Since 2017, the insurgency in Mozambique has increasingly taken lethal twists, with the extremists getting more brazen with each year. There is an interplay of various factors that have conspired to bring instability to northern Mozambique, as well as threatening to engulf the whole of the SADC region. The province of Cabo Delgado, where the war is playing out, is home to one of the world’s richest gas discoveries. Multinational corporations have poured billions in the region to this effect, in a sea of grinding poverty and massive socio-political dissatisfaction. Internal rebels, with chief reference to Ahlu-Sunna Wa-Jama or ASWJ (translated to ‘adherents of the prophetic tradition’), have wreaked havoc in northern Mozambique at an unprecedented scale.
Mozambique is a country marred by a history of bitter conflict. Soon after the country had attained its independence in 1975, a 15-year long civil war (1977-1992) ensued, and the trail of devastation it left was of epic proportions. The effects of the war on the psyche of Mozambicans are palpable – as at several times various sections of the population relapse to violence to address their grievances against the government. Cabo Delgado itself was a key strategic place in the wars of liberation against European settlers – the “heartland of the Mozambican liberation struggle.”
With this new wave of violence, it is clear that years of neglecting the northern parts of Mozambique as well as giving priority to foreign multinationals over the country’s citizens have resulted in a recipe for disaster. Even though religious fanaticism plays a role in the instigation of conflicts in the Cabo Delgado province.
Rebels with links to RENAMO and ISIS are also causing untold suffering in Cabo Delgado. While the violence originated in 2017, the SADC finally acknowledged the gravity of this terroristic threat on 19 May 2020. But even the Mozambique government is approaching the security crisis with a bias towards protecting the investments of the multinationals such as Exxon Mobil, Total, the United States’ EXIM Bank, BP, Shell, among others.
Since 2017, the insurgency has left 2,000 people dead, and another 310,000 displaced. The jostling of natural resources by the Islamist extremists, the government, and the multinational firms elicits the conditions for conflicts to thrive.
Some of the responsibility behind the attacks has been claimed by the Islamic State, and some by forces linked to RENAMO. It is hard however to tell if all these forces are working intricately together.
When natural gas deposits were discovered in the Rovuma basin by American energy company Anadarko (later acquired by Total), global capital started to flow into Mozambique as private foreign firms wanted a piece of the cake. In 2011, an Italian company discovered another large gas field in the same area. In an area with investments by foreign firms that amount to a mammoth $60 billion, the people have not benefited anything tangible in their lives from the natural gas except conflict and more conflict.
Despite the contextual economic inequalities that are rampant not only in northern Mozambique but the rest of the country, the fighting for these natural resources proves to be a real menace. Islamist insurgencies, government forces, and multinational corporations are all vying for the natural gas – which explains why the government has abandoned the consideration for socio-political costs to appease the interests of global capital. In this case, the multinational firms that have invested in Mozambique. Firms that are bent on acquiring the maximum profits from this gas at the minimum costs.
In essence, Cabo Delgado is being divided and parceled out to multinational firms without regard for the local people, who remain extremely marginalized both politically and economically. Priority has always been accorded to multinational firms without considering the grievances and complexities of the people’s struggles. Under a neoliberal template of attracting as much foreign investment as possible, the government has been willing to grant licenses to these energy companies while the people languish in poverty. And this creates a fertile ground for the youths to be recruited by the insurgents.
It would seem that the deployment of troops by the government is done to safeguard the interests of the private capital invested by the multinational firms. Some soldiers were deployed to the area earlier this year at the specific request of ExxonMobil and Total, who feared for their investments. The liquid natural gas projects have been a blessing and a curse for Mozambique.
With an insatiate demand for fossil fuels that keeps the world ticking, the energy companies can only complain about COVID-19 slowing their business and an excessive supply of natural gas on the world market. Not about the welfare of the Mozambicans.
