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Mozambique’s Forgotten Insurgency

Militants and mercenaries have killed thousands in the country’s north—and the government has done little to halt the violence.

By , the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief.
An aerial shot of temporary houses for displaced people in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, on Feb. 24.
An aerial shot of temporary houses for displaced people in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, on Feb. 24. Alfredo Zuniga / AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

This week’s highlights: All sides are accused of war crimes in Mozambique, young people take to the streets in Senegal’s largest protests in decades, and what the #MeToo movement means to Africans.

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Africa Brief.

This week’s highlights: All sides are accused of war crimes in Mozambique, young people take to the streets in Senegal’s largest protests in decades, and what the #MeToo movement means to Africans.

If you would like to receive Africa Brief in your inbox every Wednesday, please sign up here.


War Crimes in Mozambique’s Hidden Conflict

Since October 2017, more than 2,600 people—most of them civilians—have been killed in northern Mozambique, according to analysts at the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project.

Over the past three years, a growing insurgency has plunged Mozambique’s northernmost province into violent chaos. While its tropical beaches were popular with tourists, Cabo Delgado’s residents lived in poverty. The end of Mozambique’s decadeslong civil war in 1992 brought little development, leaving a new generation frustrated and feeling forgotten by the country’s political elite in the south.

Then, the discovery of large reserves of natural gas promised to change the fortunes of the region. Yet, even as multinational gas companies began to set up projects, promised jobs did not materialize, and many locals found themselves displaced. It was fertile ground for an insurgency.

The fighters, many of them young men who have embraced fundamentalist Islam, have waged a protracted conflict across the province, attacking village after village and increasing their stranglehold. A new report by Amnesty International, based on dozens of witness accounts, paints a grim picture of the terror the insurgents have meted out.

There are reports of victims who were hacked to death and left on the side of the road as a warning to others. As the groups seize territory, they sometimes give villagers the option to join them or die. According to some reports, their numbers are growing. But there are also signs of chaos in their ranks.

Who are the insurgents? While some news outlets have reported that Mozambique’s insurgents are linked to the Islamic State’s so-called Central Africa Province, and the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, there is no evidence of weapons moving or training provided. Known by several names, including Ansar al-Sunna, the group shares little to no public information. What is clear is that it has declared jihad and is driven by a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.

Multinationals and mercenaries. The report alleges that private security companies operating in the region are also terrorizing locals. A company headquartered in South Africa, the Dyck Advisory Group, is accused in Amnesty International’s report of indiscriminately firing at civilians, directing a hail of machine gun fire from light aircraft, and dropping explosives from helicopters.

It is no surprise that private security companies are also present in a gas-rich area, where Total is working on a $20 billion exploration project. But according to the Amnesty International report, it was the Mozambican government that signed a contract with Dyck.

Witnesses say the company’s security staff attacked schools, hospitals, and mud huts in villages, supposedly targeting the fighters hiding among the villagers. Even now, with Dyck’s refusal to respond to Amnesty International, saying only that it will hire outside lawyers to assess the allegations, there has been little accountability.

Survivors’ stories. Few journalists are able to travel to the region to cover the conflict, and those who do risk detention, disappearance, or expulsion. The outside world has a glimpse of what life among the insurgents is like thanks to the accounts of young women who were released or escaped the fighters.

Last month, five teenage girls arrived in the town of Macomia, walking for a week from an insurgent base. The girls said they had been held captive for three years, cooking and lugging food for the insurgents. They lived in corrugated iron huts covered in leaves and branches to avoid detection. The leaders, they said, were certainly Mozambicans. The insurgents also seemed to be struggling, releasing the girls when their bases ran out of food.

The military. Mozambique’s security forces do not seem to have capitalized on the insurgents’ weaknesses. Sent to the region to protect towns and villages, many troops extorted citizens instead. Villagers also accused the military of hiding when insurgents attacked villages, removing their fatigues, or dressing as women to escape.

Most damning are the videos and images circulating among Mozambicans and local media showing uniformed soldiers summarily executing men believed to be insurgent fighters or shooting women accused of helping the fighters. While Mozambique’s defense ministry has dismissed the footage as manipulated, Amnesty International says it has been independently verified.

Can Nyusi go it alone? These revelations will likely hurt Mozambique’s attempts to garner international military support. The African Union and leaders in southern Africa in particular have already pledged to support Mozambique; the European Union also agreed to help the country quell the insurgency. The obstacle to all this aid, however, is that President Filipe Nyusi—who was born in the Cabo Delgado region—has not formally requested intervention and has shown resistance to international support.

Initially, Nyusi’s government dismissed the violence as the work of local criminals. Now that the violence is spilling over the border into Tanzania and threatening to spread further south into Mozambique, Nyusi seems open to the possibility of outside support. But observers said his government’s request seemed like a “shopping list” of military equipment rather than an effort to find a real solution. In the meantime, northern Mozambique is increasingly engulfed in violence.


The Week Ahead

Wednesday and Thursday, March 10-11: The Africa CEO Summit hosts the virtual Financial Industry Summit.

Friday, March 12: The United Nations Security Council is set to adopt resolutions on missions in South Sudan and Somalia.

Friday, March 12: Kenya is set to end its nighttime curfew, which was put in place to curb the spread of COVID-19.


What We’re Watching

Protesters in Dakar, Senegal, on March 8.

