A terrorist insurgency which has claimed 3,000 lives and is threatening to upend the state has gone largely underreported and seems to be of little concern to the country’s neighbours or even the AU. This head-in-the-sand attitude could have disastrous outcomes for the region, warns Mushtak Parker.
There is something surreal about the terrorist insurgency in the northern enclave of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique, seemingly perpetrated by militants “inspired” by the defunct ISIS. It would seem that the government of President Filipe Jacinto Nyusi is in denial of the threat, or simply downplaying it or is incapable of dealing with it.
A media blackout of the conflict areas makes independent corroboration difficult. The insurgency is as much a ‘War of Disinformation’ as it is a ‘War of Terror’.
It started in October 2017, when a group of 30 heavily armed men attacked and seized government buildings and police stations in the town of Mocímboa da Praia in Cabo Delgado, killing 12 people, including two police officers.
The attackers raised banners claiming allegiance to ISIS. They seemed to be influenced by militant imams in neighbouring Tanzania and Kenya. Their aim, they said, was “integrating the largely Muslim populated Cabo Delgado into ISIS’s Central African Province.”
The group evolved into a well-armed, militarised unit calling itself Ahlu Sunna Wal Jamaa, known locally as al-Shabaab (no relation to the Somali variant), waging a violent insurgency against the Mozambican army and civilians. To date, the insurgency has claimed over 3,000, mostly civilian, lives and displaced over 500,000 people.
The attacks spiralled in 2020 and got bolder. In August, Mocimboa da Praia town saw running battles between insurgents and government troops, and the capture of its strategic port by militants. In November there were unconfirmed reports of the alleged ‘beheading’ of fifty villagers in Muidumbe in Cabo Delgado – which Maputo strongly denied.
Mozambique is a victim of its demography, its poor governance and policy failures, and its ‘resource curse’. The three have conspired to create the perfect storm for disaffected groups seeking to exploit the disenfranchised and marginalised rural poor in a power struggle over the control of natural resources.
Discontent in poverty-stricken Cabo Delgado started to fester in 2010 after the discovery of major offshore gas reserves, estimated at $60bn. The government awarded exploitation rights to Africa’s three largest liquid natural gas (LNG) initiatives – the Mozambique LNG Project (Total) worth $24bn, the Coral LNG Project (ENI and ExxonMobil), worth $4.7bn, and the Rovuma LNG Project (ExxonMobil, ENI and CNPC), worth $30bn.
Mozambique also has huge ruby, coal and titanium deposits and enormous agricultural and hydro-electric power potential. The expectation is that gas and other resources, and billions in foreign investments, would bring prosperity to the impoverished regions.
However, NGOs in Cabo Delgado point to people losing access to traditional fishing grounds and complaining about inadequate compensation for the forced and often unsuitable relocation that paved the way for the LNG projects.
Mozambique is susceptible to various climate threats – droughts, floods, and pollution related to gas and coal projects. In 2019, according to the World Bank, it experienced five such threats.
President Nyusi has conceded that “poverty and unemployment” are driving the insurgency. His three “belated” civic acts before the New Year were, revealingly, in Cabo Delgado and neighbouring Niassa. He launched the bridge over Montepuez River in Cabo Delgado, aimed at boosting the rural economy.
He also launched electrification projects in both provinces to improve access to electricity, with the hope it will unleash socioeconomic benefits for the rural populations and businesses.
He delivered 15 boats and various fishing kits to associations in the Metuge district in Cabo Delgado “to increase social well-being by improving nutritional levels and guaranteeing food security.”
The irony is that Mozambique is a member of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), an inter-governmental organisation headquartered in Saudi Arabia, which brings together 57 countries with Muslim majorities and minorities including 28 from Africa.
The OIC’s Islamic Development Bank has to date disbursed $531m-worth of concessional financing in support of 48 infrastructure projects in Mozambique.
Mozambique, according to official data, has a Muslim minority of about 20% out of a total population of 29.5m – the second-largest confessional group after Catholics (28.2%), with other Christian groups making up most of the rest.
Deafening silence from the AU
Are Mozambique, South Africa, the SADC and AU sleepwalking into yet another preventable terrorist nightmare in Africa? The AU failed to issue a single statement or press release on the Mozambique insurgency in 2020, designated by the Union as the year of “Silencing the Guns”.
South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa, as AU Chair, dispatched peace envoys to Zimbabwe and Ethiopia but has been strangely muted on his eastern neighbour. Maputo is nearer to Pretoria than it is to Cabo Delgado. Ramaphosa’s reticence suggests a dogged adherence to the ANC’s foreign policy of non-interference.
Mozambique shares porous borders with South Africa, eSwatini, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia. There are signs that the insurgency is being regionalised, with reports confirming militant raids on both sides of the border with Tanzania. Tanzanian, Zimbabwean and Mozambican troops are already cooperating in joint operations.
The UN recently warned of a “worsening humanitarian crisis in Mozambique”, largely due to the insurgency. The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) 2020, compiled by the Sydney-based Institute for Economics & Peace, and a report by the US Council on Foreign Relations, have raised alarm bells about the jihadist threat. According to the GTI report, Mozambique is one of seven SSA countries which saw the largest increase in terrorism in 2019/20, with the economic cost of terrorism reaching $12.5bn in 2019.
The SADC has seemed more interested in securing lucrative LNG contracts for its member countries, seemingly oblivious to the security threat.
The gas projects have seen the latest ‘scramble for Africa’, with a beauty parade of suitors – the IMF, AfDB and SADC; FDI investors from the US, France, China and Italy; and ECA guarantors from the US, UK, France and South Africa.
Even Fitch Ratings is convinced that the security situation is under control and the Nyusi government “would continue to step-up security spending”.
Neighbouring countries have been waiting for Nyusi to request help in fighting the insurgency, which he belatedly did in November. Portugal, its former colonial power, is dispatching military personnel to help train Mozambican troops in counterinsurgency.
The SADC seems finally to be getting its act together. President Nyusi hosted his South African, Tanzanian, Zimbabwean and Botswanan counterparts at a special summit in Maputo in December, discussing economic and security cooperation, with a promise to convene a dedicated summit in early 2021 to discuss the insurgency threat.
The change is partly due to the poorly led, ill-equipped, badly trained Mozambican troops – an issue which has resulted in the deployment of foreign private security contractors.
On New Year’s Eve the BBC reported an alleged daring attack by insurgents on Quitunda village inside the heavily guarded site of the Total consortium project.
Only a fortnight earlier, at the graduation ceremony of army officers, President Nyusi saw fit to demand “courage from his military commanders in the fight against terrorism”.
The army in turn could have reminded him that wars against terrorism are rarely, if ever, won by military might.