Mozambique’s Insurgency & Prospects for Regional Insecurity

Mozambique’s Insurgency & Prospects for Regional Insecurity

The discovery of large mineral and liquid natural gas deposits in Mozambique in 2010 boded well for Mozambique’s future, but conflict between Islamist militants and the central government over these resources has resulted in many fatalities and mass displacement.  The President of Mozambique downplays the seriousness of the situation, but neighboring African states and African regional bodies fear that the conflict will spread beyond Mozambique’s borders.

Attacks by armed extremist groups in Mozambique have increased this year.  Mozambique’s oil-rich region of Cabo Delgado has been hit especially hard. The increase has caused neighboring countries to panic. Attacks have been made by numerous operators. Although Islamic State has claimed some of the attacks, armed extremists from Tanzania and Kenya, alongside a Mozambique terror group named Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama are also behind the attacks. Due to the similar nature of the attacks and difficulties identifying who is behind them, it is hard to conclusively prove if these networks are operating in tandem. 

Mozambique’s Natural Wealth

Gas and mineral deposits were found in Cabo Delgado in 2010, but violence in the region began in October 2017. Since then multinational companies such as ExxonMobil have begun to invest in the area. Currently, Cabo Delgado is home to Africa’s three largest liquid natural gas (LNG) projects: Coral, FLNG Project (ENI and ExxonMobil) worth $4.7 bn, the Mozambique LNG Project (Total, formerly Anadarko) worth $20bn, and Rovuma LNG Project (ExxonMobil, ENI and CNPC) worth $30bn.

Since 2017, militants have killed over 700 civilians. In April 2020, militants attacked villages around Muidumbe, killing an estimated 52 people who refused to join their ranks. Militants have also targeted security forces, destroyed government infrastructure, and seized weapons from Mozambican soldiers. 

Sources of Insurgency

However, mineral resources are not the only intensifier of the conflict. The marginalization of the Muslim population in Cabo Delgado appears to have fanned the flames of insurgency. As one journalist arguesmost of the region has received little attention from the central government since independence in 1975”. Poverty, joblessness, land dispossession, and human rights violations have left an excellently fertile ground for people to turn to the insurgents. Despite the vast amounts of money invested into the region, tangible benefits for the populace have not materialised. 

The Mozambique military has tried to quell the attacks, aided by private military contractors (PMCs) such as Wagner Group from Russia, or the South African Dyck Advisory Group which in April 2020 aerially attacked an Islamist base in Mbau. Despite this, the government of Mozambique does not appear to have the situation under control. In September 2019, insurgents killed at least a dozen people in the Mbau administrative post of Mocimboa da Praia district, and burnt down houses, shops and the local offices of the ruling Frelimo Party.

In the first four months of 2020, violent armed incidents in Cabo Delgado rose by 300 percent compared with the same period in 2019.  It is estimated that since the insurgency began in 2017, more than 1,000 people have died as a result of the violence. What’s more, 200,000 people have fled their homes as the violence spreads toward the southern part of Cabo Delgado. 

Publicly, the government has tried to play down the seriousness of the insurgency. Claiming that the attacks are a result of criminal activity rather than by armed militias. Meanwhile opposition parties within Mozambique have appealed for the government to declare a state of war so as to solicit international support. 

This generates a large amount of risk not only for Mozambique and its extractive industries but a whole bloc of its neighbors too. The country shares borders with South Africa, Malawi, Eswatini, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe, all of which are members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC). In August 2020, South African Defense Minister stated thatThe violent extremist activity in northern Mozambique threatens [South Africa’s] massive natural offshore gas exploration projects”. In addition, Zimbabwe relies on Mozambique for much of its food and electricity imports. A large risk would be if the insurgency spread further throughout Northern Mozambique and became an entrenched problem, significantly damaging other SADC states along with it.  

Comparable situations can be made with Nigeria and Mali. Both countries suffered Islamist attacks, and their response was so slow that the violence quickly spread to other nations. For example, in Mali in 2012, Al-Qaida-linked rebels Ansar Dine conducted military attacks. But because Mali was slow to respond, the violence quickly spread to Burkina Faso and other regional neighbours. A considerable fear is that Mozambique’s insurgency difficulties could become similar to the Boko Haram insurgency in Northern Nigeria. This insurgency has gone on to severely disrupt Nigeria’s neighbours’ security. 

Mozambique is a developing country and has still not recovered from the civil war that ran from 1977 to 1992. In February of this year, the escalation of violence prompted Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi to call for assistance from the SADC. However, aside from Tanzania, the SADC has been slow to respond. Many members of the government are consumed with managing the coronavirus and cannot spend more on military expenditure. A solution to the insurgency requires a muscular response from other members of the SADC and the international community, such as the UN and African Union to stem the tide. 

However, the immediate military problem exists separate from the more deep-seated development problems in Cabo Delgado. Ultimately the root cause is a lack of jobs and development as the region has been neglected since the 1970s. Human rights campaigner David Matsinhe said that in the absence of government services, people had lost access to the land they relied on for food, shelter and income. What is more, people are deemed unqualified for jobs in the new industries, such as mining and gas extraction, that tap the region’s mineral wealth. 

Seizure of Mocimboa de Praia

In August 2020, militants linked to Islamic State seized the heavily defended port Mocimboa da Praia in the Cabo Delgado region. Mocimboa da Praia is close to the site of natural gas projects worth $60m. During the attack, Mozambique security forces were low on ammunition and abandoned the town by boat. In the same week, IS claimed that it had taken over two military bases near Mocimboa da Praia, killed Mozambique soldiers and captured weaponry, including machine guns. 

A real test for the strength of the insurgency would be whether they consider themselves equipped enough to hold onto the strategically important town. If they do, it will point towards the insurgency’s confidence and availability of soldiers, supplies, and appetite for risk. 

The recent intensification of the conflict this year is a worrying development and increases the volume of potential risks. Not only to Mozambique but to its neighbours in the region as well.

Categories: Africa, Security

About Author