In June last year, the Mail & Guardian wrote about a “mysterious insurgency” in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique, in which villages and government buildings were attacked. There were few details about who was behind the attacks, or what their motivation might be, but the consequences were serious: 40 people were killed, some with extreme cruelty; at least 400 homes were burnt to the ground; and more than 1 000 people were displaced.
For such a significant conflict, there was surprisingly little reliable information available. The article concluded: “Before anyone can begin to grapple with the problems, they need to understand the nature of the threat. So far, the rumours far outweigh the research.”
Nothing has changed. This month, we revisited the story, expecting by now that researchers, analysts and other journalists would have a better understanding of what is going on. But even though the violence has intensified — there are an average of two to three attacks a week, and at least 120 people have now died — the people who normally have answers to these kinds of questions are even more confused than before.
The bottom line is that no one knows what is going on in northern Mozambique — and that anyone who has attempted to properly investigate has been threatened or arrested.
We asked Jasmine Opperman, the Africa director of the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium, if she knew what was going on.
“I’ve been in this business for four decades, and I have never before been unable to answer the ‘why’ question,” she said.
She is not convinced by the argument that the conflict is linked to Islamists, because the modus operandi is so different from anywhere else in the world. More significantly, apart from one statement of dubious veracity at the beginning of the conflict in 2017, no organisation has sought to claim credit for the violence.
“Anyone who tells you they know for sure what is going on, they are just guessing,” she said.
There are theories, of course. One is that it is something to do with the organised crime networks that have long used the region as a conduit to smuggle rubies, timber, ivory and drugs. Others suggest that the violence is being incited by shadowy figures in the Mozambican government, as part of internal faction fighting; or that private security companies, like Erik Prince’s Frontier Services Group or Russia’s Wagner Group, are exacerbating local tensions in the hope of landing a multibillion-dollar security contract.
Hovering over all of these theories is the fact that a gold rush is coming. The gas find off Cabo Delgado is scheduled to come online in 2022, and it will alter the region’s economic prospects.
It is “the world’s largest gas find after the Permian Basin and possibly Brazil”, said Standard Bank’s Paul Eardley-Taylor. There is so much money at stake that the bank considers it to be “the largest ever organic growth opportunity in our history”, capable of precipitating “a fundamental shift in the balance of power between Mozambique and South Africa”.
These are incredibly high stakes in one of the poorest areas in the world; surely, it cannot be a coincidence that an insurgency emerges just as the scale of Mozambique’s gas riches becomes clear?
Nonetheless, no one can explain the link between the gas and the fighting; there is no solid evidence for any of the theories outlined above, said Zenaida Machado, a former journalist and the Human Rights Watch researcher for Mozambique.
She has extensive contacts in the area, including among residents, government offices, army units and civil society groups. She says that although she has a fair idea of what is happening — attacks are increasing in frequency, and are usually being aimed at citizens rather than government targets — she too cannot answer the “why” question.
But she adds that it is becoming increasingly difficult for her to get reliable information. She was in contact with five soldiers in the army, but two have been killed in combat. Other sources are becoming more reticent.
“Sometimes when others disappear on me I get scared … the climate of fear is growing so fast that even the waiters are scared of talking. Fixers say: ‘Don’t send anybody to me, it’s not safe.’ ”
She doesn’t always know how to make sense of the stories that do emerge from the conflict area, such as this one: “Soldiers told me, ‘The [militants], they act strange when you find them in the bush. They don’t talk to you, they don’t meet your eye. They can’t even repeat their own names.’ ”
What she does know, however, is that she is nervous about what may come next. “We must be very scared. Because if no one is claiming responsibility now it means they haven’t even started yet. If this is the beginning, I don’t want to see the end.”
Other journalists are having no more luck when it comes to finding a convincing explanation.
Erik Charas is the editor of @Verdade, an independent online newspaper in Mozambique. He has sent reporters to Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado, but from there it can be another eight-hour drive to affected villages. His reporters, and the local fixers they have used, have been stopped and harassed by authorities.
“If you’re a journalist, you have a target on your back. You can have all the authorisations from the government, but on the ground they couldn’t care less.”
There is no reliable information emerging from the area, Charas said. “We are all guessing, especially because you can’t get access to info. There are two things we don’t know. One is what is motivating [this], and two is who it is. This is a faceless insurgency. At this point anybody that tells you something else is speculating. Because nobody has been able to speak to anybody involved.”
In his long career, Charas says he has never reported a situation quite so baffling. “I have never come across something like this before. Never, not [even] during the Renamo war. It doesn’t even resemble the other Islamic State movements. This is completely different.”
Tom Bowker, the editor of the Maputo-based Zitamar News, agrees. “Whichever theory you come up with, there are things that don’t make sense. Why are they not publicly taking responsibility for the attacks? What do they actually want? I just don’t think that the blackout the government is enforcing will help.”
One journalist who got closer than almost anyone else is Mozambican investigative journalist Estacio Valoi. He visited the scene of the first attack, on a police station in the town of Mocimboa da Praia, shortly after it happened in October 2017.
In December 2018, he tried to go back to see how the situation had developed. After overcoming several bureaucratic hurdles, he and two colleagues made it into the town.
They interviewed whoever would talk to them; soon a picture of fear and destitution emerged. Parents were keeping their children out of school and families were too scared to tend to their crops outside of town.
The residents were eating only what could be grown in small plots in town.
But as the journalists worked, they were being watched. “While we were walking we were surrounded by all those undercover agents and people wearing military uniforms, recording the interviews that we were doing.”
This limited the kinds of questions the journalists could ask — they did not want to get anybody into trouble.
On the way out of town, Valoi and his colleagues were arrested. They were held for two nights at a military barracks nearby, and all their equipment was confiscated and searched.
“Some of them came to me and said: ‘You will die without knowing why you are dead,’ ” Valoi recalls.
He had managed to alert his editors and friends that he was in trouble and intense external pressure secured their release.
Amade Abubacar, another journalist, was not so lucky. He was arrested on January 5 and kept in illegal pretrial detention, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. He was allegedly tortured and deprived of food while in custody.
He was only released on bail on Tuesday after 107 days in detention.
Abubacar was charged with revealing state secrets and inciting violence through the use of electronic means but, for anyone who worked with him, the charges are clearly fabricated.
“The detention of Amade is part of a pattern of harassment and repression of journalists in Cabo Delgado province documented by media and human rights groups,” a coalition of Mozambican civil society organisations said in a statement.
Concerted efforts by Mozambican authorities to intimidate journalists begs the question: What are they hiding?
But their actions are effective, as Valoi explains. Like everyone else, he remains in the dark: “Even local journalists can’t talk about it because the culture of intimidation is there. Yeah, it’s confusing. It’s really confusing. Even the government is confused. How can you negotiate with people when you don’t know who they are?”