The war in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado: Four scenarios that will potentially materialise

The war in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado: Four scenarios that will potentially materialise
Children from the Vicente Tiago family of 30 people who fled the armed attacks in Muidumbe, Cabo Delgado, and took refuge in a small precarious house in Chiuba, Pemba City, Cabo Delgado. (Photo: EPA-EFE/RICARDO FRANCO)

With the conflict in northern Mozambique showing no signs of stopping, the question is, where is Cabo Delgado province heading? Based on the multiple reasons behind the conflict, and considering the increasing international political and economic interests in Cabo Delgado and how conflicts have been managed in post-independence Mozambique, four scenarios are conceivable.

It has been three years since the beginning of the Islamic insurgency in the northern province of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique. So far, the conflict is said to have claimed more than 2,000 lives; more than 300,000 internal refugees have been recorded and a significant number of properties have been destroyed by Ansar al-Sunna (AaS), an allegedly Islamic State affiliate fighting Mozambique’s military forces to establish a local Islamic state.

AaS’s violent activities in the gas-rich province of Cabo Delgado started in October 2017, targeting local police stations and villages. By May 2018 the attacks had reached horrendous proportions. Before turning violent, AaS members had begun to preach a radical form of Islam and to build their own mosques. Later, the group started opposing Western-style institutions, such as the rule of law, sending children to regular schools, individual liberties, the power of state representatives, and mutual tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

In recent months, the attacks have increased. The group has taken control of the port of Mocimboa da Praia, smaller villages in the province, and important roads linking some districts. The port of Mocimboa da Praia is said to be a key location of infrastructure for the government and for Total, the French oil giant working in the area on a natural gas project of unprecedented size. The huge quantities of offshore gas in the Rovuma Basin promise to transform Mozambique into the world’s third-largest exporter of liquified natural gas (LNG). To protect this gigantic investment, Mozambique and Total signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) in August 2020, establishing a joint task security force.

It is not only because of the French investment that the conflict has taken on an international dimension. While the presence of foreign nationals from Tanzania, Kenya, DRC, Somalia and others fighting on the side of AaS has been reported, the government of Mozambique has also deployed mercenaries from Russia, South Africa and Zimbabwe.

Until very recently, the only known government approach to the conflict was through the deployment of army and police forces. Recently the government designed a development plan for the area, and it is currently looking for international partners, including the European Union (EU), to finance it.

The conflict in Cabo Delgado has propelled relatively unknown, outside of Africa, Mozambique into the limelight. In August, Pope Francis phoned the Bishop of Pemba, conveying his concerns and prayers for victims of the terror in Cabo Delgado. In the same month, SADC leaders, meeting in the Mozambican capital Maputo, expressed commitment to supporting Mozambique’s fight.

Rumours abound of likely contacts between the US and Zimbabwe in an American bid to persuade the African country to send ground troops to aid its neighbour. Also, South Africa is said to be in combat readiness and awaiting Mozambique’s request to intervene.

In September 2020, the European Parliament discussed the deterioration of the security situation in Mozambique. The EU MPs expressed their concern over the humanitarian situation there and urged Mozambican authorities to stop the conflict before it spilled over into other countries and caused regional instability.

A resolution on the humanitarian situation in Cabo Delgado was passed by the EU Parliament on 17 September 2020. A day before this resolution was passed, the government of Mozambique sent a letter to the EU requesting specialised training and logistics support for its army, as well as support in development projects aimed at reducing the vulnerability of local, marginalised youth. This shows that Mozambique believes running development programmes would reduce local people’s appetite to join the insurgency.

Is it economic or political poverty?

As the conflict on the ground expands, theories about its origins expand with it. Theories (which Mozambican political commentator and co-author of this article) Fredson Guilengue has rejected, assert that the group is made up of mere bandits, whose intent is to cause disorder in order, among other things, to engage in illegal gold mining, to illegally trade locally abundant precious stones (eg rubies), and to seize the profits of the illegal trafficking of wood.

Also now largely discounted are theories that the conflict is a foreign conspiracy against Mozambique’s development, or that it is aggression by foreign terrorist fighters affiliated to Islamic State.

What has weakened these theories is clear: their failure to ascribe the conflict to an endogenous political nature.

Other explanations, which Guilengue discussed earlier in Daily Maverick, need to be looked at more critically. For example, a number of commentators and the government of Mozambique (also expressed by its act of designing a development programme to be implemented in the area) seem to believe that it is only poverty that is behind the insurgency.

Banditry, terror or revolt? Unpacking the violent conflict in Cabo Delgado

We argue that it is wrong (and misleading) to believe that economic poverty automatically turns any human being into an Islamic fundamentalist or terrorist. In the particular case of Mozambique, there seems to be no record that the leaders and founders of AaS were poor individuals. It has even been asserted by some local press that a number of them have owned small shops locally which, in that particular context, makes a significant difference in terms of socioeconomic status.

A study done by a Mozambican NGO Observatório do Meio Rural (OMR) found no significant difference between the coast, where the conflict emerged, and the interior in terms of poverty levels. Globally, there is ample evidence that a significant number of people who join terrorist groups and conduct terrorist attacks do not come from poor families or even poor countries.

