Nearly 2 900 people were killed and most of the population displaced by early June 2021 in a civil war that began in October 2017 in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s north-eastern province. From a single initial attack involving 30 men, insurgents now control most of four districts and parts of three others in a block roughly 70 km wide and 200 km from north to south. The second-largest natural gas field in Africa is being developed in the far north-east of Mozambique, with more than US$20 billion in investment predicted.
The French company Total is developing the project, but insurgents reached the gates of the development zone in December 2020, and Total pulled out its staff and halted work on 1 January 2021. The Total Chief Executive Officer (CEO) told President Filipe Nyusi personally that Total would only return if Mozambique could guarantee security in a 25 km cordon around the gas project on the Afungi Peninsula. On 22 March 2021, Nyusi staked his personal reputation and that of the nation on a promise of security. Total agreed to resume construction. Two days later, insurgents occupied Palma, which is within the security cordon. Total withdrew its staff again and, on 26 April 2021, declared ‘force majeure’ on its Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project. The company stated that it would only return if Mozambique ended the war.
Understanding Civil War
The new civil war is taking place in the same areas where the 1964-1974 independence war began, and there are similarities. Thus a useful starting point is to recognise that all civil wars are different, while displaying many similar patterns, as I set out in my book Civil War, Civil Peace. First, every civil war has a grievance, which is so deeply felt that people are prepared to kill their neighbours, often because they come to believe their neighbours want to kill them. There can be peace or a truce, but no civil war is finally ended without resolving the grievance. Second, nearly all civil wars involve foreign actors supporting different sides.
The route to the war is also important. Conflict is normal and natural in any society and is linked to processes of change. Conflicts are often resolved through local processes of negotiations and mediation. If the conflict is not resolved, it can escalate into violent conflict. This may be resolved or sometimes escalates to the level of a full-scale war. Although not always, civil wars often pit an aggrieved group against the state. The grievance often relates to the sharing of resources. The aggrieved group recruits supporters, among whom a shared identity is important; ‘we’ are discriminated against because of our ethnicity or religion, for example. The grievance is a key factor, but recruiting also requires a ‘flag’, which symbolises the cause or a shared identity.
Applying this to Cabo Delgado, we see that the 1964-1974 independence war began because local people were oppressed by Portuguese colonial authorities. The colonial authorities were seen to be taking the wealth of the area and leaving nothing behind. Resources were the grievance, and the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) waved the ‘flag’ of independence as the way to fairer shares. The conflict became violent as the colonial authorities resisted. As the war escalated, both sides gained outside backing. The Frelimo movement gained support from socialist states, including the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and China. Portugal gained backing from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Frelimo is now the government, and people along the coast see themselves as marginalised by a Frelimo elite. The post-2000 resource boom, driven by rubies, graphite and natural gas led to increased poverty and sharply increased inequality. Marginalised groups argued that Frelimo oligarchs were siphoning off the wealth, as the Portuguese had done before. When the insurgency began, farmers, fishers and artisanal miners joined in the fighting as they had been displaced by mine owners and gas companies.
The grievance was the same in both wars. Independence had been the flag 50 years earlier; this time, the flag is Islam. The Swahili coast extends south 700 km into Mozambique and includes the coastline of Cabo Delgado and Nampula province. People of the Swahili coast have been Muslim for a millennium, and Islam has been adapted to local conditions, including matrilineal family structures in Cabo Delgado. The war thus far continues in areas largely occupied by Muslims and KiMwani speakers.
After 2010, local fundamentalist preachers began to argue that the economic problems in Cabo Delgado were due to a corrupt form of Islam. They argued that the Islamic Council of Mozambique (Cislamo) was based in southern Mozambique, dominated by Frelimo, and that official Islamic leaders were helping Frelimo steal the wealth. The independence war was fought 50 years before to bring about equity. Likewise, the fundamentalists said that sharia law would bring equity and a fairer share of the province’s wealth. The conflict escalated into violence, with the fundamentalists fighting both Cislamo and the State. In 2017, it became a war against the State, and the flag was a particular form of Islam.
