/ 24 June 2020

As conflict in Cabo Delgado increases, will Frelimo learn from its mistakes?

“For the first time in 40 years since independence
Frelimo’s overwhelming victory in Mozambique’s recent local elections has been characterised by unprecedented levels of popular rejection, giving the false impression that Mozambicans are opposed to the consolidation of democracy through holding regular elections. (Reuters/Grant Lee Neuenburg)


This month is the 45th anniversary of Mozambique’s independence from Portuguese colonial rule; and the centenary of the birth of the late Eduardo Mondlane, the first president and founding member of the nationalist movement, Frelimo, which has governed Mozambique since 1975. 

It is also the 60th anniversary of the Mueda Massacre in Cabo Delgado province, northern Mozambique, when Portuguese troops opened fire on a peacefully demonstrating crowd protesting about taxes. Resentment at this massacre helped to politicise the local Makonde people, and became one of the sparks that kindled the independence struggle led by Mondlane.

These three anniversaries merit a moment to reflect on the Frelimo nationalist project and its limitations, as well as Mozambique’s main challenges today.

Lingering colonial legacies

At independence, Frelimo inherited a territory on a map that had been configured to support a colonial economy.  When the war of independence first began in 1964 it was largely confined to the extreme north, and Frelimo’s early rise did not make headway across ethnolinguistic divides. 

Before the Portuguese Revolution in 1974, there had been no armed conflict in the south, and the extreme south continued to develop as colonial cities with strong links to South Africa. In 1975, Frelimo took over the colonial state, complete with the existing social and economic imbalances between the north and south. 

Although united in name, in practice colonial Mozambique had developed as two separate countries divided by the Zambezi river. Until the first bridge was opened in 1934, there were no road connections between the country north of the Zambezi and that to the south. Different historical trajectories of the north and south have also persisted up to the present. 

The Zambezi was not just a physical barrier, but a cultural one. The south experienced a succession of large kingdoms, with an economy based on the gold trade. In the north, there was no capital-based economy, but the region developed cash-crop farming before the establishment of colonial rule. The coastal areas of the north are culturally influenced by the Swahili world and are the home to a sizable Muslim population. 

The location of today’s capital, Maputo, in the extreme south is, arguably, also the single most important cause of the imbalances in the social and economic development of Mozambique. The colonial capital had originally been situated in the north, on Ilha de Moçambique, but was later relocated to the port of Lourenço Marques (now Maputo) in the extreme south. This accentuated the divisions in the country as the capital became, in effect, an enclave of South Africa.

Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado is more than three hours flight from Maputo and, in reality, should be in a different time zone. Many in the province feel more East African than southern.

Frelimo’s presidential leadership has been dominated by southerners. President Filipe Nyusi is the first president to have a northern background — he is from Cabo Delgado — and the first not to be of the liberation generation.  He is a transitional president and his first term was badly distracted by a power struggle with his predecessor, Armando Guebuza

Although Nyusi won, he still has to deal with the fallout from the undisclosed loan scandal (a problem that he inherited from Guebuza), as well as ending the armed conflict with Frelimo’s longtime rival party, Renamo, not to mention managing the response to the new armed conflict in Cabo Delgado, which began in 2017.

New challenges

Since his swearing-in for his second term in 2019, the Nyusi administration has been in crisis-management mode, particularly responding to Covid-19 and its health and economic effects, seeking an end to the armed violence by a Renamo splinter group in central Mozambique and responding to the deteriorating security situation in Cabo Delgado.

Mozambique’s strong agricultural base will hopefully provide some internal economic and social resilience to Covid-19 — it is primarily the extractive industries that have been directly affected by the global economic down-turn. 

Worsening insurgency in Cabo Delgado in 2020 had become global headline news, despite Covid-19. Since April, the government security forces have conducted (with some success) a new counterinsurgency offensive. This has been supported by a number of Southern Africa private-security contractors, some with many years of experience of Mozambique (from the apartheid era to recent successful anti-poaching efforts).

The result of this state counterinsurgency response has been a shift in the nature of the insurgency: insurgents are increasingly targeting local communities, with less emphasis on winning hearts and minds in some districts. There are signs that the insurgents seek to spread the government’s security forces efforts, so that they have overstretched supply lines and become less effective.  Government officials admit 80 fatalities in June so far and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reports that 211 000 people have been displaced because of the insurgency in Cabo Delgado. 

Understanding the Cabo Delgado conflict

Over the past month, the Cabo Delgado crisis has been the subject of four reports and one book — reading all of them highlights the complexity of the crisis, but few offer solutions. The Cabo do Medo (Cape Fear) book by Nuno Rogeiro is tabloid and emphasises the crisis as the work of international jihad and advocated for the internationalisation of the war. The Tony Blair Institute report, “The Mozambique Conflict and Deteriorating Security Situation”, is more nuanced: it argues that the crisis is following the Sahel extremist playbook and advocates for international military assistance. 

Gas in Mozambique: A Windfall for the Industry, a Curse for the Country is a report by Friends of the Earth is critical of Total and the French and Mozambican governments and blames them for contributing to the worsening in governance, human rights and environmental protection in Cabo Delgado. Parts of Total certainly appear to underestimate the human rights challenges it faces. 

More nuanced is “War in Resource-Rich Northern Mozambique: Six Scenarios” published by the Chr Michelsen Institute. It argues against the internationalisation of the war and situates the war in historic and recent developments and warns that the conflict could spread beyond Cabo Delgado. 

An assessment of the conflict (2017-2020) by Africa Monitor usefully highlights the incoherence of much of the Mozambican security forces as a reason why this insurgency has worsened so quickly. There is tension between the police and military over who leads operations and enjoys key budget lines and this has undermined operational effectiveness. The most disciplined and effective forces are deployed to protect Total’s Afungi gas installation in Cabo Delgado.

Mozambican government troops can be effective: they have been in recent years in conservation projects in Niassa Province, where they have contributed to a second year of no elephant poaching. They are also effectively protecting Total at Afungi. But they need better training, better supply lines and coherent leadership. Private security and encouraging local militias can fill the gap in the short term, and regional and other governments can sharpen military response, but the long-term solutions are Mozambican grown and fundamentally developmental. 

That the insurgents have reached Ngande in Cabo Delgado is an indicator that this is no longer confined to the coastal “Swahili world”. They have had to pass through historical areas that strongly supported Frelimo and are Makonde people: this signals deep disenchantment with Frelimo. 

A party at a crossroads

In this centenary month of his birth, it is worth reading Eduardo Mondlane’s book, Struggle for Mozambique. It is a reminder that insurgency succeeds when there is a governance and developmental deficit. The Portuguese failed because they had neglected the far north and responded solely with violence. Relearning the science of liberation would help Frelimo to stabilise the conflict of Cabo Delgado. 

A Frelimo politician from Cabo Delgado, Mateus Katupha, said from Pemba to a Chatham House webinar on the crisis last week that “the insurgents seem to grow in areas where the population has been marginalised by the government, particularly young people”, but that the government was learning from its mistakes. Whether it has done so remains to be seen.