominantly on the teachings of Islamic clerics in the mosques.

The land, rivers, lakes and the sea have for centuries provided the essentials – food (farmed and wild), energy (firewood), medicinal plants and water.

After 40 years of absence, the government now wants to present itself to the rural communities of the province for the first time following the discovery of vast reserves of natural resources in the province. The entire province of Cabo Delgado is rich in resources including rubies, gold, timber, wildlife, graphite and natural gas. The government comes not in peace with schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, telecommunications networks, but with its means of violence to forcibly remove communities from their land and to access the sea, with little concern for human life or dignity.

To date, it is estimated that more than 1,000 people have been killed. While some of the attackers are thought to be of foreign origin, most of them are disaffected and aggrieved young people with impeccable knowledge of the local geography. There are indications that hundreds of angry informal miners expelled from Montepuez have joined the ranks of the insurgents. 

A glaring example of the Maputo-based government’s disdain for the province was its decision to license the entire district of Montepuez to mining companies, leaving communities without land to grow their food. In 2018, some local authorities told Amnesty International that, by handing the whole landmass of the district to mining companies leaving nothing for people, the central government was sowing political disaffection. 

They told us that: “We do not know where we will put the people because there is no land any more.” The land offered water, farmland, wild food, medicinal plants, rubies for income, and construction material, all of which became off-limits with the licensing of the district to mining companies.

For years, the rubies of Montepuez have also been a source of livelihoods for young people in Cabo Delgado. But after the government mining licence was issued, state and private security forces violently removed thousands of informal ruby miners from the area and handed the land to multinational mining companies.

Despite multiple allegations of serious human rights violations and abuses, the government did nothing to administer justice. It took the British justice system to secure some compensation for claimants from Montepuez Ruby Mining.

London-based law firm Leigh Day represented 273 Montepuez residents who claimed that they suffered serious human rights abuses at or around Montepuez Ruby Mining operations. While the company denied liability for these allegations, it acknowledged instances of violence had occurred in its concession. 

In Cabo Delgado, rather than acting to complement the British court’s decision, the authorities sought to sabotage the compensation process by intimidating the claimants. On 20 August 2019, the general public prosecutor issued a credential allowing Leigh Day to work with the claimants in Cabo Delgado. However, without explanation, in October the government reversed this decision and ordered Leigh Day lawyers to leave the country immediately. At the same time, the security forces alleged that the funds paid to the claimants were destined for Al-Shabaab. The Montepuez rubies debacle fuelled enormous anger and political discontent in local communities.

Since October 2017, the northern districts of Cabo Delgado have been subjected to deadly violence by groups of armed youths locally known as Al-Shabaab. They have gone on a rampage of killings – beheading and dismembering their victims – burning villages, looting food and property. To date, it is estimated that more than 1,000 people have been killed. While some of the attackers are thought to be of foreign origin, most of them are disaffected and aggrieved young people with impeccable knowledge of the local geography. There are indications that hundreds of angry informal miners expelled from Montepuez have joined the ranks of the insurgents. 

Cabo Delgado has barely recovered from Cyclone Kenneth, which visited the province just over a year ago, sowing destruction, death and suffering. Many people lost their houses, crops and property.

The government has responded with violence of its own, not only against the insurgents but also against community members accused of abetting the insurgents. An unknown number of community members have been kidnapped and forcibly disappeared. Some of them have been found dead after government security forces kidnapped them. The security forces have also launched an attack on freedom of expression and free press. Journalists and researchers who attempt to expose the violence are harassed, intimidated, arrested, detained and tortured.

The violence has triggered a humanitarian crisis. More than 200,000 people have fled their homes to safer towns. Hundreds of internally displaced people arrive daily in Pemba, where they lack shelter, food and water, while being harassed by the security forces who accuse them of hiding the insurgents among them.

Covid-19 has aggravated the precarious existence of people in Cabo Delgado. The region is now the epicentre of the pandemic in the country. On 12 May 2020, Mozambique had 104 cases of Covid-19, of which 74 – 77% – were in Cabo Delgado. The government is failing to take decisive steps to protect the right to health.

Cabo Delgado has barely recovered from Cyclone Kenneth, which visited the province just over a year ago, sowing destruction, death and suffering. Many people lost their houses, crops and property. Besides, in the last rainy season, the heavy rains destroyed bridges and crops, exacerbating hunger and further isolating communities. The humanitarian need wrought by these natural disasters has not been assuaged. These natural events, land expropriation and war have compounded the economic and social conditions in Cabo Delgado. The people have become homeless, poorer and hungrier.

The government of Mozambique must urgently ensure the security of the population of Cabo Delgado and protect them from the longstanding violence and put effective measures in place to stop the spread of Covid-19 before more people die. DM

David Matsinhe is Amnesty International’s southern Africa researcher.

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