Both the new war and the liberation war 50 years ago were initially small, local insurgencies. These attacks allowed insurgents to capture weapons. As they gained ground, they gained outside support. By 2018, the Islamic State (IS)began to publicise insurgent successes in the current Mozambique civil war on social media. By 2019, in captured towns, insurgents sometimes flew the IS black flag and video-recorded IS statements. IS has provided limited practical support since 2020, including training, arms, and financing. Freelance jihadis, who came from other wars, have also played a role, including providing combat and tactical skills training. The insurgents moved from raiding villages to coordinated attacks capturing district towns. In mid-2020, contact between IS and insurgents was reduced. By mid-2021, the extent of IS involvement had become unclear. At the time of writing, Mozambicans still retain political control of the war. In June 2021, the International Crisis Group said that the links between IS and the insurgents were ‘tenuous’. The insurgents call themselves, and are called by the local people, ‘machababos’. They have not been referred to as IS fighters.
The Mozambique government was slow to understand that its weak and corrupt military needed outside help. Only in 2019 did the government look to private military groups. Russia provided two helicopters in September 2019, and the Russian Wagner Private Military Company (PMC) redeployed soldiers who previously fought in Libya. But the Wagner PMC fared poorly in the jungle terrain and withdrew by the end of 2019. By April 2020, the South African PMC Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) was providing air cover in support of Mozambican troops. By late 2020, the South African PMC Paramount was supplying helicopters, armoured cars, and training.
During 2020, the rhetoric changed. From internal criminality, the description of the basis of the war changed to international Islamic terrorism. This attracted the interest of the United States (US) and European Union (EU), who see IS and Islamic fundamentalism as the new global enemy. It also provided a cover for the US and France, who have important economic interests in Cabo Delgado. The US and its allies want to keep Russia and China out of Cabo Delgado. Mozambique’s relatively small and local civil war has thus taken a place in global geopolitics.
Internal Roots, Grievances, and a History of Violence
The roots of the Cabo Delgado civil war involve a complex mix of history, ethnicity, and religion, and the war has been fuelled by poverty, growing inequality, and the ‘resource curse’.
On the east, Cabo Delgado borders the Mozambique Channel, which is part of the Indian Ocean, and there are a series of islands along the coast. The land is flat for 50 km inland and less than 100 m above sea level. This area has been occupied by the Mwani for centuries. The people are Muslim fishers, traders, and small farmers. There is extensive trade along the coast, with historical links to Zanzibar, which is only 700 km north, rather than the present Mozambican capital, Maputo, which is 2000 km to the south by sea.
West of this coastal strip is the Mueda plateau, which rises to 884 m just 100 km inland from the sea. The area was occupied by the Makonde in the 1700s and 1800s, to probably avoid slave traders, malaria, and colonisers. The Makonde also have links to Tanzania, and independence in Tanzania in 1963 had a strong influence on them. Frelimo was founded in 1962 and began its war for independence in 1965, with mainly Makonde leadership but with strong involvement from the Mwani. The first shots were fired in 1964 in Chai, on a boundary and in a mixed Mwani-Makonde zone, which has also been the centre of fighting in the current war. After independence, the Mwani argued that they were marginalised, as the Makonde in Frelimo gained power, and key Makonde liberation fighters then became the oligarchs of Cabo Delgado. Many more Makonde than Mwani received pensions as liberation fighters, and Makonde were accused of grabbing coastal land and businesses.
Outside Makonde areas, Cabo Delgado became a forgotten province, with low levels of literacy and education and high levels of poverty. However, from the 1990s, Cabo Delgado proved to be one of the richest provinces in natural resources. Now, most of the province is allocated for mining exploration and exploitation, which in law takes precedence over farmers and existing occupants. Many of the mining licences were grabbed by the Frelimo elite. Thousands of farmers and fishers were pushed off their land, and artisanal miners, particularly those mining for rubies, were evicted, beaten, and even killed. Young people with basic education could not get jobs, while the gas and mining company crews and the Makonde Frelimo elite became wealthy with relatively luxurious cars and houses. In Mocimboa da Praia, for example, young men with very basic literacy said they were educated and would not do the back-breaking work done by their illiterate parents, including farming with only a hoe, or catching fish standing on the beach with a net. Many migrated to towns and became itinerant traders and street sellers. They watched gas workers drive by in 4x4s, who never stopped to support them by buying their goods. Their anger was aimed at ‘foreigners’ – mainly people from the south of Mozambique – who were believed to be in league with Frelimo in Maputo and taking the good jobs.