Cabo Delgado is a place where opportunities have remained elusive. There is little investment in education, health, public transport and telecommunications infrastructure, and water and sanitation systems. As such, the province ranks dismally when it comes to human development indicators. However, people have always relied on the land for subsistence farming, which provided them with food and energy (firewood). But all this is under threat now as the government is licensing some of the districts in the province to the mining companies as was the case in the district of Montepuez, depriving people of their source of existence. Priority is given to international capital to the detriment of the local people.
The marginalization of the Muslim population in Cabo Delgado, which entails poor service provision, is a huge factor of agitation among the youth. The youth find the radical politics of insurgency as a shelter from the disempowerment they face. Here is a region swarmed with multinational companies, but the people have nothing to show for the resources abundant in their province.
Because there is low investment in education, the local populations cannot even qualify for the new jobs coming with the new mining and gas exploration projects.
Discontent is at an all-time high in northern Mozambique following a failed land resettlement program which resulted in thousands of households dependent on farming and fishing displaced.
A conflation of joblessness, land dispossession, poverty, and human rights violations has provided a suitable climate for conflicts to thrive. The simmering tensions also find an outlet on the basis that the ASWJ claim that Islam practiced in Mozambique, with particular reference to Cabo Delgado, has become seriously adulterated such that there is a need to return to the true principles of Muhammed. As well as riding on the rhetoric of being anti-Christian and anti-Western.
Although religious fanaticism plays a role in the indoctrination of new recruits, the insurgency is spurred by widespread socio-economic and political issues. And in this narrative lies the curse of the much-vaunted “foreign direct investment” by international capital. All aided by a national consciousness that easily reverts to guns to settle grievances against the establishment.
The situation has been made worse by the dastardly acts of war against civilians by the insurgents. They do not hesitate to behead or shoot dead people if they refuse to join their ranks. And some are brutally killed for being Christian. Under such an atmosphere of intense fear, recruitment is an uninterrupted process, further fueling the insurgency.
The insurgents have got bolder because of the deficiencies and incapacities of the military. When the towns of Mocimboa da Praia (close to the site of natural gas projects worth $60 million) and Quissanga were occupied by the insurgents earlier this year in March, the security forces failed to stop them. Some soldiers shed their military uniform so that they could blend in with the civilians to avoid combat. Even with the help of foreign private military contractors such as the Wagner Group from Russia or the South African Dyck Advisory Group, the security forces are failing to stop the insurgents. In the first four months of 2020, violent armed incidents in Cabo Delgado shot by a massive 300% as compared to the same period in 2019.
Mozambique itself was slow to respond, sparking fears that this could lead to the rise of another Boko Haram. And this is what the government attempted to circumvent – that their country is not one for “terrorists” and that there will not be a terroristic threat in the SADC region. The label of terrorism being applied to Mozambique was something the authorities were afraid of (which explains the late appeals for help from SADC and in turn SADC’s late acknowledgment of the gravity of the issue).
Under-ammunition and lack of expertise regarding counter-terroristic methods contribute heavily to the furtherance of the insurgency in northern Mozambique, which threatens to spill over into other SADC states. Local populations have little trust in the military because of the heavy-handed tactics employed when dealing with the rebels – the same tactics detested by the people as well. Enforcing repressive military campaigns has resulted in gross human rights abuses against civilians.
With ASWJ telling the unemployed youth that joining them will be the “antidote” to the existing “corrupt, elitist rule,” the onus is on SADC to come up with a concerted plan to halt the growth of the Islamist rebels. This will ultimately include a plan to improve the socio-economic and political conditions of the people in northern Mozambique. Although the government took time to acknowledge the problem, only referring to it as an “internal problem,” it is hamstrung by an incapacitated army, which is in urgent need of restructuring and reforms. The soldiers need more motivation.
The government is also seized with the efforts to curb COVID-19, and as such, it is caught between a rock and a hard place. But with attacks against civilians continuing unabated, together with disruptions on major transport networks, SADC must join hands with Maputo and show that ASWJ is not invincible, as well as pre-empting the risk of exporting terror to other states.