Peacebuilding in Northern Mozambique’s Insurgency: Ways Forward

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Abstract: Cabo Delgado, once heartland of the Mozambican national liberation struggle, is turning into an epicenter of conflict and instability, which threatens neighboring countries and regional stability. Armed conflict with Jihadist extremists is exacerbated by privatized security forces and a lack of tangible regional solidarity and security coordination.

Large offshore gas deposits act as an additional driver of conflict while peacebuilding initiatives are still at the very beginning. Extremists aligned with ISIS are emplacing an ecosystem for transnational illegal activity- just as the major gas project development can bring real peace dividends to the impoverished province. In view of escalating violence, it is time for the international response to shift gears and invest in peacebuilding besides counter-insurgency assistance and security sector reforms, including for regulating the activity of private military and security companies. In a new paradigm of partnership with the government, joined-up cooperation, including withfuture gas customers across the Indian Ocean could buttress the response to the escalating violence.

Conflict Trajectory- Armed violence has steadily escalated in Cabo Delgado province of northern Mozambique since 2017. In the last two years, the Jihadist insurgency of  “Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama” (ASWJ) has gained momentum beyond rural areas. In August 2020, insurgents took control of Mocimboa da Praia town on the northern coast. The complex attack on 25 March against the densely populated city of Palma targeted a staging area for the large offshore gas development project[1]. As a result, the leading energy firm involved in the gas project, Total Company of France, stopped operations and withdrew its personnel from the area. Experts estimate that currently some 60% of sub-districts in the province are no longer under effective government control. The humanitarian fallout from the fighting is catastrophic:700,000 persons are displaced and around a quarter of the provincial population. The fighting has caused2,800 casualties so far, reportedly more than half of them civilians, according to ACLED humanitarian statistics.

Government Response-The government struggled to keep the insurgency at bay after initial denial of the problem. In 2020, the government took steps to reorganize its security posture in Cabo Delgado and created a joint task force against the terrorists. Mozambique and Tanzania concluded an agreement to form a joint defense and security committee in mid-January 2021 for the purpose of intelligence sharing and coordination.

There has also been a growing readiness to accept foreign military advisers and trainers, while local militia groups were used in parallel. The US and former colonial power Portugal have recently agreed to provide trainers for Mozambican forces. The EU has stepped up planning for a possible EU Military Mission to assist the government, after the SADC neighboring states fielded a recent assessment.

However, Mozambique has been adamant against foreign troop deployments, in keeping with its non-aligned tradition and to safeguard national sovereignty. The SADC regional block started to deliberate about a joint security response in late 2020. However, the recent SADC troika summit meeting on 8-9 April devoted to regional security challenges remained inconclusive.

Reforms in Mozambique’s security sector have been incomplete since the end of the civil war 1977-1992, which has debilitated the army in front line roles against violent extremists. Anti-terror legislation was adopted only in 2018 when the insurgency already began to make itself strongly felt. Security governance is further complicated by Mozambique’s reliance on private military and security firms (PMCs/ PSCs), including from Russia and South Africa (Wagner Group, Dyck Advisory Group/DAG) which failed to rout the Jihadists. In northern Mozambique, these para-military actions have drawn strong criticism from human rights organizations such as Amnesty International. There is testimony accusing security company employees of indiscriminate violence.

Significance of Transnational Extremist Threat- Already in July 2019, the ASWJ insurgents pledged allegiance to the ISIS branch in Central Africa ISCAP which operates in Congo DRC. Their fighting strength is believed to be around 2,000 in Cabo Delgado province. ASWJ publicly committed to applying Sharia Law as agents of a “government of God”, like ISIS in the Middle East and the Al Shabab militia in Somalia. ASWJ has also accused the ruling FRELIMO Party in Mozambique of corruption. In March 2021, the U.S. imposed sanctions against leaders of ISIS-ISCAP and counterparts in ASWJ as terrorists.

Counter-terrorist experts believe that ASWJ which is also locally known as ‘Al Shabab’ (‘Ansar al-Sunna’ or simply as ‘mashababos’)has mostly homegrown origins. However, there are indications that at least some of the leading ASWJ cadres are in fact from Tanzania. Polarization between Mwani and Makonde ethnic groups in provincial sub-districts of Mozambique also plays a role in the violence.

There are growing concerns that the insurgency could spill over into neighboring provinces of Mozambique, especially Nampula and Niassa. Experts have pointed out that there is a risk of expanded territorial control and  illicit revenue streams (from timber, precious stones, and heroin smuggling). This might give the insurgents access to more sophisticated arms. The illegal gold mining business is supposedly bankrolling the insurgency against government control measures.

