The Political Economy of Mozambique’s ‘Faceless Insurgency’

The Political Economy of Mozambique’s ‘Faceless Insurgency’

Since 2017, Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province has grappled with a brutal jihadist insurgency which threatens to spiral out of control and precipitate destabilising effects across East Africa. Ansar al-Sunnah, the militant group behind the escalating insurgency, has often been described as ‘more criminal than jihadi’, highlighting the centrality of the crime-terror nexus and underlying socioeconomic grievances as structural drivers of conflict that must be fully unpacked in order to respond effectively to Mozambique’s ‘Faceless Insurgency’. 

On 10 March 2021, the U.S State Department announced the designation of Islamic State’s Central Africa Province (ISCAP) as a foreign terrorist organisation, an unprecedented move for a jihadist network operating wholly south of the Sahara which underscores the shifting locus of the transnational jihadist threat from the Middle East towards Africa. Although ISCAP operates as a heterogenous network of loosely affiliated organisations sprawling across Sub-Saharan Africa from Uganda to the Democratic Republic of Congo, nowhere does the group have a stronger foothold than in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province, where local jihadist group Ansar al-Sunnah has waged a ‘Faceless Insurgency’ culminating in the establishment of a de facto proto-state centred on the regional capital of Moçimboa da Praia. Whilst the proliferation of violent extremist ideologies in Cabo Delgado is naturally deeply concerning, the key takeaway for policymakers seeking to understand contemporary conflict dynamics in northern Mozambique should be a contextual appreciation of the complex political economy of Cabo Delgado which underpins localised grievances against both the state and foreign investors. By unpicking such ‘root causes’ of insurgency in Mozambique, policymakers can glean valuable insights into the social, economic and developmental approaches needed to counter rising violent extremism across Sub-Saharan Africa.

Ever since Ansar al-Sunnah launched their first assault on a police checkpoint in October 2017, the insurgent group has steadily ramped up its violent activities, gradually increasing the scale of attacks before ultimately launching a large-scale offensive which resulted in the capture of Moçimboa da Praia during August 2020. Much like other ISIS affiliates, Ansar al-Sunnah’s insurgency has been particularly noted for its excessive brutality, with beheading and burning alive commonplace for captives of the group. However, unlike other ISIS franchises where influxes of foreign fighters with global agendas have engulfed localised jihadist ecosystems, Ansar al-Sunnah predominantly draws upon local grievances to fuel its insurgent activities, exploiting widespread socioeconomic deprivation, low state capacity and hostility towards rapacious extractive industries run to the benefit of corrupt local elites and foreign multinationals.

The Political Economy of Radicalisation in Mozambique

Cabo Delgado has long counted amongst Mozambique’s most marginalised provinces, possessing high levels of youth unemployment, weak state capacity and the lowest per capita incomes of all the country’s regions. Given the region’s rich natural resources (notably timber and gemstones), porous borders with Tanzania and lack of state investment in creating viable economic opportunities, Cabo Delgado stands at the centre of a thriving illicit borderland economy which many local citizens depend upon for subsistence. Furthermore, Cabo Delgado’s predominantly Muslim Mwani minority has long harboured latent ethnic grievances against the Catholic Makonde due to perceptions of preferential treatment regarding scarce public sector employment opportunities. In keeping with the remote northern region’s historically marginalised status, Cabo Delgado has traditionally acted as a hub of resistance against state control, representing a major redoubt for  Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) guerrillas during the Mozambiquan civil war in the 1970s. Nonetheless, despite widespread impoverishment and neglect at the hands of state authorities, the province remained relatively trouble-free prior to the discovery of massive oil and natural gas reserves off Cabo Delgado’s coastline in 2010. 

However, initial hopes that large-scale investments in the $30bn offshore natural gas fields by multinational energy giants such as Total, ExxonMobil, BP, Eni and Shell would signal a reversal in Cabo Delgado’s economic fortunes, quickly evaporated. Legitimate grievances rapidly emerged as profits from these new extractive industries flowed predominantly to Mozambiquan political elites and foreign investors whilst promised employment opportunities for locals failed to materialise. Moreover, the forced displacement of coastal fishing and agricultural communities to make way for onshore support facilities without adequate compensation has fuelled further antagonism, both against foreign multinationals and between local communities, with displaced inhabitants resettled on agricultural land encroaching upon neighbouring settlements. Such grievances have been further exacerbated by the ramifications of anthropogenic climate change in Cabo Delgado’s low-lying coastal communities. During 2019/20, unusual meteorological patterns driven by warming surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean meant that historically cyclone-free Mozambique bore the brunt of Cyclones Kenneth and Idai in quick succession, destroying agricultural crops and devastating fishing villages, thus exacerbating underlying socioeconomic deprivation.

