His name is Bonomado Machude Omar, born in Palma district in Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique. He’s been involved in the insurrection in Cabo Delgado since it started in 2017 and is now — according to the US state department — the most prominent face of the violence that has crippled the region.
Last April, the head of Mozambique’s military, Cristóvão Chume, promised Omar “will be captured dead or alive”. Chume is now the country’s defence minister. On 6 August last year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement designated Omar as a member of the Islamic State and a “global terrorist”.
Described as quiet and brutal, but with a sense of justice, Omar served as a navy soldier in Mozambique’s defence force from 2003 to 2005. But now he is apparently behind the insurgency in Cabo Delgado.
The Southern African Development Community and Rwanda have sent troops to contain the insurgency. But, warns Mozambican researcher João Feijó, the author of the Mozambique OMR think tank’s report on Omar, any solution to the conflict must include social inclusion, and meeting the basic needs of local people.
Who is Bonomado Omar?
In an article in September 2020, Mozambique’s Centro de Jornalismo Investigativo identified Bonomado Machude Omar, also called Omar Saide or Sheikh Omar, as the speaker in a video that went viral on social media in March 2020. The speaker in the video claims to be a leader of violence, which, by that time, had been going on for three years.
The following year, OMR published a further profile of the man — explaining how he was born in Palma in the village of Ncumbi, and moved to Mocímboa da Praia at the age of five after his father died.
His mother remarried, and Omar’s stepfather introduced him to Islam, which he studied and mastered. He finished 10th grade at Januário Pedro High School in Mocímboa da Praia and, according to former teachers, was a calm young man, a good student and a good football player.
After leaving school, he served in the navy in Pemba, and then moved to an African Muslim boarding school to finish 12th grade. He was popular among his peers, known for his sense of justice and protection of the younger ones.
One of his hobbies was playing football. Because of his height, between 1.80m and 1.90m, and the fact that he played in midfield, he acquired the nickname of Patrick Vieira, the French footballer who made his name at Arsenal.
Omar made a living selling vegetables and Muslim clothing at a market in Pemba, on behalf of a foreign merchant, who is said to have been either Tanzanian or Somali. He travelled to Tanzania and South Africa. He then returned to Mocímboa da Praia, where he built a mosque, as well as a stall for the sale of trinkets acquired in Tanzanian markets or in the city of Pemba.
Then he participated in the first attacks on Mocímboa da Praia in October 2017, and took refuge in the bush.
It is still unclear how he became radicalised, or what prompted the turn to violence.
For his military skill and camouflage ability he acquired locally the nickname “King of the Forest”. He is, OMR says, the leader of the insurgents in Mozambique and the US department of state statement last year described him as being “the lead facilitator and communications conduit for the group”.
Promise to the people
Omar led the insurgency’s attacks on Palma in March 2021, and on Mocímboa da Praia a year before. Both towns have since been retaken by Mozambique’s military with the help of the Rwandan Defence Force; Mozambique was unable to hold or retake them on its own.
It was after the fall of Mocímboa da Praia in 2020 that Omar made his now famous speech, recorded on a cameraphone and distributed far and wide. It gives a sense of his motivations.
Standing in front of the town’s police station, a symbol of state power that had fallen to the jihadis, Omar told the local population that they would not kill anyone or steal from the people, despite facing opposition from them. “We know that your will was for us to disappear,” he told the crowd. “But God has blessed us and we have gained more strength.
“We came the first time, we’re back, this is the second time, we’re giving you another chance; we’re not going to kill anyone, we’re not going to destroy anything that belongs to the people, everything we spoil will be the government’s,” he said.
“We occupy to show that the government today is unfair. It humiliates the poor and gives advantage to the bosses. It’s the lower class who get detained, so that’s not justice,” he continued.
He said his group was working for an Islamic government — and that “we are children from here, and these faces are not new. There are so many of us in the bush.”
Despite his noble words, the insurgents have been implicated in multiple massacres of civilian populations — just like the security forces they are fighting. Omar, according to one source with knowledge of the group’s operations, plays a leading role in commanding military operations.
The insurgents are divided into about 30 groups with each having their own specialisation, such as bomb-making, tunnel-boring and intelligence-gathering, and the leaders of each group report to Omar. The source said the group finances its activities through mineral smuggling and drug trafficking, and this too allegedly runs through him.
Omar could not be reached for comment.
A new Dhlakama?
Since that day in Mocímboa da Praia in 2020 — and the fall of Palma in March 2021 — the Mozambique government, with the help in particular of troops from Rwanda, are back on the front foot. The towns have been retaken, and Omar is thought to be moving from base to base, as troops from Mozambique, Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community mission in Mozambique dismantle the bases that they find.
But the appeal of Omar and his men to the dispossessed of Cabo Delgado remains a danger, warns Feijó.
“Various testimonies describe him both as someone sinister and brutal, but also with a sense of justice,” Feijó said in an interview last week.
“There are several factors that produce these types of leaders: radicalisation through studies in madrasas, revolt with the concrete experience of poverty and marginalisation and even opportunism, which takes advantage of the desperation of communities.
“I draw a parallel with Afonso Dhlakama,” Feijó added, referring to the late leader of the Mozambican resistance movement and later opposition party, Renamo. “He was the protagonist of a civil war tearing up the country, but he attracted crowds and was very popular.
“I am not against defence and security solutions, but this approach must be accompanied by the creation of jobs for young people, the provision of basic social services, respect for human rights and incentives for the democratic participation of communities in the political and economic life of the country,” Feijó said.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the award-winning pan-African weekly newspaper designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here