Amid an opportunity to address broader challenges in Mozambique, the government and its international backers must act with urgency.
By: Thomas P. Sheehy
Since 2017, armed militants — often carrying the Islamic State flag — have been on the offensive in the northern Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado. The human toll of this violence is grave, with more than 3,000 killed, nearly a million displaced and an acute hunger crisis. While regional and international actors — namely, the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), Rwanda and the European Union — are following up on committed troop deployments and training missions, the Mozambican government and its international supporters should bring an even greater sense of urgency to this crisis. Beyond the immediate priority of stemming the violence and addressing the dire humanitarian situation that is already affecting neighboring provinces, the crisis affords the government of Mozambique and the international community the opportunity to address long-standing challenges.
With several thousand fighters, the Islamic State-affliated al-Shabbab has conducted increasingly sophisticated military operations, including by reportedly working intelligence cells within the Mozambican military. The militants have also improved their tactics and weaponry, as documented by a recent International Crisis Group report. Indeed, a March assault on the city of Palma led energy giant Total to declare force majeure concerning its massive natural gas investment in Cabo Delgado. The insurgency is taking advantage of a porous Tanzanian border and Mozambican coast. The Mozambican government has stressed al-Shabaab’s connections to outside terrorist organizations, drawing criticism for ignoring the Mozambican elements of the conflict. The reality is that foreign terrorist links do exist, with an influx of non-Mozambican jihadists inflaming local grievances.
The insurgents finance themselves by illicit activities, including extortion and kidnapping. There is potential for the conflict to expand into neighboring provinces, also rich in natural resources and ripe for militant exploitation, and even across borders. Under a best-case scenario, the insurgency in Cabo Delgado could take several years to tame. An urgency in addressing it is long overdue.
The Mozambican government has had some impressive accomplishments, most notably ending its brutal war with RENAMO that ran from 1977 to 1992. While flawed, the government has held a series of democratic elections. But the government has also remained a FRELIMO-dominated institution, with the liberation-era political party staying in power since winning independence. FRELIMO runs a heavily centralized government with provinces treated subserviently, allowing their people too little voice. The RENAMO political opposition party has pressed for decentralization in negotiations, winning greater powers for provincial governors, but the power balance between Maputo and provincial capitals has remained largely unchanged.