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A more complex reality in Cabo Delgado

When the uprising started in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province, in 2017, the insurgents used the only weapons they had: their machetes. And they cut off the heads of local elites whom they accused of being allied to the leaders of the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) in stealing the mineral wealth. 

Forty years ago, there was another civil war in Mozambique, in which the Mozambique National Resistance (Renamo) committed atrocities such as burning people alive in buses.

But Renamo had been trained by the apartheid military, many of whom were believing members of the Dutch Reformed Church, which was firmly supporting apartheid. Yet no matter that the trainers thought they were doing the work of God to defend white rule and how cruel the Renamo atrocities were, those who perpetrated them were never called “Christian terrorists”. Yet we insist on calling the insurgents in Cabo Delgado “Islamist terrorists”.

Labels are important and shape how we look at civil wars. We try to label the opposition with the current global enemy. Renamo was said to be fighting “global communism” so as not to be accused of defending white rule. Now the Mozambican government is said to be fighting “global Islamists” and not protecting an elite that refuses to share the ruby, mineral and gas wealth with local people. Thus the labels shape how we see the war.

Save the Children Mozambique issued a press release on 16 March about children “murdered by armed men” – carefully not labelling the insurgents. But most media reports of the press release called them Islamist and stressed links to the Islamic State. All civil wars are cruel and brutal. Amnesty International accused the insurgents of war crimes and “heinous acts of violence” on 2 March. The organisation and others use the local name for the insurgents, al-Shabaab, which simply means the youth (and has no links to other al-Shabaabs). 

And Amnesty International also stressed that “al-Shabaab is primarily a homegrown armed group fighting over local issues, an insurgency sparked by the long-term underinvestment in the Muslim-majority province by the central government. The group uses jihadist ideology as an organising tool. While Islamist ideologies have been growing in Cabo Delgado for decades, the movement did not gain traction until the arrival of resource extraction industries that provide little subsequent benefit for the local communities.” Most local researchers support that position.

Grievance and outside intervention

Fifteen years ago I was the co-author of an Open University (United Kingdom) course and its textbook, Civil War, Civil Peace. One key point was that all civil wars have two things: a grievance serious enough that people feel they must kill to save their own lives, and outside intervention. In Cabo Delgado, the grievance is marginalisation and growing poverty and inequality as Frelimo oligarchs and the mining and gas companies do not share the wealth. 

Outside intervention to support al-Shabaab has included the Islamic State, which provided some publicity as well as support, including training in 2019 and 2020 but apparently not in the past six months. On the government side, outside support came first from a Russian private military company, the Wagner Group, and then its South African counterpart, the Dyck Advisory Group. 

United States “green berets” arrived on 15 March to train Mozambican marines. Portugal promises to send trainers, and the European Union and South Africa are also looking to provide support. On 10 March, the US formally labelled al-Shabaab, which it calls Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – Mozambique (Isis-Mozambique), as a foreign terrorist organisation.

All of the sudden support is not to assist Mozambique but to fight the new global enemy – Islam and the Islamic State. At the press conference on 11 March, John T Godfrey said that “we have to confront Isis in Africa”. His title is acting special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat Isis, which means his job depends on fighting it, and Mozambique is just another place to send troops as part of that war.

But the other speaker at the US press conference, Michael Gonzales, said that “addressing the socioeconomic drivers of the threat, countering Isis messaging, and providing greater economic opportunity and resilience of the community so that the attraction to violent extremism is lessened” was essential in Cabo Delgado. His title is deputy assistant secretary in the US Bureau of African Affairs, which shows he has a different perspective.

Pushing a narrative 

The Frelimo leadership in Mozambique is pushing the foreign terrorism line very hard. And it does not want anyone suggesting that the insurgency is linked to the greed of the Frelimo elite, marginalisation of youths and Muslims, and growing poverty and inequality. In private, Frelimo is very clear: it wants support from individual countries and private military contractors that will provide military help and parrot the message of Islamic State terrorism. 