A January 2021 survey of people who fled Mocimboa da Praia showed that many young men joined the insurgents in hope of gaining jobs. ‘Historically, the population is not in favour of the government,’ notes the survey report, and the complaint is that young people are excluded from jobs because they are said to support the opposition. Abuse by the police and army also increased local support for the insurgents.
Coastal Cabo Delgado and Nampula have a history of violence against local elites. In 1999, there were angry local demonstrations against cholera prevention and treatment teams, who were accused of spreading the disease rather than treating it. In Cabo Delgado province, in Montepuez, two health workers were killed. In Mecufi, a crowd attacked and burned a cholera treatment and isolation tent. In the neighbouring Nampula province, there were attacks in five mainly coastal districts. More cholera riots followed in 2001 in Nampula. Researchers sent to coastal Nampula were shocked to find that many people believed the local elite wanted them dead. This is linked with common local beliefs in vampirism and in the elites’ intention to drink their blood (shupa-sangue) or sell it.
Muidumbe district is one of the areas affected by the current civil war. It forms a boundary between Makonde and Mwani areas. In 2002-2003, 24 people were lynched after being accused of magically commanding seven lions that ate 46 local people. The accused were important people – the district administrator, chiefs, members of Frelimo, and a local businessman. What is important here is that many people believe that local elites do not just want to exploit them. They want to drink their blood and steal their organs. The protests are against authority figures, who are often only a little richer and more powerful than those protesting. Thus, in looking at the Cabo Delgado civil war, it is important to take into account this violence, and the genuine belief of many people that elites want them dead and they are acting to defend their lives and those of their families.
Who Are the Insurgents Against?
The cholera riots and even the first raids of the civil war involved killing local people with power over others and links outside the village, such as health workers, local traders, and community leaders. In many cases, the measure of their wealth was that they were the only people in the village with a motorcycle. If anything, this is class-based violence, and not about ethnicity or religion. Indirect links to Frelimo and a wealthier elite mattered.
However, the fundamentalist framework added a new pattern. Attacks have also been on imams and others practising a ‘false’ Islam and, through Cislamo, were linked to the Frelimo elite. The initial violence occurred within Mwani communities.
Class and power came increasingly to the fore. The Frelimo elite was seen as largely Makonde and from the liberation war generation. They were accused of taking Mwani land and resources. Some Makonde men who were too young to receive liberation war pensions also felt marginalised and joined the insurgency. Now, it is increasingly a war against the Frelimo State in a largely Muslim area, and not specifically against Makondes or Christians.
More than a decade before the start of the current insurgency, in 2005, riots in Mocimboa da Praia for the first time took on a religious tone. After independence, Makonde liberation fighters moved down from the plateau to Mocimboa da Praia. The Makonde are traditionally Catholic, and they made the first religious move when, from 2000, they began erecting large crosses in the predominantly Muslim town. The Mwani responded with loudspeakers on mosques broadcasting the call to prayer. A 2005 by-election for mayor was disputed when the Frelimo candidate was declared the victor. In September 2005, there was a confrontation that reflected the town’s division. One side identified itself as Mwani, Muslim and supporters of the Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo), and it attacked the other side self-identified as Makonde, Christian and Frelimo. Officially, there were 12 deaths and 18 houses destroyed. Twelve years later, the new civil war also began in Mocimboa da Praia.