Blame has been directed to the weakness of Mozambique’s borders. All the country’s borders are fragile in terms of the state effectively controlling who crosses them, including the borders with South Africa. This situation is by no means a new one. The country’s borders have always been much as they are, with maybe more control now than before, but there is no evidence that borders have facilitated terrorist attacks on Mozambique or its neighbours. So-called border fragility is little different to the situation in Tanzania, which shares borders with countries like Uganda, Kenya and the DRC, where radical Islamic militias operate and cross over to join AaS in Cabo Delgado.

It is important to look at terrorism in Mozambique from a political perspective of continued or ongoing marginalisation. The Islamic population of Cabo Delgado suffered specific forms of marginalisation during colonisation, decolonisation and now the process of development. Their political (and religious) institutions were never adequately understood, respected and integrated in the process of state and nation-building, nor were their religious concerns sufficiently taken into account by any central government.

This brings into play a factor that must be taken into account as a potential driver of conflict: identity and dignity of those who have been always left behind. In fact, this should apply not only to Mozambique but to many other parts of the world where similar conflicts are taking place.

Economic or material poverty only makes some people more vulnerable to joining groups which claim to be fighting for the establishment of political structures that are finally going to respond to their needs, including the material ones. But vulnerability doesn’t necessarily mean determination. In fact, AaS itself, in a video which circulated on social media platforms, after the group’s second occupation of Mocomia, pointed clearly to the fact that their struggle was for the establishment locally of an Islamic state guided by Sharia laws.

The group has never (as far as we know) referred to the economic marginalisation of local Muslims as a cause of their insurgency. Establishing an Islamic state based on Sharia laws is clearly a political and not an economic project.

What is the possible future for the conflict?

After three years of terror, with the conflict showing no signs of stopping, the question is, where is Cabo Delgado heading? Based on recognition of the manifold reasons for conflict, considering the increasing international political and economic interests in the Cabo Delgado region, and considering how conflicts have been managed in post-independence Mozambique, four scenarios are conceivable. We label them, to some extent arbitrarily, as “weak”, “medium” and “strong”, mainly in terms of their potential to materialise:

Escalation of the conflict but no expansion into the Afungi Peninsula 

Strong: The current situation on the ground will deteriorate. AaS will expand its capacity to launch more co-ordinated attacks. This results from the lack of capacity Mozambique is exhibiting, which includes badly co-ordinated air force support by private companies and ill-equipped Mozambican ground forces. However, while the population of Cabo Delgado itself (despite being only two million in total) is poorly guarded, the oil infrastructure which is located in the Afungi Peninsula is said to be very well protected and the recently signed security MoU between the government of Mozambique and Total might reinforce the security apparatus of the investment.

This practice is not unique to Mozambique. It is a common practice in places like the Niger Delta in Nigeria, where military conflicts in areas close to oil investments have not prevented business from being run as usual.

There is some sort of Syria-lisation of Mozambique

Strong: Due to its incapacity to adequately deal with the conflict and because of the threat this conflict poses to regional security as well as to the investment made by Total, some military forces from the region (eg Zimbabwe, South Africa and Tanzania), with military and logistical support from Portugal (due to common language and history) and France (to protect its investment), both on behalf of the EU and with possible political support from the US, Cabo Delgado becomes the Syria inside Mozambique.

Tanzania gets involved in the conflict to avoid further escalation into its own territory. But, without necessarily becoming a proxy war like in the Syrian case, Mozambique becomes a major battlefield for the war on terror in southern Africa, where many other external forces are actively involved. While this might help reduce the escalation of the conflict, pushing the group into making only sporadic attacks and losing territory, it might also invite some more foreign fighters into the group, as part of a jihad.

There is a volte-face in the conflict in favour of Mozambique

Medium: Mozambique and its financial partners agree on resuming direct budget support which has been stopped due to the so-called hidden debts. This allows Mozambique to access more financial resources to better equip its army and hire more mercenaries. As a result, Mozambique expands its military capacity and gains the upper hand in the battlefield. The insurgents no longer occupy any district, they retreat to the forest and cannot launch major attacks. The conflict becomes similar, in some aspects, to another ongoing conflict in central Mozambique, between the government and a splinter group from Renamo.

Attempts are made for a peaceful solution to the conflict  

Weak: The Mozambican government and other parties involved realise this conflict cannot lead to a military victory. The social and economic inequality that has increased as a result of the conflict is already clearly evident. Last year, social spending in the province was halved, while spending on security more than quadrupled. A new path toward an attempted peaceful settlement of the conflict is taken. The strategy combines a fair and transparent distribution mechanism for the expected revenues from gas exploitation.

With the current escalation, the urgency of political participation mechanisms is increasing. However, this will not see any immediate significant change on the ground since its effects take time to translate into changes in people’s lives. DM

Fredson Guilengue works for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS) regional office in Johannesburg. He has published extensively on Mozambique’s politics. His work also extends to areas such as social movements, land, agrarian issues and climate change. He is currently enrolled for his PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Andreas Bohne works as a political adviser at the Berlin Development Policy Council (Germany) and as a freelance journalist. He has a Master’s degree in African studies, geography and international agricultural sciences.


Comments - Please in order to comment.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.