The insurgency in northern Mozambique has got worse. Why?


Two attacks on towns in northern Mozambique by suspected jihadists point to a rapidly deteriorating security crisis. On March 23 to 24, the centre of Mocimboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado province was occupied by up to 40 “jihadists”, who targeted government facilities, including a barracks, and brandished banners of affiliation to the so-called Islamic State. On March 25, suspected jihadists raided the town of Quissanga and destroyed the district police headquarters. They too carried an Islamic State flag. Twenty to 30 members of Mozambique’s security forces were killed in both attacks. 

Mocimboa da Praia is just south of the Afungi Peninsula, the location of gas projects worth $60- billion. Mocimboa was briefly occupied in late 2017, during attacks claimed by a group known as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama (or al-Sunnah) that marked the start of a brutal low-intensity conflict, with widespread human rights abuses and attacks on civilians. Up to 1 000 people have now been killed and 100 000 displaced.  More recently, The Islamic State Central Africa Province (Iscap), affiliated with the Islamic State group, has claimed responsibility for the attacks. 

Video and photos of these most recent events, along with the testimony of frightened residents and overstretched government officials, suggest a shift of strategy by the insurgents. There seems to have been an effort to avoid harming civilians, to win hearts and minds by redistributing stolen food, medicine and fuel to “loyal” residents, and to direct attacks on the state and its symbols, such as police stations and military barracks. It is difficult from a distance to assess if there was any genuine pleasure over these attacks among local people; while residents in both towns that did not flee seemed to welcome the attackers, this may well have been out of fear that the government is currently unable to guarantee their security. 

These attacks also indicate that the jihadist-linked insurgents are growing in confidence. They are confronting government security forces with little appetite for fighting. The Mozambican government has been expecting setbacks like those of Mocimboa and Quissanga — its forces are demoralised and many commanders exhausted or corrupted by an emerging war economy. 

Jihadists are also taking tactical advantage before a reformed and more effective government counterinsurgency effort is introduced in response. President Filipe Nyusi, inaugurated in January for his second term, has made this crisis his prime focus and has become the de-facto minister of defence.

Military reform and the role of private military companies

But there is no quick fix. Most importantly, the Mozambican military and security forces need to be restructured. They were unable to win the Mozambican civil war (1977-1992), even with international support, and have not improved in capacity or conduct since. They now face a complex, multilayered and asymmetrical conflict, mostly drawing upon local and regional grievances and networks but increasingly also attracting some limited encouragement and advice from further afield. Nyusi will need to build-up trusted relationships in the military in the way he has successfully done with parts of the intelligence community.

The Mozambican government has already reached out to international expertise — though not necessarily the right kind. The founder of the Blackwater private military company, Erik Prince, supplied two helicopters and support crew for the Mozambican military in mid-2019, before being replaced by some 170 Russian privateers linked to the Wagner Group

The Wagner contingent arrived in September 2019 at Nacala airport with trucks, drones and a Mi-17 helicopter gunship, then deployed into the combat zone of northern Cabo Delgado. Setbacks, including at least two dead Russians, forced a tactical fallback to Nacala, though a new effort is reported to have been underway since late February 2020. The Mozambican government is also considering a number of proposals from other private military companies. Maputo needs to consider these carefully; Israeli or Gulf State involvement in any form might exasperate rather than alleviate this crisis. 

The Tanzanian connection

But market-led security and military providers will not end this insurgency. Nor will the engagement of states such as the United States, France, the United Kingdom or Angola, all of which have made their own offers of support. What would significantly make a difference is much closer to home: serious Tanzanian engagement. This insurgency is concentrated in districts bordering Tanzania and there is clear-cut intelligence of connections into Tanzania and beyond. Swahili is also a lingua franca for the jihadists, connecting them up the East African coast, and into eastern Congo and elsewhere. 

It is puzzling, given the deep shared history between Tanzania and Mozambique, that the bilateral relationship is as patchy as it is today: during the liberation struggle (1965-1974) against the Portuguese, Mozambique’s ruling party Frelimo maintained rear bases in Tanzania, and Nyusi was educated there. Conspiracy theories circulate that Tanzania has encouraged the Cabo Delgado insurgency to weaken its neighbour, or at least displace radicalised individuals from Tanzanian soil into Mozambique.

President John Magafuli of Tanzania did not attend the January inauguration of Nyusi. It has become urgent that Magafuli (who is also the current chair of the regional body, the Southern African Development Community) and Nyusi meet face-to-face to map out improved intelligence sharing and a joint strategy to respond to an emerging regional threat. 

Southern Africa is locking down because of Covid-19, which will distract the government’s ability to focus fully on this crisis and create a perfect moment for the infant insurgency in Cabo Delgado to grow. More military setbacks should be expected in coming months. But the Mozambican government can still contain and prevail if it seriously reforms its military, builds strong alliances with its regional neighbours (especially Tanzania), chooses its private security contractors and international partnerships wisely, and backs military efforts with better intelligence and developmental interventions that offer alternative pathways to potential recruits. 

But despite Maputo’s hope that significant progress will be made over the coming year, and the setting up of a presidential task force to evaluate progress and intelligence, it is likely that Mozambique and its partners will need to prepare themselves for a drawn-out struggle. 

Alex Vines is the director of the Africa Programme at Chatham House

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Alex Vines
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