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


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.

The violent conflict in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province continues to confound analysts — and their task is not made easier by the government severely restricting access to the area by independent observers. It’s a complex issue in a complex part of Africa.

The ongoing military conflict in Cabo Delgado between government forces and the Islamic State affiliate known as Ansar al-Sunna (“Supporters of Tradition”, but also as Ansar al-Sharia; Local al-Shabaab; Ahlu al-Sunna; and Swahili Sunna) has been analysed from three main perspectives.

The conflict became active at the beginning of October 2017, and the three analytical perspectives can be summarised under the headlines “Banditry”, “Foreign Conspiracy Against Mozambique’s Development”, and “Foreign Terrorist Aggression”.

I argue that all these approaches fail to adequately understand the “potential” real nature of the conflict. As a result, they cannot provide adequate, holistic solutions to it. I call it “potential” real nature, since scholars, independent analysts and investigative journalists have been prohibited from accessing the conflict area, significantly affecting its interpretation.

Most of the existing information has been either the official government version, from the so-called insurgents, or from third parties whose credibility needs to be verified.

A number of facts are behind the failure of the three perspectives. They fail to ascribe an endogenous political dimension and political agency to the group and to its violent or terror acts. Additionally, by failing to consider the role of historically constructed political and socioeconomic dynamics in Mozambique, and particularly of the coastal northern Mozambique, these three analytical approaches rest on an ahistorical-blind paradigm that views the local people and the rest of the world as being essentially disconnected. I propose to look critically at this particular conflict through the lens of what I prefer to label as a “Revolt Against the Processes of Colonialisation, Decolonialisation and Modernisation”.

I depart from the argument that all forms of violation of human rights, including terrorism, should be vigorously condemned and incessantly fought against. In my approach, by classifying the deployment of terrorist methods to enforce political, cultural (religious), or socioeconomic views upon others as a form of “revolt”, by no means do I aim at labelling terror, terrorists or terrorism positively. As history shows, even genuine acts of revolt (e.g. independence struggle) can be extremely disproportional in the use of force.

I understand that the term “revolt” is generally perceived as a form of agency of the oppressed. In my approach, I use this term in the absence of a better word capable of capturing the (potential) reactive effect of the presence of a combination of complex, profound, and long processes in a particular society.

I try to offer a critical and more comprehensive analytical approach which allows for a better understanding of this phenomena by taking into account all its different dynamics such as time (history), space (geography), and political economy (modernisation). While my approach may not neatly apply in other contexts, for Mozambique, it certainly provides substantial analytical elements.   

The conflict

Ansar al-Sunna’s (AaS) violent activities in the gas-rich province of Cabo Delgado started by targeting local police stations and villages in October 2017. By May 2018, these attacks had already reached horrendous proportions, when videos showing 10 beheaded bodies began circulating on social media. The decapitated victims were from the village of Monjane (Palma district). Monjane is close to the fragile border with Tanzania and not far from Palma, a small town under transformation into the country’s new natural gas hub.

The huge quantities of offshore gas in the Rovuma Basin promise to transform Mozambique into the world’s third-largest exporter of liquefied natural gas (LNG). The project aims to begin producing $1.5-billion worth of gas per year by 2022. The Italian company Ente Nazionale Idrocarburi SpA (ENI) has secured a purchasing contract with British Petroleum (BP), which will buy gas for 20 years. On 8 October 2019, the Mozambican government and the Mozambique Rovuma Venture (MRV) consortium announced the much-awaited final investment decision for Cabo Delgado’s LNG project in Maputo.

However, before becoming actively violent, AaS members began 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, rejecting individual liberties (including imposing dressing codes and hygienic habits), the power of state representatives, and mutual tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.

While it has been reported that AaS pledged alliances to the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (Isil – Central Africa Province based in DRC) in late 2019, Isil itself has been claiming responsibility for AaS’s attacks since 4 June 2019 through its website. On a video which emerged after one of its first attacks in 2017, AaS already expressed some of its political views, one of which is the introduction of an Islamic-only society in the area, governed by sharia rules. Furthermore, recently, after the occupation of Quissanga and Mocímboa da Praia districts, the same political objective was reiterated.

Reports indicate that the conflict has claimed more than 1,000 lives so far, produced more than a thousand internal refugees, and numerous and constant allegations have been made of human rights violations by government and the armed group forces alike.

While the presence of foreign nationals from Tanzania, Kenya, DRC, Somalia and others fighting on the side of AaS have been reported, the government of Mozambique has also deployed mercenaries from Russia, South Africa and Zimbabwe. The only known government approach to the conflict so far has been through the deployment of the army and police. Nothing is known yet about how the government plans to deal with the ideological front of the conflict. However, the government continuously reiterates that it is open to dialogue, as long as the group “shows its real face” and presents its demands.   

Banditry, anti-developmental conspiracy, and foreign terrorist attacks

The thesis of mere banditry was the first to have emerged in trying to understand the conflict. It argued that the insurgents (the way the group is widely known in Mozambique) were nothing more than a group of bandits whose only intent was to cause disorder in order to practice illegal gold mining and the illegal trade of locally abundant precious stones (e.g. rubies), including to seize the profits of the illegal traffic of wood, among others. Banditry proponents argue that there is a connection between local thugs and those of some neighbouring and regional countries, such as Tanzania and the DRC. In other words, there are traces of so-called transnational organised crime. This thesis had been advanced by the government as well.

