Mozambique’s Insurgency Is a Regional Problem

Rising extremist violence in the country’s oil-rich north threatens stability in southern Africa—and requires a coordinated response.

By Tonderayi Mukeredzi, an independent journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Soldiers from the Mozambican army patrol Mocimboa da Praia, Mozambique, on March 7, 2018, following October’s two-day attack by suspected Islamists.
Soldiers from the Mozambican army patrol Mocimboa da Praia, Mozambique, on March 7, 2018, following October’s two-day attack by suspected Islamists. ADRIEN BARBIER/AFP via Getty Images

Armed attacks by extremist militant groups in Mozambique’s oil-rich Cabo Delgado province have increased this year, sending a wave of panic through neighboring countries. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, but extremists from Kenya and Tanzania and a homegrown group called Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama are also behind the rise in violence.

It is unclear if the extremist groups are connected and therefore difficult to determine who is behind which attacks. Since 2017, militants have killed 700 civilians and also targeted security forces, destroying government infrastructure and seizing weapons from Mozambican troops. In April, an extremist group killed 52 people in the village of Xitaxi—the deadliest attack yet. No group has claimed responsibility.

The violence in Cabo Delgado began in October 2017, several years after massive oil and gas deposits were discovered in the region. Multinational corporations such as ExxonMobil and Total invested in the area, but the rising insurgency presents a major risk: Their projects could stall if the violence continues to escalate.

Mozambique shares borders with Malawi, South Africa, Eswatini, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and Tanzania—all members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a 16-country economic bloc collectively worth $721 billion. If the insurgency is not checked soon, it could spread throughout the region—threatening the peace and stability of the other member states. But SADC isn’t mounting a coordinated response to the looming danger.

In the first four months of 2020, violent incidents in Cabo Delgado rose by 300 percent compared with the same period in 2019, according to estimates by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, a U.S.-based crisis-mapping project. During the same period, 285 people were killed in extremist attacks—bringing the total number of all reported fatalities to more than 1,000 since the insurgency began. More than 200,000 people have fled their homes as the violence spreads toward the southern part of the province.

In addition to Cabo Delgado’s rich mineral resources, the marginalization of its majority Muslim population has played a key role in stoking the fires of insurgency. Years of central government neglect, joblessness, and poverty have pushed the province’s disenchanted young people into the armed militias. “For me, it does not make sense to speak of ‘jihadism,’” Yussuf Adam, a professor at Eduardo Mondlane University in Maputo, told a local media outlet. “These are people who find themselves marginalized, who do not receive the benefits they should receive.”

The Mozambican army has moved to quell the attacks with the help of private military contractors, including Russia’s Wagner Group and the South Africa-based security company Dyck Advisory Group. The government says it has killed more than 100 insurgents in recent months, but it is hardly on top of the situation. Instead, it has dithered for years, allowing the militants to transform from a small movement into a much larger menace.

The government has long been secretive about the insurgency, viewing the attacks as the result of local criminal activity rather than an external force.

The government has long been secretive about the insurgency in Cabo Delgado, viewing the attacks as the result of local criminal activity rather than an external force. At first, some government officials denied the presence of jihadists. Meanwhile, opposition voices, such as the Democratic Movement of Mozambique party, have appealed to the government to declare a state of war in the region to elicit international support in fighting the shadowy insurgency.

Northern Mozambique now risks becoming a regional center of Islamist extremism, and the security threat requires a coordinated response before it spills into the other SADC states. But there is a growing feeling among some observers that the SADC has been slow to provide support to Mozambique. Some say that Boko Haram’s expansion in northern Nigeria and into neighboring states is evidence enough that the SADC should assist Mozambique now before the broader region faces a similar threat.

During a May telephone briefing, Tibor Nagy, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for African affairs, compared the rise of the insurgency in Mozambique to the emergence of Boko Haram. “Boko Haram was just a small movement, and because of the way the Nigerian government initially responded to it, it grew into a very serious threat, not just to northeast Nigeria but to surrounding countries,” he said.

Another example is Mali, where Islamist military attacks began in the country’s north in 2012, spread to Burkina Faso, and now threaten other neighbors. The SADC could learn from West Africa: Mali, Burkina Faso, Chad, Niger, and Mauritania established a coordinated force to fight terrorism and organized crime. But earlier regional coordination would have helped curtail the violence, which continues to rise despite the presence of French and U.S. troops.

Mozambique badly needs the regional assistance: It is still recovering from decades of civil war, which ended in 1992. Its poorly resourced military has struggled to contain and combat attacks by the extremists. In February, the escalation of violence prompted Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi to call for assistance from the SADC. After ignoring the insurgency in Mozambique for years, the SADC convened a special meeting May 19—but it produced nothing more than empty promises.  

Tanzania is the only country that reacted swiftly by dispatching its troops to the border.

Tanzania, which borders Cabo Delgado to the north, is the only country that reacted swiftly by dispatching its troops to the border. The move is a precautionary measure that could prove vital in curtailing extremists’ operations and the spread of their activities into Tanzania, where it is suspected that some insurgents have links.

The rising extremist threat in Mozambique also poses a major risk to Zimbabwe, which relies on Mozambique for imported electricity and food. Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa met Nyusi on April 30 in Chimoio, Mozambique, to discuss the security situation. Despite denying rumors that it has deployed its army to help Mozambique fight the insurgency, Zimbabwe is believed to have sent about 30 elite troops to train the Mozambican army while awaiting a possible SADC troop deployment.

South Africa would also be seriously affected by Mozambique’s conflict. The two countries share a critical economic corridor—one that also harbors illegal activities such as drug trafficking that financially sustain terrorist groups. But South African President Cyril Ramaphosa has been conspicuously silent on the escalating conflict. In May, Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor revealed that South Africa and Mozambique were engaged in talks over how South Africa could assist, but she did not offer specifics. The comment followed media reports that Ramaphosa was sitting on Mozambique’s official request for support.

The coronavirus makes a coordinated response more urgent: The pandemic could undercut counterterrorism operations in Mozambique. Many African states are shifting military spending to respond to the health crisis, and insurgents have used the pandemic to increase their attacks and propaganda while gaining civilian support through the distribution of food, medicine, and fuel to loyal residents. But government measures to tighten borders and internal transportation routes could also destabilize extremists’ operations.

If Mozambique’s fellow SADC states have a solid plan, they haven’t revealed it to the public. They have not moved quickly, even though the insurgency could potentially affect them. As the conflict rages, it is clear that it can’t be left unattended for much longer. If it gains any more ground, it will have drastic consequences for peace and economic activity in the region.

Tonderayi Mukeredzi is an independent journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. Twitter: @tonderamu