Spillover into Tanzania across the shared border has already occurred. Security analysts are pointing to an expansion trend of ISIS and Jihadist violence in Africa as their new frontier. Cabo Delgado could replicate the violence in the Sahel region and add a trans-continental dimension to extremism by expanding to the Indian Ocean seaboard. In this view, ASWJ- ISCAP could pose a critical threat to the more developed economies in neighboring South Africa and Tanzania as well as for international shipping and trade.

Hydrocarbon Pull Factor in Mozambique’s Insurgency-Cabo Delgado province is a majority Muslim area in Mozambique with a history of government neglect and under-development. Youth unemployment is staggeringly high as well as the levels of illiteracy among youth. The province has also emerged as a national hotspot for COVID-19 infections, due to IDP movements and the influx of persons from across the border in Tanzania where virus controls have been lax.

By contrast, the 20bn USD offshore LNG gas project in the province represents  the largest private investment in Africa’s energy sector. Totalenergy firm of Franceaims to produce 13 bn tons of LNG gas annually from 2024. Despite the recent setback, Total has stated that the project remains on track.

The lucrative hydrocarbons development and expected funds flows act as an additional driver of extremist violence, competing with the reach of government authorities. Some sub-contractors might end up paying protection money to the Jihadists, although control of gas wells is not realistic for AWSJ.

Configuring Peacebuilding against Violence in Cabo Delgado-  Militarized responses to the insurgency have proven ineffective so far and only made matters worse. Therefore a concerted and multi-dimensional effort is needed to engage in peacebuilding, dialogue and civilian-led security sector reform development with provincial focus. President Filipe Nyusi’s new Agency for Integrated Development of the North (ADIN) is a welcome step towards participatory development planning and giving populations more of a voice in their socio-economic future.

Within the ambit of civilian peacebuilding, there is a need for inclusiveness in Mozambique’s security governance. It is important to ensure control over the private military and security firms in the counter-terrorist campaign. Normative frameworks for private military and security companies in warfare, e.g. the ICoC Voluntary Code of Conduct and the 2008 Montreux Document governing state use of mercenaries, should be localized for the situation in Cabo Delgado. In addition, focused deradicalization and extremist prevention actions specifically targeting youth are required. Specialist counter-terrorist skills training is a critical element in reforming the Mozambican security forces.

Despite generous EU development assistance to the country, the insurgency has so far received little attention in Europe, where Mozambique and Cabo Delgado province are perceived through the lens of humanitarian concerns after successive cyclones, or as an exotic tourist destination. The situation in Cabo Delgado was discussed in the European Parliament in September 2020. Cabo Delgado also featured in a parliamentary hearing in Berlin later that year about current levels of German engagement in conflict-affected areas of Africa. Given the high stakes of the insurgency which is no longer just a side show on the African continent’s conflict map, leading European states might come together to pool their expertise and assist the Government of Mozambique in peacebuilding. A mapping of peace constituencies in Cabo Delgado province is a critical first step, as well as assessing the social media landscape with youth and young women. Comparative insights are available from youth counter- radicalism programs in Tanzania and work with women as peacebuilders by German political foundations in Mozambique, as well as support and expertise from UNDP with Japanese funding commitments for peace support in 2020.

Coordination of these inputs and conflict sensitive implementation alongside the humanitarian relief effort in the Triple Nexus (humanitarian, stabilization and development dimensions) are overdue. Through the established and experienced UN country team, modalities can be found to move from business as usual to shaping the international response in a more focused and impactful way, strengthening local dialogue efforts from Mozambique’s Civil Society, faith leaders and advocacy umbrella groups formed in Cabo Delgado.  

In the medium term, innovative development cooperation centered around the expected gas flows from Mozambique to emerging markets in Asia across the Indian Ocean holds promise for scaling up the development response. It is possible to establish structured ‘reverse trades’ of skills training and technology transfers for learning together in the global energy transition through 2050 for decisively  improving the situation in Cabo Delgado.


Matthias E. Leitner
Matthias E. Leitner
Matthias E Leitner, Senior Adviser/ International Coordinator with ICSVE Center Washington, DC (USA), Berlin-based Matthias Ernst LEITNER has over 20 years’ experience in international peace and security, mainly in UN and regional peace operations across Africa and in the Middle East. His professional focus is on governance/ accountability, national dialogues and coalition building as well as on project development for preventing violent extremism and radicalization. Mr. Leitner has held senior management positions with UN Special Envoy Offices. His ongoing interest is in UN reforms, peacebuilding and innovative approaches for resilience to the COVID-19 Pandemic. His academic background from Bonn and Oxford Universities is in languages and history.

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