The crosses may have reflected a rise in religious fundamentalism. Tanzania saw an increase in both Christian and Islamic fundamentalism in the 1990s and 2000s. Playing on the description ‘born-again Christians’, Tanzanians began to refer to ‘born-against Muslims’. Northern Cabo Delgado still looks over the border to Tanzania, and local Islamic preachers travelled to Tanzania for training. Some returned and set up local fundamentalist mosques, urging supporters not to send their children to state schools, to restrict the space for women, and to wear shoes in mosques. Cislamo has a southern leadership and is close to Frelimo. Radical preachers argued that these purveyors of false Islam were supporting Frelimo to steal the local wealth. Sharia law would be fairer, they claimed.
The Frelimo oligarchs and President Nyusi himself are Makonde and Christian. The people with grievances are Mwani and Muslim, and they see their traditional Islamic leaders siding with the Frelimo elite. Thus, it seems unsurprising that the insurgents initially chose the flag of fundamentalist Islam to challenge both Frelimo and its perceived local supporters. This was underlined in the 2019 national elections, when the Catholic Nyusi was standing against the Muslim Renamo candidate, Ossufo Momade, and Pope Francis made an unprecedented visit to Mozambique during the election campaign. In the middle of the expanding civil war in Cabo Delgado, this was seen as support for the Christian candidate.
Confrontations between new fundamentalist mosques and existing mosques had been increasing for some time and were sometimes violent. In 2015, some local preachers began to train militias. One group carried out the initial attack on Mocimboa da Praia. Small groups attacked villages, following a similar pattern. About a dozen young men, mostly armed with machetes, raided villages at night, beheaded people and burnt houses, but left before the police arrived. Wealthier individuals in the village and local leaders known to have opposed fundamentalists were often targeted. Initially, the insurgents had local support. By June 2018, they were more organised and attacked towns and road traffic.
The Resource Curse
The resource curse occurs when global mining and gas companies share the surplus from resource extraction with a small local elite, and little reaches the rest of the population. Economists refer to this as ‘rent’, income derived from ownership or control over a limited asset or resource. Such income is attained without any expenditure or effort on behalf of the resource holder. Frelimo has developed an elite and patronage network based on growing resource rents. In Cabo Delgado, this is controlled by a small group of Makonde liberation fighters, two of whom sit on the powerful Frelimo political commission.
The problem has expanded in the past two decades, and is also linked to control of illegal trade. Senior Frelimo figures were reported to control the very large heroin transit trade in 2001 and the illegal timber trade in 2005. Major ruby and offshore gas discoveries in 2009 and 2010 set the pattern for the dominance of the extractive industries. Increasing corruption and poverty, the ostentatious display of wealth by elites, and a lack of local trickle-down benefits led to growing local discontent. In a limited way, the Frelimo elite recognised the problem. From 2019, the insurgents began recruiting from outside the immediate war area with promises of jobs. The response from various Frelimo leaders, including Nyusi, was ‘don’t be fooled – there are no jobs’. Yet they did nothing to create jobs.
Giving Control to the Military
As in many countries, fear of a possible military coup leads to keeping the armed forces weak and divided. In Mozambique, power was divided between the army, paramilitary riot police, and the security service, Serviço de Informações e Segurança do Estado (SISE), which answers only to the president.
Although the riot police are better paid and trained and less corrupt than the army, it is widely recognised that neither has the capacity to win the war. Frelimo’s guerrilla warfare tactics have been forgotten, and the riot police and army have not had effective counter-guerrilla training.
Initially, the government tried to conceal the events in Cabo Delgado, and then treated it as merely criminal action to be dealt with by the police. As the war escalated, much of the fighting on the government side was done by the paramilitary riot police under the Ministry of the Interior. The dominance of the Ministry was highlighted by press conferences given by the head of police or the Interior Minister. The Interior Ministry contracted the Wagner Group and then the DAG. There have been major conflicts between the Defence Force and the Ministry of the Interior as a result. For example, the army refused to cooperate with the Wagner Group.
There is a critical strategic difference between the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defence. The Interior Ministry believes the riot police can bring the insurgents under control relatively quickly with more outside support, including more air cover and spotting provided by the DAG, better equipment, and more training. The Defence Ministry has a long-term strategy based on building a much larger modern military force, with substantial increases in equipment and training from outside.
Is a Purely Military Victory Possible?
