Mozambique’s Conflict in the North

Photo Source : The Economist

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

In 2017, a boiling conflict erupted in Cabo Delgado, a northern region of Mozambique, involving Islamic militants, who are believed to have wider links with the Islamic State.

The militants have managed recruits both inside the territory and further afield. Boats full of young men have arrived in Cabo Delgado, as reported by BBC, in the recent past.

According to Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), a firm that monitors political violence globally, there were five hundred seventy incidents in 2020 alone. The killings have included beheadings, and kidnappings. The most bone-chilling episode involved beheading of fifty people in a sports field.

The conflict has instigated, as several mercenary groups are involved, which include Russia’s Wagner group, and South Africa based Dyck Advisory Group, believed to be invited by the Mozambican government. As per many regional analysts, they are struggling in the war, as they don’t understand the local culture, they don’t trust the soldiers, and have to fight in tough conditions. Both contractors had won the bid to fight the Islamic State through low costs and high-level political connections. It is also believed that Russians influenced the last Mozambique election, which was won by President Filipe Nyusi in 2019. However, US counterterrorism coordinator John Godfrey has said that the involvement of mercenaries ‘has not demonstrably helped’ the government of Mozambique, in terminating the threat it faces from militants. Mozambique’s army also seems to be ill equipped.

As Islamic militants had entered Palma, located in the vicinity of Africa’s largest liquidised natural gas construction site, where French energy giant Total had embarked on a $20 billion project, it gave another stronger reason for Mozambican government to accept help from private military contractors, as security companies are paid more than $1m per month to keep workers safe.

The region, in the past, had not seen the benefits from its natural resources, which gave a reason for dispute among local elites, and drug trafficking, driven by links with the Islamic State. Although, firms suggest that the development of gas fields in the Rovuma basin, by spending more $100bn by 2030, would turn Mozambique into ‘Africa’s Qatar’.

Cabo Delgado has long been the most neglected part of Mozambique. It has the country’s highest rates of illiteracy, inequality, child malnutrition, limited basic infrastructure, including good access to roads, and hospitals, that makes it an ideal place for ambushes.

Portugal, a former coloniser, and Americans have also joined in the efforts to mitigate the war, by training the local army. United States is framing the insurgency through the prism of Islamic State operations. They call the group as ISIS-Mozambique, and have designated it as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation.

The government believes that the faction first evolved from a religious sect in Cabo Delgado, in 2007, that gained primacy later. It’s leaders had published videos, or meetings with local communities, looted supplies, profited from the illicit economy, and regularly condemned the central government, for its mistreatment of the poor, particularly Muslims. The faction is believed to make operational and strategic decisions on its own, without the Islamic State’s core, although the Islamic State has claimed credit, at times, for their operations, through their media arms.

However, the critics of the government believe that the ‘inside perception’ in their lobby is about very less intervention, by outside forces, as they believe it could make things worse just like in other parts of the world. It is also because of ‘powerful interests’ linked to narco trafficking. Smuggling ivory, rubies, timber and heroin is rampant. These trades reportedly involve close links between organised crime and politicians.

The arrival of international companies had been viewed with suspicion, too, by locals, as large companies had benefited from ordinary people: farmers and fishermen had been uprooted, to make way for mining and energy infrastructure.

The whole scenario could also propel the Islamic State in waging a new global war against the ‘infidels’, and would give them a reason to conclude that the violence is incited by foreign forces, and due to political corruption.

Cabo Delgado is one of just a few provinces with a Muslim majority, which had long drawn on a moderate Sufi tradition. That tradition began to be challenged in the 2000s. Muhammad Cheba of the mainstream Islamic Council of Mozambique in an interview with The Economist narrated how some young believers began insisting on wearing shoes in mosques, ostensibly because the Prophet did so. Then around 2008 a sect known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo (‘adherents of the prophetic tradition’) was set up. And eventually, close links were made between the group, and cells in Kenya, Somalia, the Great Lakes, and Tanzania. The fundamentalists argued that mainstream Muslim leaders were hand in glove with a corrupt elite made up of criminal bosses, and the ruling party, FREMLIMO.

In its temerity and path from a religious sect to insurgency, the region’s guerrilla group resembles Boko Haram, argues Eric Morier-Genoud, reader at Queen’s University Belfast. 

From around 2013 it began calling itself al-Shabab (‘youth’), like the Somali outfit, with which it has no known affiliations. Two years later it began military training. In 2017, it attacked for the first time, in Mocimboa da Praia. There were believed to be many militant units in the province, with members from northern Mozambique, Tanzania and Congo, among other places.

From the US's perspective, Mahtani, an advisor in the Crisis Group commented: ‘if there’s an ISIS affiliated group running around, threatening major hydrocarbons infrastructure, why wouldn’t the US be interested in making sure that that is secure, given US policy has always been about ensuring free trade and a global energy equilibrium, stability, etc.’

As a collateral damage, United Nations inputs state that over 670,000 people have been displaced in Cabo Delgado, Niassa, and Nampula province, until the end of 2020.

In 2021, the Islamic State linked fighters have pillaged towns, and gained control of the railways. They have kidnapped young women, children, beheaded civilians, and have destroyed buildings, and even expanded their operations to Tanzania. Since August 2020, Mocimboa da Praia, a port town had been under their control, but in August 2021, the Mozambican government along with allied Rwandan forces retook the province. 

There are also impediments to humanitarian efforts, and stumbling potential disarmament, demobilisation, and reintegration (DDR) activities, as per a report from Centre for Strategic and International Studies. Seasonal rains, along with a series of cyclones, have made effective response expensive and complicated. There are also bureaucratic challenges, as humanitarian workers struggle with red tape.

Amnesty International had also widely condemned the private state sponsored fighters, and Mozambique’s security forces, as well as a South African private military firm, hired by the government, for war crimes against civilians, including extrajudicial executions, and acts of torture.

In Mozambique’s history, there was also a civil war between 1977 to 1992, fought between Marxist Front for the Liberation of the Mozambique, the anti communist insurgent forces, of the Mozambican National Resistance, and number of other smaller factions. The civil war killed over 1,000,000 people including from famines.


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