Protesters in Dakar, Senegal, on March 8.JOHN WESSELS/AFP via Getty Images

Senegal’s angry youth. Senegal has been rocked by days of deadly protests, which have killed at least five people. The protests began on March 5 in Dakar, where opposition leader Ousmane Sonko appeared in court on rape charges.

Sonko, popular with the country’s youth and widely seen as President Macky Sall’s most viable challenger in the 2024 election, has denied the allegations as politically motivated. Senegalese authorities shuttered schools and blocked the internet ahead of Sonko’s court appearance on March 8. Alioune Badara Cissé, a respected mediator, warned the country is “on the verge of an apocalypse,” urging authorities to engage with the youth.

Arbitrary arrests in Niger. After post-election violence, rights groups say authorities in Niger are using arbitrary arrests and blocking the internet to crush dissent. Amnesty International reported that 470 people have been arrested in the last two weeks.

Protests erupted in Niamey after the electoral commission announced former Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum as the winner of a runoff election while his opponent Mahamane Ousmane claimed victory, sparking the protests. The country’s outgoing leader, Mahamadou Issoufou, received the Mo Ibrahim leadership prize due to his poverty alleviation efforts and for voluntarily leaving office after two terms.

Corruption in Togo. A decade-old case has ended with a 12 million euro ($14.3 million) settlement and a plea deal for the French executives accused of corruption in Togo. The French conglomerate Bolloré was accused of graft in exchange for a management contract over the Port of Lomé. Despite the plea, a judge recommended that the company’s chairman, billionaire Vincent Bolloré, and two other senior Bolloré executives stand trial. Bolloré initially dismissed the charges as a “witch hunt” that could endanger France’s relationship with its former colonies.

Explosion in Equatorial Guinea. More than 400 people were injured and at least 17 were killed after a massive blast at a military barracks in the city of Bata in Equatorial Guinea on March 7. When news of the blast first caught the attention of those outside of the country, a coup was immediately suspected given the country’s history of attempted putsches.

The rolling local news coverage and quick response from the presidency quickly quashed the speculation. President Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, in power since a 1979 coup, described the blast as an accident due to “negligence and carelessness.”

Calls for a vaccine waiver. The head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has thrown his weight behind calls to waive intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccines. In an opinion piece published in the Guardian that echoes his earlier critique of vaccine nationalism in Foreign Policy, Tedros supported India and South Africa’s efforts at the World Trade Organization to temporarily relinquish patents to allow increased manufacturing.

The effort to obtain a so-called TRIPS waiver, already supported by Kenya and other African states, received a boost from new WTO chief Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala on her first day, and she said she would use her role to prevent vaccine nationalism. However, one of the most powerful figures in global health and the force behind the global vaccine alliance COVAX, Bill Gates, does not support the waiver.


Chart of the Week

The #MeToo movement felt like a global reckoning as women stood up against discrimination. But did that extend to Africa? Surveyors polled over 10,000 women in sub-Saharan Africa. Numbers may not add up to 100 percent, as some respondents said they didn’t know or refused to answer the question.


This Week in Tech

Using cybersurveillance to snuff out dissent. A report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab titled “Running in Circles: Uncovering the Clients of Cyberespionage Firm Circles” detailed how governments around the world use the Israeli company’s technology to track citizens.

Circles, linked to the NSO Group, which also created Pegasus spyware, is a set of surveillance tools that connects to local telecommunications infrastructure without needing to hack a user’s mobile phone. The company also only sells to governments, and several in Africa seemed to be eager customers.

African Arguments looked at the seven African governments accused of using Circles to suppress dissent and showed a potential correlation between purchases of the platform and crackdowns on critics.

In Zambia, for example, security authorities arrested a group of opposition bloggers, reportedly by pinpointing their locations through the country’s telecommunications regulator. Meanwhile, in Botswana, opposition politicians have accused the government of using the Israeli cyberespionage tools to eavesdrop on opposition parties and unions.


This Week in Culture

Family business. Made Kuti never watched his famous grandfather perform, but he seems primed to continue the legacy of the Afrobeat musician and activist Fela Kuti. With the release of his album For(e)ward, the 25-year-old is taking up the family business of speaking truth to power through music. The release is part of a double album Legacy+ with his father, musician Femi Kuti.

Made Kuti may have grown up in the legendary Afrika Shrine, Fela Kuti’s entertainment venue in Lagos, but he is determined to cultivate his own sound. “I make the conscious effort to sound like myself. Some people just try to replicate my grandfather—which is a laudable skill of its own—but I work to sound like me and be original with it. I try to create music that is entirely myself,” the youngest Kuti told OkayAfrica.


African Voices

Post-Brexit ties with Africa. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is looking to old British colonies for trade deals, but his government can’t compete with China and won’t get far until it abandons its neocolonial attitudes, Oluwatosin Adeshokan warns in Foreign Policy.

Defending Zimbabwe’s human rights defenders. Writing in the Daily Maverick, human rights lawyer Thandekile Moyo says she fears for the safety of Zimbabwe’s dissidents—and those who choose to defend and protect them.

Whitewashing the sins of colonialism. Marking 136 years since the end of the Berlin Conference that carved Africa up among European powers, Sabelo J. Ndlovu-Gatsheni explains in Al Jazeera why attempts to weigh up the ethical costs and benefits of colonialism are deeply flawed.


That’s it for this week.

For more from Foreign Policy, subscribe here or sign up for our other newsletters. You can find older editions of Africa Brief here. We welcome your feedback at africabrief@foreignpolicy.com.

Lynsey Chutel is the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She is a journalist based in Johannesburg. Twitter: @lynseychutel

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