Studies of civil wars repeatedly point to group inequality and natural resource rents as central to the wars. Any definitive resolution to the war requires responding to the grievances. Thus far, Mozambique has singularly failed even to recognise the grievances. A key problem is that the Cabo Delgado oligarchs partly responsible for the grievances are too powerful within the ruling Frelimo party, and Frelimo depends on its patronage network, which in turn depends on resource rents.
Another issue repeatedly ignored by government is that human rights violations by soldiers and police have pushed local people to side with the insurgents. The police and army have been responsible for serious human rights abuses, ranging from beatings and killings of civilians to setting up roadblocks simply to collect tolls. This has turned local people against the armed forces and increased the number of recruits for the insurgents. Both sides appear to be trying to force people to flee, and virtually the entire population from the war zone is now registered as internally displaced.
Frelimo has increasingly appealed for international military and humanitarian support, but on narrow terms that ensures Frelimo remains in control. It does not want the Southern African Development Community (SADC), EU or UN peacekeeping missions involved as they are inevitably accompanied by political assessments, which will point to the failure to redress grievances and human rights violations. The EU Observer Mission’s critical report on the 2019 national elections was a harsh reminder of the power of international groups.
Instead, Frelimo wants to negotiate semi-secret agreements with individual governments and private military contractors to provide support to build Mozambique’s own military. The government wants humanitarian agreements with individual UN agencies to support the hundreds of thousands of displaced persons. It also wants finances to cover its expenses.
Frelimo and the government hope that by representing themselves as the victim of a global enemy, Islamic terrorists, and a player in the new East-West cold war, they will attract support without being closely scrutinised. They intend to end the war within a few years, while maintaining the rent system. However, the country’s history suggests that, without dealing with the many grievances, this will fail.
Dr Joseph Hanlon is a visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Department of International Development at the London School of Economics. He has been writing about Mozambique for 40 years and is the Editor of Mozambique News Reports and Clippings.
 Cabo Ligado (2021) Mozambique Conflict Observatory, 31 May-6 June, Available at: <https://www.caboligado.com> [Accessed 13 June 2021]. Cabo Ligado is a conflict observatory website created by Acled. Acled also provides a complete data set on Mozambique violence, Available at: <https://acleddata.com/data-export-tool>.
 Feijó, João; Agy, Aleia Rachide; and Maquenzi, Jerry (2021) ‘Dinâmicas e Desafios na Integração Socioeconómica de Populações Deslocadas’, Maputo: Observatório do Meio Rural, Destaque Rural no. 119, 24 May, Available at: <https://omrmz.org/omrweb/publicacoes/dr-119> [Accessed 13 June 2021]. This study by Feijó et al. notes that the 2017 census gives the population of the war zone as 591 734. However, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) gives the number of internally displaced persons as 697 538, which is 105 804 more than the population.
 The ‘force majeure’ provision means that in the event of circumstances beyond the control of the contracting parties, in this case the Mozambique civil war, Total may declare that it has no liabilities, obligations or responsibilities under its contracts in terms of the LNG project. Force majeure is not a cancellation of contracts, but their suspension until the problem has been resolved. This provision led to the suspension of many contracts with local and foreign suppliers of goods and services.
 There was a third civil war in Mozambique from 1982-1992, a Cold War proxy that pitted Renamo built up and backed by apartheid South Africa against Frelimo. It ended at the same time as the Cold War. This war did not reach Cabo Delgado.
 Yanacopulos, Helen and Hanlon, Joseph (2006) Civil War, Civil Peace. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University.
 Sharia law is a religious law derived from the precepts of Islam, particularly the Koran and the Hadith. The fundamentalists who lead the insurgency are Koranists who do not accept the Hadith and other Islamic precepts. Their version of Sharia law is different from that of other Cabo Delgado Muslims. In general, the Islamic approach has been to foster a society based on generosity and cooperation, values which are antithetical to greed, while accepting a free market economy.
 Also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP).
 International Crisis Group (2021) ‘Stemming the Insurrection in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado’, Africa Report, 303, 11 June, Available at: <https://www.crisisgroup.org/africa/southern-africa/mozambique/stemming-insurrection-mozambiques-cabo-delgado> [Accessed 13 June 2021].