In response to these dynamics of economic marginalisation and social exclusion, a sizeable faction of Cabo Delgado’s large uneducated youth population have embraced Ansar al-Sunnah. Although the appeal of Salafi-Jihadist ideologies may account for some of Ansar al-Sunnah’s appeal amongst Cabo Delgado’s marginalised youth, socioeconomic deprivation and anti-state grievances arguably play a far greater role in fuelling Islamist recruitment in the province. Indeed, Ansar al-Sunnah has long been understood as ‘more criminal than jihadi’, with the group tapping into a bewildering array of illicit income streams including illegal logging, drug smuggling and human trafficking, all of which contribute to a multimillion dollar transnational criminal enterprise which disguises itself in jihadist rhetoric. 

This is not to suggest that religious extremist ideologies have no place in Mozambique’s insurgent ecosystem. During the 2010s, local youth adherents to CISLAMO – a nonviolent Salafist organisation established in the 1980s – began to advocate for the imposition of a stricter version of Islam than that preached by Cabo Delgado’s traditionally moderate Sufi religious authorities. During 2015 and 2016, Salafist agitators began to withdraw their children from public schools, attack liquor stores and demand the imposition of Islamic dress in public. In June 2016, these radicalised youths, colloquially known as al-xababi (al-Shabab) stormed a local mosque, prompting a series of tit-for-tat reprisals which further polarised relations between moderates and radicals. It is widely believed that such al-xababi agitators have since transformed into the ideological core of Ansar al-Sunnah. Nevertheless, the primary motivations for the majority of jihadist recruits forming the backbone of Cabo Delgado’s insurgency remain fundamentally rooted in economic grievances and social marginalisation rather than ideological fervour.

Mozambique’s political elites, facing the incentive to attract and reassure foreign investors in Cabo Delgado’s natural gas fields, have sought to downplay the crisis by propagating a narrative of stability which conceptualises jihadist insurgents as little more than local criminal gangs. Although Ansar al-Sunnah’s linkages with the criminal underworld are self-evident, Maputo’s desire to cultivate a stable environment conducive to foreign direct investment has underpinned a highly militarised response involving widespread allegations of human rights abuses by Mozambiquan forces, an approach which further risks driving marginalised youth towards Ansar al-Sunnah, irrespective of whether they are attracted by economic or ideological incentives. Furthermore, Maputo’s reliance upon foreign private security contractors such as Russia’s Wagner Group and South Africa’s Dyck Advisory Group has fed into the narrative of victimisation by foreign interlopers, further exacerbating localised grievances in Cabo Delgado.

Preventing Catastrophe: Cabo Delgado’s Risk Outlook

Looking forward, immediate prospects for Cabo Delgado appear bleak with no end to insurgency on the horizon. During 2020, violence against civilians in the province doubled relative to 2019 levels. Since 2017, almost 4,000 have been killed and 400,000 have fled into Mozambique’s southern provinces or across the border into neighbouring Tanzania. This influx of refugees has led NGOs to raise concerns surrounding food security and the spread of COVID-19 in cramped, unhygienic camps. Moreover, evidence has emerged that Ansar al-Sunnah has begun developing more concrete linkages with other militant organisations operating in Sub-Saharan Africa, such as the Allied Democratic Forces in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as becoming increasingly embedded in cross-border illicit economies sprawling across East Africa. 

Even more concerning are that the myriad social, economic, political and ethnic grievances underpinning Cabo Delgado’s insurgency are not unique across Sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, significant parallels can be drawn between the unfolding situation in northern Mozambique and existing conflict dynamics in the Sahel, Horn of Africa, Niger Delta and Lake Chad basin. Given the past trajectories of such insurgencies, notably their tendency to percolate across porous borders and spawn spillover conflicts in neighbouring countries, South African and Tanzanian authorities should be alert to signs of similar contagion effects stemming from Cabo Delgado – and be prepared to take forceful action to nip them in the bud. In Cabo Delgado itself, Mozambiquan authorities, foreign multinationals humanitarian agencies and international partners alike should be prepared for an uphill struggle to tackle the root causes of radicalisation and violent extremism. As with any effective humanitarian intervention, doing so will require a holistic, long-term commitment to addressing the myriad social, economic, ethnoreligious and political grievances fuelling perceptions of marginalisation and deprivation. Fundamental to this process will be rebuilding trust in formal state institutions, minimising negative environmental externalities and incentivising foreign multinationals to live up to their promises to create meaningful economic opportunities for Cabo Delgado’s citizens. Nonetheless, Mozambique’s ‘Faceless Insurgency’ looks likely to get even worse before it gets better.

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