/ 15 June 2021

New report sheds light on the conflict in Mozambique

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A destroyed house is seen in the village of Aldeia da Paz in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique. Organised attacks by insurgents are forcing residents to flee the strife-torn province. (Marco Longari/ AFP)

Mail & Guardian: The insurrection in Cabo Delgado appears to be getting worse, not better. What is driving the conflict?

Since the first attack in the port town of Mocimboa da Praia in 2017, the situation in Cabo Delgado has significantly deteriorated, accounting for roughly 3 000 deaths and hundreds of thousands displaced. Attacks have become bolder in recent months with militants staging a major assault on the town of Palma in March, which killed dozens of people, forced thousands to flee and prompted oil and gas major Total to suspend operations in the area. 

The insurrection is a composite movement. Its members are motivated by different factors. Many of the rank and file of the insurrection — Mozambicans from Cabo Delgado — took up arms as a result of local grievances. Local militants feel shut out from the benefits of the discovery of large gas and ruby mining deposits, which have instead accrued to business elites close to the ruling party. Motivated by material gain, they stay with the group because of the different things they are promised, including weapons and money. On the other end of the spectrum, the leaders of the insurrection many of whom are foreigners, including a significant number of Tanzanians, are committed to the jihadist ideology. They have exploited local tensions and are cloaking them in the language of jihad.

M&G: Why have previous efforts to stem the conflict, particularly those of the Mozambican government and private contractors, failed?

The Mozambican army is in a state of disrepair for a variety of reasons, including as a result of the legacy of its previous civil war. Following the 1992 General Peace Agreement between the ruling Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (Frelimo) and the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (Renamo) rebellion, government military spending has been muted, partly as a result of pressure from the country’s international partners to focus its resources on economic development. Poorly armed and poorly trained, Mozambique’s soldiers have struggled to tackle the insurrection and have themselves suffered vicious attacks by the militants. 

The worsening crisis pushed Maputo to fall back on its rapid intervention police unit, a security force that is regarded as more effective on the ground than the regular army. The government has also made use of private military contractors. This has yielded some results, but the militants have rebounded with ever-increasing ferocity. 

M&G: Calls for a regional military response are getting louder and louder. Is this a good idea and what should such a force look like?

Maputo is reluctant to allow foreign boots to deploy on ground. However, regional and international partners worry the insurrection could spread in the region. Either way, Maputo and its partners should ensure that their response does not provoke what they are trying to avoid. A massive deployment of foreign troops with little knowledge of the terrain, for example, could turn the conflict into a quagmire and a new frontier for global jihadism.

Any type of intervention will therefore need to be carefully measured. External partners could focus on providing specialised assistance, such as intelligence capabilities, material and limited combat assistance to Mozambican forces, who are starting to show signs this month of taking the fight more effectively against the militants after receiving specialised instruction from western trainers.

But a military intervention alone is unlikely to stem the insurrection and Maputo will ultimately need to address the core issues around underdevelopment which led to this conflict. The state should create efficient paths for much needed humanitarian assistance and engage local communities, who continue to ask for basic social services in Cabo Delgado. The government should use this confidence-building measure to open dialogue with Mozambican militants, who are, after all, often from these local communities. With the proper guarantees, many could be convinced to leave the insurrection, denuding the foreign jihadis of their local muscle.

Want to know more? Please register here for an online event organised by the International Crisis Group and the Mail & Guardian, on Thursday 17 June, 15.00 SAST (GMT+2).

The panel will include Zenaida Machado, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, Luis Nhachote, investigative journalist and M&G correspondent, and Dino Mahtani, the crisis group’s Africa programme deputy director. Elissa Jobson, the crisis group’s director of global advocacy, will moderate the discussion.