Image: Aleksey Malinovski (Unsplash)

The insurgency in Northern Mozambique is a source of instability, not only for the already fragile nation, but it also poses a threat to the whole of Southern African Development Community (SADC). This security threat requires a coordinated and timely response from Mozambique and her allies.

The violence thus far has been largely contained to the Northern Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique and it is estimated that about 700 civilians have been killed and over 250 000 people have lost their homes since 2017. The most recent atrocity is the murder of 52 villagers of Xitaxi in April 2020. In fact, the data provided by the U.S. based Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project indicates that in the first four months of 2020, incidents of violence in Cabo Delgado had increased by 300% when compared to the same period in 2019.

Unfortunately, violence is not an anomaly for Mozambique. The country suffered during a brutal 16-year civil war, spanning from 1977 to 1992, following Mozambique’s independence from Portugal in 1975. In the aftermath, the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) emerged as the dominant political party in Mozambique with the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) continuing to engage the former in open conflict until the latter’s relatively peaceful surrender in August 2019. 

In 2011, a massive gas field containing an estimated 425billion cubic meters of gas was discovered off the coast of Cabo Delgado. The IMF expects that the new gas industry to exceed one hundred billion dollars, with the Mozambiquan government earning over five hundred billion dollars in tax revue from the project over the next 30 years. As such, Mozambique is now home to the three largest liquid natural gas (LNG) projects in Africa, namely: the Rovuma LNG project, worth $30 billion, involving ExxonMobil, ENI and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC); the Mozambique LNG project, worth $20 billion and involving Total; and the Coral FLNG project, involving ENI and ExxonMobil, worth $4.7 billion.

Further, due to the ongoing instability in the country and region, and the inability of the Mozambican government to effectively deal with these issues, these energy companies have enlisted the services of private security companies. The two major presences are those of the Russian Wagner group and the South African based Dyck Advisory Group (DAG). The latter has been instrumental in combatting the insurgency, both through ground support and light helicopter gunship air support, thereby filling the gaps in the limited capacity of the Mozambican government’s ability to effectively protect the assets of the before mentioned energy projects. 

On the other side of the conflict, there are multiple actors to band all the groups under the banner of ISIL/ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) which would oversimplify a complex reality. 

Tina Andrade, Mozambique’s representative for Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) explains that the debate is centred around whether the origins of the violent attacks stem from historical religious tensions, as the majority of citizens in the Cabo Delgado province are historically of the Islamic faith, or whether it is due to the socioeconomic issue that the government has failed to address – especially given the wealth being generated from the fledgling energy sector. 

As such, looking at the argument of religious extremism, there exists the home grown organisation going by the name Ansar al-Sunna, who’s modus operandi includes filmed beheadings and attacking schools and clinics, as these are seen as Western instruments. Ansar al-Sunna’s goal, as declared, was to purify how Islam was practised in Mozambique and to ultimately establish an Islamic Caliphate in the region. Furthermore, it was not until mid-2018 that ISIL/ISIS made itself know in the region through attacking both Mozambican security forces and infrastructure related to the energy sector. From what has been presented, the narrative of “Islamic extremists in Mozambique” does seem to be the logical cause of the problem. 

A correlation, however, does not necessarily mean that there is causality. Therefore, we must look at the other side of the debate, one that focuses on the government’s complicity in the violence and ensuing instability. Jasmine Opperman of the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project explains that although it is evident that there are levels of foreign influence and radicalisation, it should not result in a link immediately being established with Islam as the cause of the instability. 

Opperman continues by arguing: “Unless the government starts addressing local dissatisfaction in the short to medium term, we will see violence institutionalised and becoming part of Southern Africa, with regional implications. There is transnational interest, but local factors are by far more pressing”.

She is not alone in this assessment of the situation. University of Witwatersrand School of Governance associate Professor Anthoni van Nieuwkerk argues that “due to only 18% of Mozambique’s population being Islamic, the narrative of  violent Islamic extremism being at the root of the increase in violence in the country appears to be a flawed premise”.

Instead, van Nieuwkerk points to poverty and exclusion from development as being the drivers’ violence and instability. This point is demonstrated by the lack of transfers both in 2019 and 2020, as reported by Evaristo Chilingue, that although there are laws in place which guarantee that 2.75% of the revenues generated by mining and oil extraction must be directed towards improving the lives of those communities where the LNG projects are located. The government has consistently fallen short. In 2019, only 1.2 million Metical of the 83.4 million Metical were transferred in the first 6 months of the year. Further in 2020, although it was promised that half of the 88 million Metical owed to the communities would be transferred in the first half of the year, only 2.4 million Metical (2.8%) has been disbursed. All the while government spending on salaries and wages has soared without any salary increases being declared. 

The question must therefore be asked, what is happening in Mozambique? With an increase in unemployed youths, a clear lack of commitment by the government to back up promises of economic development and a heavy hand by government security forces in dealing with potential terrorists, the anti-government narrative of insurgent and militant organisations serves as a siren song for the disenchanted and downtrodden. This is a tune that could potentially resonate beyond Mozambique and the nations porous borders.

By Henry Dillion-Peens

Henry-Dillon Peens is an honours philosophy, politics, and economics student at the University of Pretoria, with his research focusing on the intersection between technology and intelligence. Henry is one of the permanent writers at The Art of Politics.

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