Winning Peace in Mozambique’s Embattled North - Briefing N°178 [EN/PT]


Rwandan and southern African troops have helped authorities fight an Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province. The threat is greatly lowered but not yet gone. Maputo will need more military assistance as well as a nudge to address the conflict’s political roots.

What’s new? Since July 2021, Rwandan and southern African troops have deployed to Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, diminishing a nearly five-year-old Islamist insurgency. Insurgents continue to destabilise pockets of territory, however, and have spread into neighbouring Niassa province and Tanzania. They may call increasingly on East African Islamic State networks for support.

Why does it matter? The foreign troops working with Mozambique’s army have reclaimed significant territory from insurgents, while donor money has brought Cabo Delgado’s population some relief. Yet these remedies alone are unlikely to resolve a conflict born of local grievances. With those untreated, the insurgency will persist as a source of regional insecurity.

What should be done? Mozambique’s African partners should press Maputo to open dialogue involving political elites to set conditions that might persuade insurgents to surrender. While donors scale up aid in the province, the African Union should facilitate regional cooperation to dismantle the insurgency’s transnational networks and seek more funds to sustain military operations.


Troops from Rwanda and southern Africa have helped stem an insurrection in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province that had by early 2021 spiralled into a jihadist insurgency threatening regional security. The outside forces, working with Mozambique’s army, have driven insurgents out of bases and taken control of key towns. While many insurgents have quit fighting, small groups are still mounting attacks in parts of the province, leaving hundreds of thousands of people displaced and unsafe. Insurgents have now also sallied into neighbouring Niassa province and Tanzania, amid fears that they will turn to Islamic State (ISIS) networks in East Africa for greater support. To avoid a protracted conflict and regional crisis, Mozambique’s partners should press Maputo to open dialogue with political elites who have influence in Cabo Delgado about how to induce more insurgents to surrender. The African Union (AU) should facilitate better regional cooperation to block financial and material aid to the insurgency from nearby ISIS cells. The AU should also help identify more possible financing to support the deployments.

Since July 2021, more than 3,000 troops from Rwanda and Southern African Development Community (SADC) member states have flooded into Cabo Delgado, where the insurgency had been wreaking havoc, displacing 800,000 people in a conflict that has killed more than 3,700 people since 2017. In a short period, the soldiers have dismantled all the insurgents’ major bases and seized important territory they once held. Rwandan forces, working under a bilateral agreement with Maputo, have secured the Afungi peninsula, where the French company Total has invested in a multibillion-dollar gas project, and recaptured the strategic port of Mocímboa da Praia. The SADC, invoking a regional mutual defence pact, has deployed troops in central Cabo Delgado and toward the provincial capital Pemba, as well as in Nangade district near the border with Tanzania. These troops have dislodged insurgents from some of their strongholds but are stretched in terms of fully securing these areas.

But the insurgency is far from extinguished. Many fighters have simply blended into the civilian population, waiting for the right time to remobilise. Small groups continue to stage attacks in central, coastal and northern parts of the province. The insurgency could thus easily rebound if foreign forces suddenly draw down.

Donors have meanwhile bankrolled a surge in aid geared toward rebuilding infrastructure, restoring public services and helping some civilians resume their livelihoods amid the humanitarian crisis. The spending is unlikely, however, to quell the specific grievances of the young men who have joined al-Shabab, as the insurgency is known. What insurgents really want, according to sources who know them, is a meaningful role in the Cabo Delgado economy, so they can benefit from the opportunities created by major mining and gas projects and perhaps have a stake in the province’s smuggling rackets, many of which are run by political elites. If the insurgents’ motivations go unaddressed, the roots of the conflict will remain untreated.

Insurgents are finding ways to adapt to the Rwandan-SADC military pressure, pushing into next-door Niassa province and staging a few attacks in Tanzania. They are also trying to deploy more improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the battlefield. Officials fear that al-Shabab fighters will seek money and training, including in bombmaking skills, from East African ISIS networks, such as that based in the northern tip of Puntland, Somalia, to keep their campaign going. Should it strengthen its ISIS ties, the insurgency could not only endure but also help turn Mozambique into a staging or training ground for fighters to menace areas of neighbouring countries, particularly Tanzania. If insurgents then establish a firmer foothold in Tanzania, they could also deepen their links to the Allied Democratic Forces, an ISIS affiliate in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which recruits Tanzanians into its ranks and has helped train Mozambican fighters in the past.

Mozambique and its regional partners should start thinking about how they might obtain peace through means other than military operations and development money, as these measures, on their own, are unlikely to stop conflict dead in its tracks. The authorities should work harder to set incentives for insurgents who might be persuaded to surrender or leave sleeper cells. Mozambique’s regional partners, who also have an interest in seeing an end to the conflict, should push Maputo to open dialogue with local and national political elites, who in turn will have to make decisions about how to offer insurgents a viable future amid the resource boom under way in Cabo Delgado. The authorities will still have to win the public’s confidence by extending further development assistance, but dialogue with insurgents could help create a safer environment where such spending can yield even greater benefits. Meanwhile, the authorities should vigorously prosecute the high-level al-Shabab members whom they have arrested.

In cooperation with regional governments, Maputo will also need to step up efforts to block foreign financial and material support to al-Shabab, in particular from ISIS, which is now taking root in East Africa. The SADC is now setting up a regional counter-terrorism centre in Tanzania, where military, law enforcement, intelligence and judicial officials from member states can share information. To be maximally effective, it will require input from the member states of the two East African regional blocs, the East African Community and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, given the spread of al-Shabab’s networks in that region. To facilitate all this cooperation, the AU should look to ease communication and cooperation between member states of all these regions. Ideally, it should develop a common assessment of what ISIS is doing on the continent’s eastern side. Armed with this information, authorities will be better able to close the net around those helping al-Shabab from abroad.

While the above measures are under way, Mozambique will still need outside help to hold the territory that has been taken back from the insurgents. As the Mozambican army will likely require several years of upgrading before it can fully secure Cabo Delgado and other parts of the country’s north, Rwandan and SADC troops may need to stay on the ground for some time to come. Both Rwanda and the southern African states may require additional financial resources to keep their forces in Mozambique, with the SADC troops in particular struggling to stamp out insurgent activity in the province’s centre. While the European Union (EU), via its Peace Facility, can provide some of the troop contributors with limited support in the short term, the AU could also help identify alternative funding sources for the SADC mission.