Maverick Citizen


Focus on fighting ‘terrorists’ ignores real humanitarian needs in Cabo Delgado

A young displaced girl carries water in a camp for internally displaced people in Belibize, near Metuge, northern Mozambique, on 10 April 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE/JOAO RELVAS)

Three important developments took place in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province in fewer than six weeks, all of which will have a significant future impact on human lives.

First, in mid-March the US government designated an armed opposition group operating in Cabo Delgado as a “terrorist” organisation and sent military advisers to train the Mozambican army in counterterrorism measures. A fortnight later, the town of Palma – close to a multibillion-dollar gas project run by the French company Total – was attacked by an armed group in a high-profile and brutal assault that killed and displaced a still unknown number of people. 

And in early April, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) “condemned the terrorist attacks in strongest terms” and affirmed that “such heinous attacks cannot be allowed to continue without a proportionate regional response”. The SADC deployed a “technical mission” to Mozambique that will soon announce its findings, which could include a regional military deployment. 

Much of this recent attention on Cabo Delgado was fuelled by the claims of the opposition group’s link to the Islamic State group and the killing of foreigners in the attack on Palma. While the conflict has been going on since 2017, it has received very little political attention from regional governments or international actors – except those interested in Mozambique’s gas reserves or private military contracts. Much less attention has been given to the growing number of displaced people – now more than 700,000 – and the critical humanitarian crisis facing the province. 

Cabo Delgado might not be a forgotten conflict, but it certainly is a neglected humanitarian crisis. And now, with the attention of the SADC region and the Mozambican government’s international backers fixed almost exclusively on “fighting terrorism”, the solutions being proposed may once again overlook the urgent need to save lives and alleviate the suffering of scores of conflict-affected communities. 

Hundreds of thousands of people have fled violence and insecurity and they have ended up living in overcrowded camps or being hosted by local communities with already limited resources. People have experienced significant trauma: a decapitated husband, a kidnapped wife, a son or daughter from whom they have no news. Many walk for days to find safety after hiding in the bush, often without food and water. Others remain in places humanitarian actors cannot reach because of the ongoing insecurity. 

Residents try to return to normality in Palma, Cabo Delgado on 12 April 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE/JOAO RELVAS)

While the reasons for this conflict might be multifaceted and complex, the consequences of the violence are strikingly simple: fear, insecurity and a lack of access to the basic needs for survival, including food, water, shelter and urgent healthcare. 

Meanwhile, significant restrictions are placed on the scale-up of the humanitarian response due to the ongoing insecurity and the bureaucratic hurdles impeding the importation of certain supplies and the issuing of visas for additional humanitarian workers. Having recently returned from Cabo Delgado, I have seen first-hand how the scale of the humanitarian response in no way matches the scale of the needs.

Mozambican soldiers pass a destroyed building during a patrol on the streets of Palma, Cabo Delgado on 9 April 2021. The violence unleashed more than three years ago in Cabo Delgado province escalated again about two weeks ago, when armed groups first attacked the town of Palma. (Photo: EPA-EFE/JOAO RELVAS)

What does seem set to scale up is the regionally supported and internationally funded counterterrorism operation that could further affect an already vulnerable population. In many conflicts, from Syria to Iraq and Afghanistan, I have seen how counterterrorism operations can generate additional humanitarian needs while limiting the ability of humanitarian workers to respond. 

First, by designating a group as “terrorists”, we often see that the groups in question are pushed further underground – making dialogue with them for humanitarian access more complex. While states can claim that they “don’t negotiate with terrorists”, humanitarian workers are compelled to provide humanitarian aid impartially and to negotiate with any group that controls territory or that can harm our patients and staff. Many aid organisations shy away from this in places where a group has been designated as “terrorists” out of fear of falling foul of counterterrorism legislation. For Doctors Without Borders (MSF), successfully providing impartial medical care requires reserving a space for dialogue and building trust in the fact that our presence in a conflict is for the sole purpose of saving lives and alleviating suffering. 

Young students in a precarious classroom at Mahate Elementary School in Pemba, Cabo Delgado on 8 April 2021. (Photo: EPA-EFE/JOAO RELVAS)

Yet, counterterrorism operations try to bring humanitarian activities under the full control of the state and the military coalitions that support them. Aid is denied, facilitated or provided in order to boost the government’s credibility, to win hearts and minds for the military intervening, or to punish communities that are accused of sympathising with an opposition group. The most vulnerable can often fall through the cracks of such an approach, which is why organisations like MSF need to be able to work independently. The problem for humanitarian workers with being aligned with a state and its military backers is that often states and those affiliated with them are clear targets of armed opposition groups. Being aligned to a state that is fighting a counterterrorism war can reduce our ability to reach the most vulnerable communities to offer medical care. 

Mozambicans try to go about their daily lives amid the violence in Cabo Delgado. (Photo: EPA-EFE/JOAO RELVAS)

At MSF we know this can come at a time when we are needed the most. In counterterrorism wars around the world we often see civilian casualties being justified due to the presence of “terrorists” among a civilian population. Entire communities can be considered “hostile”, leading to a loosening of the rules of engagement for combat forces. It is in these situations that we have often seen hospitals destroyed and entire villages razed in attacks that fail to distinguish between military and civilian targets. Communities are often trapped between indiscriminate violence by armed groups and the counterterrorism response from the state. 

The current focus on “terrorism” clearly serves the political and economic interests of those intervening in Mozambique. However, it must not come at the expense of saving lives and alleviating the immense suffering facing the people of Cabo Delgado. DM/MC

Jonathan Whittall is based in Johannesburg and is the Director of the Analysis Department at Doctors without Borders (MSF).


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