420,000 Displaced Due To Increasing Violence In Cabo Delgado, Mozambique

On the 18th December 2020, the UN updated the number of internally displaced people in the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique, estimating that over 420,000 civilians have been forced from their homes this year.

The UN High Commission for Refugee’s deputy director for Southern Africa, Angèle Dikongué-Atangana, described the situation as “really dire”, and urged both the African and international communities to intervene in what has been for too long an “invisible” crisis. Speaking to the BBC, she stated that the figures “are growing as days go by and this is a situation that is liable to deteriorate.” As the population of the region is estimated at just over 2.2 million, it would seem the situation has already deteriorated; nearly a quarter of the region has been displaced so far.

The international community seems to be showing similar reluctance in terming the causes of the displacement. Dikongué-Atangana emphasises the role of the “terrorist” aligned militants, who, according to a WHO Rapid Response Plan for May-December 2020, have been responsible for the deaths of over 500 civilians and the destruction of more than 107 schools – affecting over 56,000 children – since the violence began in October 2017.

President Filipe Nyusi earlier this year stated that “The terrorists kill people in heinous ways, cause displacement” and assured that his government was capable of facing the threat; “the government has responded firmly… with the support of local people.” However, the rising rate of displacement is not caused solely by increasing militant activity.

EU Foreign Minister Josep Borrell Fontelles recently criticised the government for its domestic failures, arguing that the violence in Cabo Delgado was “triggered by poverty and inequality and by the population of the area losing respect for a state which could not provide it with what it needed.” Fontanelles has been joined by the South African Minister for International Relations, Naledi Pandor, who pointed to “government deficits, human rights abuses, and contestation over resources” as key failings by the Mozambican government.

Certainly, the situation in Northern Mozambique is exceptionally complicated, a result of numerous factors and missed opportunities by both the government and the international community. Income inequality has been a developing concern in the country; in 2019, the World Inequality Database showed that as a share of the total wealth, the top 1% had more than triple that of the bottom 50%. This is in part due to the massive foreign investment (14.6% of total GDP in 2019) in Mozambique, which has seen rising contestation over resources – and resulted in the local population being overlooked in the quest for profits. Humanitarian issues have also had a long-term impact on the rising trend in displacement.

The 2019 Cyclone Kenneth left a swathe of destruction which has still not been properly dealt with. According to the WHO, an estimated 200,000 people are still living in destroyed/damaged homes or makeshift shelters. Add to this the rise in cholera and other sanitary diseases – over 960 cases and 15 deaths by the end of May 2020 – and the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, of which Cabo Delgado has more than 50% of all cases in Mozambique, and the situation is a humanitarian powder keg. The ongoing extremist insurgency, which in September briefly seized the island of Vamizi, 135 miles from Pemba, is really the latest in a string of crises, which have been either ignored or superficially dealt with by the Mozambican government.

The pressure is growing for Mozambique to accept military support from its neighbours to replace the privately hired South African and Russian security companies currently battling the extremist militants. The primary function of any military force however should be to address the underlying concerns of the people, such as adequate healthcare services, rebuilding projects, and security for the regions’ populace. Such an active domestic program – with support from the international community – will show a genuine commitment to the needs of the people and provide a more stable infrastructure with which to defeat the rising extremism.

Henry Whitelaw