 ‘Youth’ in Arabic is shabaab, which is also used in Swahili. The insurgents thus referred to themselves as ‘al Shabaab’, but with no link to other al Shababs. Local people use the plural Portuguese form to refer to the insurgents as ‘al shababs’. All three local languages, Mwani, Makonde and Makua, are Bantu languages which create plurals by adding ‘ma’ in front of the word. Therefore, al shababs becomes ‘machababos’.
 See Cabo Ligado for detailed reporting of the war, Available at: <https://www.caboligado.com>.See also Mozambique News Reports and Clippings, Available at: <http://bit.ly/MozNews2021> and <http://bit.ly/MozNews2020>.
 The gas field is divided In half. The near-shore consortium is led by Total, which has already started on the first US$20 billion phase. The off-shore consortium is led by the US company ExxonMobil. Both companies are close to their respective governments. In addition, on 14 May 2020, the US Export-Import Bank (Exim) approved a US$4.7 billion loan for the LNG facility. The Exim statement said that the loan would support 16 700 US jobs and keep China out of the gas field. Available at: <https://bit.ly/Total-Exim2020> [Accessed 14 June 2021].
 In 2019, Gemfields agreed to pay US$8.3mn to settle 273 claims of killings, severe beatings, and house burnings related to Mozambique Ruby Mines. See Hanlon, Joseph (2019) ‘Ruby Miner Gemfields to Pay $8.3 mn to Settle Montepuez Torture & Murder Claims’, Mozambique New Reports and Clippings, 436, 29 January, <https://www.open.ac.uk/technology/mozambique/sites/www.open.ac.uk.technology.mozambique/files/files/Mozambique_436-29Jan2019_Gemfields_PolComm_Samito.pdf>; Leigh Day Law Firm (2018) ‘Fabergé Owners Face London High Court Battle over Alleged Human Rights Abuses’, 16 April, London. Available at: <https://bit.ly/Ruby-LD> [Accessed 30 January 2021].
 Macalane, Geraldo Luís and Jafar, Jafar Silvestre (2021) Ataques Terroristas em Cabo Delgado (2017-2020): As causas do fenómeno pela boca da população de Mocímboa da Praia, Pemba: Universidade Rovuma. Available at: <http://bit.ly/MozAtaquesMocim> [Accessed 30 January 2021].
 Weimer, Bernhard (2020) ‘Vampiros, jihadistas e violência estrutural em Moçambique: Reflexões sobre manifestações violentas de descontentamento local e as suas implicações para a construção da paz’, Cadernos IESE, 19P, Maputo: Instituto de Estudos Sociais e Econômicos, Available at: <https://www.iese.ac.mz/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/CIESE19-BernhardWeimer.pdf> [Accessed 30 January 2021].
 Macalane, Geraldo Luís and Jafar, Jafar Silvestre (2021) op.cit.
 Sousa Santos, Ana Margarida (2010) ‘History, Memory and Violence: Changing Patterns of Group Relationship in Mocímboa da Praia, Mozambique’, PhD thesis, St Antony’s College,Oxford University, Available at: <https://bit.ly/Mocimboa-2005> [Accessed 30 January 2021].
 The prophet prayed in shoes to distinguish himself from Jews and Christians, who prayed barefoot. Wearing shoes in mosques stopped when mosques became carpeted. However, for Cabo Delgado fundamentalists, the return to wearing shoes is symbolically very important.
 When the armed wing of the main opposition party, Renamo, resumed military action in central Mozambique in 2015-2016, it was the paramilitary riot police who did most of the fighting. The army under the Ministry of Defence participated, but was largely ineffective.
 Yanacopulos, Helen and Hanlon, Joseph (2006) Civil War, Civil Peace. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University.
 EU Election Observation Mission (2019) ‘General and Provincial Assembly Elections 15 October 2019, Republic of Mozambique, Final Report’, 14 February, Available at: <http://bit.ly/EU-Fin-En> [Accessed 14 June 2021].