/ 5 September 2023

The end of Cabo Delgado’s most wanted man

Terrorist (1)
'Dead or alive': Bonomade Machude Omar (far left) as illustrated by Mozambican artist Dionisio Matavele/The Continent

His parents named him Bonomade Machude Omar. His comrades called him Ibn Omar or Abu Sulayfa Muhammad. Many called him a terrorist — especially the Mozambican and American governments, and their allies in the Cabo Delgado conflict.

Now, according to Mozambican authorities, he is dead.

A source in the Mozambican military said the insurgent leader’s last battle was fought in the dense Kathupa Forest in Macomia district.

There, the insurgents launched a daring offensive in mid-August on government troops and soldiers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The offensive is believed to have been targeting the chief-of-staff of the Mozambican army, Joaquim Ribas Mangrasse.

Intelligence analysts concluded that only one rebel commander had the authority to go after such a major target: Bonomade Machude. An intense manhunt ensued, and about a week later the army said that he was dead.

Authorities have been hunting Bonomade since at least August 2020, when insurgents occupied his hometown of Mocimboa da Praia. This was three years into the Cabo Delgado insurgency, which has sought to impose Islamic law in the north of the country.

During the six-day offensive on Mocimboa da Praia, fighters claiming to be from the Islamic State Central Africa Province (Iscap) attacked several villages and two military bases, killed or wounded at least 50 government soldiers, seized dozens of guns and eventually occupied the town of 30 000 people.

It remained under the fighters’ control for the next year.

Bonomade was believed to be one of the top leaders, if not the leader.

The occupation of Mocimboa da Praia was a major victory for the insurgents and as big an embarrassment for the Mozambican government. On 6 August 2021, the US state department designated Bonomade a member of the Islamic State and a global terrorist, saying he headed Isis-Mozambique’s military and external affairs department and acted as senior commander and main co-ordinator of all the group’s attacks in northern Mozambique.

Iscap was eventually forced out of Mocimboa da Praia, with help from Rwandan troops acting in support of the Mozambican armed forces. But it remained in control of other territory, including two bases — Siri I and Siri II — in the dense forest on the banks of the Messalo River.

They continued to raid villages in the districts of Macomia, Muidumbe and Metuge, on the other side of Pemba Bay. Bonomade personally led another raid on the Amarula Hotel in Palma in 2022, which left dozens dead and displaced thousands.

Shortly after that, the head of Mozambique’s military, Cristóvão Chume, now the country’s defence minister, promised that Bonomade “will be captured dead or alive”.

With support from Rwanda and SADC, the state went on the offensive, forcing the insurgents on to the back foot and to retreat into the bushes between Macomia and Mocimboa da Praia.

By the time of his killing, Bonomade was thought to have been commanding far fewer fighters than he did during the occupation of Mocimboa da Praia.

It is easy to gloss over Bonomade’s campaign against the Mozambican state with the broad brush of “Islamist terrorism”.

He did study Islam in several countries after completing his 12th grade at the Escola Secundária Januário Pedro in Mocimboa da Praia. On his return, he joined the ranks of a charity, the Africa Muslim Agency, in the city of Pemba.

But he also had other influences, including his personal experiences as a marine in the Mozambican navy between 2006 and 2008.

While the country’s armed forces and the government are celebrating Bonomade’s death, they would be wise to remember that the root causes of insurgency don’t disappear with the death of the leader; and that much more needs to be done to understand and address the animus that fuelled his war on Mozambique. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weeklynewspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.