Conflict & Resilience Monitor

The Mozambique insurgents are not faceless

1 Dec 2021

ACCORD COVID-19 Conflict & Resilience Monitor
Photo: Oaquim Nhamirre/AFP via Getty Images

Since October 2017, an insurgency emerged in Mozambique's northernmost province of Cabo Delgado, resulting in numerous terrorist attacks, claiming nearly 3,000 lives, and displacing some 800,000 people since 2020. In addition to the current military reprisals, a more comprehensive approach should recognise both the fact that the insurgents are the “sons of Mocímboa da Praia” and that at a certain point in time, they became radicalised and turned towards violent extremism.

The timing of the COVID-19 pandemic has placed Mozambique in a situation where both citizens and the state need to rapidly develop resilience skills and coping mechanisms. Cyclones Idai and Kenneth struck in 2019 leaving roughly 2.2 million Mozambicans in need of humanitarian aid, which further contributed to the hardships experienced by people. The cyclones destroyed many houses, schools, and crops, displacing thousands of Mozambicans and putting their livelihoods in danger. Furthermore, since October 2017, an insurgency emerged in Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado, resulting in numerous terrorist attacks, claiming nearly 3,000 lives, and displacing some 800,000 people since 2020. The insurgency threatens the development of a $60 billion natural gas project, which had significantly increased economic prospects for the country and the province of Cabo Delgado. ‘

Despite these challenges, it has become quite clear and agreed upon by researchers that the insurgents are the marginalised and dissatisfied youth of the underdeveloped “Cabo Esquecido” (Forgotten Cape).

Given the pre-existing vulnerabilities of Cabo Delgado, such as rampant poverty and rising inequalities, the COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated the difficulty for both the Mozambican state and for non-governmental organisations to maintain and create peacebuilding efforts. The limitations to an ongoing peacebuilding approach has contributed to seeking alternative solutions in response to the growing insurgency. Indeed, in the face of violent attacks orchestrated by extremist groups, the Mozambican state has adopted an approach some view as a wholly militarised approach. Some observers have identified that the Mozambican authorities first resorted to establishing a regional military command in the province and negotiating security arrangements with Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), and Uganda. Using this military command, the Mozambican authorities systematically shut down mosques accused of promoting radical ideologies, arrested presumed violent extremists, and adopted new anti-terrorism legislation. 

In September 2019, realising that the insurgency was persisting and that the Mozambican Defence Armed Forces (FADM – Forças Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique) were not making significant advances, the Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi turned to the Russian private military company Wagner Group and later to the South African, Dyck Advisory Group (DAG). The private military companies also proved to be ineffective in stemming the insurgency. President Nyusi then turned to Kigali, leading to an agreement with Paul Kagamé, which saw the deployment of 1000 Rwandan soldiers in July 2021. In addition, on 9 August 2021, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), composed of troops and military equipment from Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, South Africa and Tanzania was formed and deployed to Cabo Delgado to assist the Mozambican and Rwandan forces. 

In the face of this heavy military response to the insurgency, the Mozambican people have expressed diverse opinions. This is reflected in the Voa Português TV Report of 11 August 2021, in which several officials of the municipality of Maputo were interviewed. Indeed, some officials expressed that the best response is a military one without an ounce of doubt, while others were more reserved, emphasising that dialogue would be a significantly more sustainable path. Despite the differing opinions, one argument was underlined by most officials: the insurgent is faceless. In other words, the identity of the insurgents is unknown, and therefore difficult to locate and to engage with. This argument is not only shared among officials of the municipality of Maputo, but is fairly common across Mozambican society. However, a key question remains – is it really true that the insurgent has no face and why is this argument widespread in Mozambican society?  

One explanation is that Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama (ASWJ), known locally as “Al Shabbab” has not been very forthcoming about who they are and what they want. The group’s communication strategy is rather low-key, with ASJW largely avoiding engaging with the press. The group mainly relies on small lectures and training sessions with captured individuals given after the assaults and as well as short videos posted on social media. Communicating with the outside world has not been the group’s priority. In fact, many attacks were not even claimed by ASJW themselves but by Amaq, the Islamic State’s news agency. Most notably, on 29 March of this year, Amaq released a statement saying that they had taken control of Palma, a town of 75,000 people, and that 55 people had been killed in the battle.

Taking these factors into consideration, it is indeed more complicated – but not impossible – to identify the individual members of the group. Despite these challenges, it has become quite clear and agreed upon by researchers that the insurgents are the marginalised and dissatisfied youth of the underdeveloped “Cabo Esquecido” (Forgotten Cape). As one protagonist of the BBC Africa Eye documentary “The Sons of Mocímboa Da Praia”, captures it: “They are our sons!” Indeed, Mozambicans make up the large bulk of the group’s members. The members originate mostly from various places within Cabo Delgado such as Mocímboa da Praia, Palma, Macomia and Quissanga. However, some members have been identified as coming from outside Cabo Delgado, notably from the Mueda plateau, the Nampula coast and Niassa province. A few foreigners have been identified as well.

Some experts are of the opinion that continuing to portray the group as “faceless” and unapproachable has been a strategy adopted by the Mozambican government in order to divert attention from the root causes of the conflict and simultaneously dismiss the possibility of dialogue.  Thus, it more easily justifies a military-centred approach from the State.

The challenge in responding to the conflict lies in knowing that it is deeply embedded in a context of socio-economic inequalities and lack of opportunities for the youth. While a military-only approach may have successfully eliminated the insurgency for the present, it does not guarantee that the group will not re-emerge in the future. In addition to the current military reprisals, a more comprehensive approach should recognise both the fact that the insurgents are the “sons of Mocímboa da Praia” and that at a certain point in time, they became radicalised and turned towards violent extremism. Finally and most importantly, opening the channels of communication with the insurgents, to open the path of future potential dialogue and negotiations would be a significant milestone toward finding a pathway to peace. Dehorning the “enemies” is the first step towards getting them to the negotiation table. 

Friderike Savatier is an intern at ACCORD.

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