In particular, Frelimo does not want the involvement of international organisations such as the Southern African Development Community, the EU or United Nations, which are big enough to issue reports pointing out the root causes of the insurgency. Mozambique wants humanitarian aid, but again it wants to be in charge. The UN has been waiting for more than four months for visas for 57 humanitarian experts for Cabo Delgado, UN resident coordinator in Mozambique Myrta Kaulard said on 5 March.

Of course religion plays a role in the war. Most, but not all, of the insurgents are Muslim and the original organisers are from Cabo Delgado, including local fundamentalist Muslim preachers. President Filipe Nyusi is from Cabo Delgado and is from the Makonde ethnic group and Catholic. Nyusi has had strong support from Pope Francis, who made an unprecedented visit to Mozambique during the 2019 presidential election campaign when Nyusi was standing against a Muslim candidate, Ossufo Momade of Renamo. And on 11 February the pope withdrew the outspoken Catholic bishop of Pemba, Luis Fernando Lisboa, whom Nyusi had publicly criticised because he was standing up for local people.

It is a nasty war on all sides. Amnesty International accused the Dyck Advisory Group of war crimes, including bombing civilians by apparently using Syria-style barrel bombs made from cooking gas canisters and dropped from helicopters on houses.

And Amnesty International cited government forces for war crimes. The most extreme was in Quisanga in March and April 2020, when the “permanent secretary’s house would come to be known to villagers as a place where government security forces took women to be raped, and men detained, beaten and, in some cases, summarily executed as well. Six witnesses described a mass grave behind the home, a ‘big hole’ under the trees, where people would be taken to be shot and dumped directly in the pit.” 

Nyusi is commander in chief and is in much more direct control of his forces than the Islamic State is of al-Shabaab. And Nyusi is Catholic and the pope has intervened in the war. If we insist on citing “Islamic terrorism” because of the role of the Islamic State, should we be calling what happened in Quisanga “Christian terrorism”?

Hidden truths

In fact, neither label is correct. But again, labels are important. The 1980s civil war was in reality a Cold War proxy war, with the US backing apartheid South Africa to build up Renamo to fight the “communists” backed by the Soviet Union. Now Islam is the enemy and the US is back, fighting the Islamic State on Mozambican soil with the willing participation of Portugal and, probably, France and South Africa.

But the insurgency will not be stopped militarily. As Gonzales and many others stress, Islamist militants recruit young men with no jobs and who see no future; they stress that the government is stealing their future. Creating thousands of jobs for the poorly educated youth of Cabo Delgado would end the war, but that requires the gas companies and the Frelimo oligarchs who rule Cabo Delgado to use some of their profits to fund that job creation, and so far they have shown no interest. They would prefer the Islamic State to be blamed and that someone else fights the war.

The French company Total is developing a $20 billion gas liquefaction plant on the Afungi peninsula. Insurgents reached the gates of the project on 1 January and Total pulled out its staff. It told Mozambique it would only return when the Mozambique government could guarantee a 25km-radius secure zone around Afungi. That looks as if Total is happy to do gas production if the war can be kept out of sight. It has experience of this in Nigeria, where it has offshore wells and in the Niger Delta an insurgency has been going on for decades.

That is why labelling is so important. If this is treated as “Islamist terrorism” from the Islamic State outside of Mozambique, then Cabo Delgado will become like the Niger Delta and the war will continue indefinitely – with the gas companies in secure zones. But if jobs were created and marginalisation reduced, the war could be stopped. Sadly, it looks as if the gas companies, the Frelimo elite and the US building a new cold war would rather fight mythical global Islamist terrorists.

This article was first published on New Frame

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Joseph Hanlon
Joseph Hanlon has been writing about Mozambique since 1978 and is the editor of the newsletter Mozambique News Reports and Clippings. He is a visiting senior fellow in international development at the London School of Economics.

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