An overview of the conflict in Cabo Delgado: narratives, causes and strategies on the way forward

Photo: Sigrid Ekman
Photo: Sigrid Ekman

On 5 October 2017, unknown armed men attacked the town of Mocimboa da Praia, in the far North of the Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado. The attack primarily targeted government institutions, with a focus on police stations. The attack was later determined to have been carried out by members of the local communities, primarily young Muslim men. The government's security forces acted quickly to stop the attacks and keep the situation under control. As a result, some of the attackers were either killed or arrested. This appears to have infuriated them, as they simply went underground and metamorphosed into guerrilla units capable of confronting government security forces after three years.

As a result, attacks occurred in other districts surrounding Mocimboa da Praia, including Macomia, Mueda, Muidunmbe, Nangade, and Palma. Violence erupted in the region as the Maputo government dispatched more troops to stamp its authority and permanently restore law and order. It should be noted that the attack in Mocimboa da Praia occurred at a time when billions of dollars in investments were announced following the discovery of massive gas deposits in the area, particularly around the Rovuma basin. 

Sustainable and feasible long-term conflict prevention strategies should necessitate education reforms so that the content of formal education curricula is infused with indigenous knowledge pertaining to conflict prevention, management, and resolution.

Despite logistical and training challenges, Mozambican troops have been able to contain the attacks and prevent them from spreading to other provinces. Still, they have been unable to gain an advantage in the conflict. As a result, as long as the attacks continue, peace will remain elusive. The most recent one destroyed the town of Palma and killed many people, including foreign workers for the multinational oil company, Total. Not to mention the number of displaced families who have sought refuge in Pemba while awaiting relocation to more secure areas. If recent reports are to be believed, the future of the gas project appears to be in jeopardy. 

The conflict in the far North of the Cabo Delgado province has sparked a long debate with competing narratives, as activists, civic and faith-based organisations, journalists, and researchers attempt to reflect on the conflict and bring to light valuable insights into its origins; the identity of the insurgents; possible external links, support, and the role of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC). 

This narrative emphasises the role that SADC can play in helping to find a long-term solution to the conflict in the province of Cabo Delgado. However, to contextualise the submissions to be made, it is necessary to briefly consider some of the main themes running through the narratives mentioned above. The root cause of the conflict is the exclusion, marginalisation, and poverty of the local communities, who see no potential gains from the gas megaproject. The sectarianism associated with Islamic sects such as Al-Shabaab and Al-Sunnah Wal-Jamâa is another root cause of the attacks. These themes appear to capture the conflict’s leading causes. However, it is critical to place them in the proper context. 

The coastal areas in the far North of the Cabo Delgado province are home to communities that have existed for centuries on fishing income. In other words, they relied on the sea for a living. The discovery of gas deposits and subsequent investments resulted in their relocation and the loss of their source of income. It is important to note that the process leading to the relocation of the communities and possible compensation involved the mediation of various stakeholders, primarily members of Maputo’s civic society who, more often than not, lacked linguistic and socio-cultural sensitivity. This has fuelled the communities’ rage, as they have felt alienated and betrayed from the start. All that was required was a focal point for their grievances. In other words, the objective conditions for conflict were created and the attacks in the far North of the Cabo Delgado province should be viewed in this light. This suggests that Islamic sectarianism served as a springboard for the conflict, as it would have gained little traction on its own. 

As is well known, the adoption of the neoliberal agenda to govern socioeconomic policies following the collapse of Socialism has resulted in the liberalisation and subsequent weakening of the position of the Mozambican state and its various institutions, including those tasked with maintaining law and order. This has created a void that can easily be filled by nefarious elements such as drug traffickers and foreigners who appear to be bolstering the ranks of the insurgents behind the conflict in the far North of the Cabo Delgado province. In other words, that region may have become a haven for Islamic extremists from Eastern Africa and beyond, who may not be well-organised enough to establish an Islamic state in Northern Mozambique. 

As previously stated, the debate on the conflict in the far North of the Cabo Delgado province has also called for SADC to play a meaningful role in contributing to the conflict’s resolution. One of the reasons for that call is the fear that if the conflict in Mozambique is not resolved quickly, it will spread to other SADC member states. As a result, concertation meetings have been held in Maputo and Gaborone, led by the regional organ in charge of defence and security. Following a SADC fact-finding mission to Mozambique, including Pemba, the capital city of Cabo Delgado Province, a detailed report was produced at a recent meeting of the heads of the SADC countries’ security agencies in Gaborone. The report includes several recommendations, and one option put forward is the deployment of a SADC force of 3000 men. It is expected to be discussed at a meeting of the heads of state of South Africa, Botswana, and Mozambique, who are the current members of the Troika for Defence and Security. 

While the initiative is admirable, as it has become clear that the Mozambican army is incapable of defeating the insurgents in Cabo Delgado, it is not without difficulties. It is unclear whether Mozambique would prefer SADC military intervention over logistical assistance. More importantly, previous military interventions involving troops from African Regional Economic Communities (RECs) have not produced the desired results. A case in point is the fight against Boko Haram and Al-Qaeda in Nigeria and Mali, respectively. It also goes without saying that if the SADC military intervention occurs in Mozambique, it will not be the first time this country receives foreign troops to assist in the fight against rebel groups. Zimbabwean and Tanzanian troops were once involved in the RENAMO conflict. They most likely contributed to the destruction of some of RENAMO’s main bases, but they never defeated it. 

Given the foregoing, the fundamental question to be addressed is what role the RECs, including SADC, should play in combating insurgencies and terrorist groups in their respective member states. There is no simple answer to this question. What appears to be true, however, is that conflict resolution has taken precedence over conflict prevention. Eradicating conflicts in Africa, including Mozambique, necessitates a comprehensive approach that includes short-term and long-term strategies. Military intervention should be part of short-term conflict management and resolution strategies with dual objectives. The first and foremost goal is to maintain the state’s territorial integrity. The second goal is to maintain law and order. Furthermore, military interventions should pave the way for long-term conflict prevention strategies. The search for such strategies would necessitate the participation of a wide range of stakeholders, including citizens, media practitioners, researchers, civic and faith-based organisations, policymakers, and decision-makers. 

Adoption of viable and sustainable conflict prevention strategies should be inspired and informed by national goals articulated in national plans. Furthermore, the search for sustainable and feasible long-term conflict prevention strategies would necessitate education reforms so that the content of formal education curricula is infused with indigenous knowledge pertaining to conflict prevention, management, and resolution. The RECs would play a process coordinating role, involving the capacity building in the respective member states, setting the research agenda that would distil the common elements pertaining to conflict prevention, management, and resolution obtained in the indigenous knowledge systems of the various member states. The ownership of the aforementioned strategies would be a logical extension of what is proposed here. As a result, each member state would be responsible for preventing, managing, and resolving its own conflicts. This would resoundingly echo the African proverb which says, ‘offered grain never filled the granary’.

Professor Sozinho Francisco Matsinhe is the former Deputy Executive Secretary of CODESRIA and former Executive Secretary of the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN)/African Union.

Article by:

Sozinho Francisco Matsinhe
Honorary Professor at the Institute for African Renaissance Studies, UNISA

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