However, despite offering some of the main characteristics of insurgents, some of their main sources of income, as well as links to cross-border organised crime networks, the proponents of this thesis fail to ascribe any political ambition to the group. At the core of their actions are mere acts of banditry which make use of the Islamic religion for recruitment and to justify the looting. Proponents of this line of analysis don’t seem to offer responses to a number of questions, including the reason why the conflict has emerged precisely now and in that particular area; the use of brutal killing methods, including the beheading of innocent children; and on mere bandits trying to enforce a different form of religious practice on the locals.

In its dance of explanations, the government of Mozambique has also referred to a foreign conspiracy against Mozambique’s development. Others were quick to argue that either the multinational companies involved in the gas business, or other competing countries, had been behind the conflict. In other words, companies create certain groups in order to cause chaos that will allow disorganised exploitation.

Proponents of this argument accused international security companies of creating chaos to justify deploying their highly profitable security services there. Some argue that the insurgents have been created by competing countries, intending to create conflicts that make the extraction of local resources either difficult or impossible, for the benefit of their own resources. By doing so, these actors’ goal is to prevent Mozambique from developing economically.

However, on the one hand, talking about conspirators is as easy as it is difficult to prove their real existence. On the other hand, this perspective totally rejects the agency of the local population, portraying them as “instrumentalised individuals”, without any personal or group motivation, other than serving foreign interests. What would make some Mozambicans murder, systematically and brutally, other Mozambicans in the name of a foreign interest, remains unclear.  

The third approach has been that the conflict is an act of foreign terrorist acts by Isil. This is the current official version of Mozambique’s government, recently announced by the National Council of Defence and Security. This type of terrorism is based on Islamic fundamentalism and advocates for the local establishment of Islamic institutions based on the fundamentals of the Islamic religion (sharia). While the government’s assumption is solely based on the claims made so far by Isil on the attacks, others’ assumption is based on the interpretation locals make of the group (e.g. by comparing it to and calling it al-Shabaab). The same assumption is made by those who are limited to just looking at the group’s terror strategy such as beheadings. The Islamic factor here comes from the fact that the Islamic population represents slightly more than half (53%) of the total population of Cabo Delgado.

Contrary to the first thesis, this already ascribes to the group the political goal of establishing local Islamic institutions and not just religion as a supposed vehicle for mobilising and recruiting people. Initially, some observers and scholars had rejected the transnational connection of the group (its affiliation to Isil) arguing that the group had never publicly referred to this alliance. However, this ignored the fact that the group had also never refused such an alliance.

In fact, even without publicly claiming its own existence and operations, its operations and existence are widely known. Although coherent in many aspects, this perspective does not answer one of the most important questions for a thorough interpretation of the nature of the conflict. Several arguments can be leveraged against this position too, including the fact that it is not clear whether there are domestic dynamics associated to this conflict or not; the way a “foreign” organisation, composed only of “foreign” individuals, could manage to establish itself and to expand so rapidly in the territory, without (significant) local resistance.

Revolt against the processes of colonisation, decolonisation and modernisation?    

To understand the conflict in Cabo Delgado, one must look at the processes of Islamisation, colonisation, decolonisation (independence), and now, at the so-called modernisation process (neoliberal development) vis-à-vis their interaction with the local reality. The Arab expansion and the Islamisation of the northern coast of Mozambique resulted in particular political, social and cultural institutions. While these institutions exhibit some particular characteristics, they remain connected to those from other places (language, religion, dress codes, etc).

After the Berlin Conference (1884-85), the colonisation process came directly and deeply into conflict with local values, especially religious values. Portuguese colonialism tried to enforce Christianity upon a territory and a population with many years of Islamic tradition. After independence (1975), Frelimo’s Marxist atheist state also collided with the same centuries-old institutions of the territory. This was well summarised by the historian Eric Morier-Genoud: “the Muslims of Mozambique, despite being numerically relevant, were marginalised and fought against by colonial power and censored and repressed by Marxist power.”

Western (Christian), atheist and Marxist values enforced locally may have deeply affected the sense of dignity of the local population and created substantial resentment towards Western-inspired values (state institutions, Christianity, education, etc). Against Frelimo, the locals responded by providing support to its opponent Renamo during the civil war (1976-1992) and have been voting against Frelimo since multiparty elections were introduced in 1994.  

What instigated this conflict precisely now is this combination of historical factors together with an aggressive penetration of forces of global neoliberal capitalism, which are coming together with a new and a more aggressive form of the process generally labelled as modernisation without development. Frelimo’s (immediate) post-independence economic programme was also based on a modernisation project which marginalised the local population (e.g. the peasantry) in favour of state-run industrial projects. Today, numerous cases of land and ocean grabbing to make way for aggressive investments have been reported by local and international NGOs.

While already suffering from (deep) forms of religious and political marginalisation, the locals have now been confronted with yet another extreme form of economic marginalisation (land and ocean), resulting in what I prefer to call territorial grabbing.

In this perspective, extreme violence would be a mere fighting strategy, in the context of resistance inspired by other places, with which the locals share certain aspects in common, including religion (a common denominator). Islam would be the universal and consensual element of cohesion (religion provides the spiritual comfort that no state can offer, especially when one’s dignity has been affected). The “now” factor would also be the combination of local and international dynamics.

Internationally, it is the current moment of global jihad. It is the need to take part in the global jihad that may explain the presence of foreign fighters in Cabo Delgado. DM