On the 27th of May, the Mozambican government gave a mixed message regarding the status of the terrorist insurgency in the north of the country. The interior minister, Amade Miquidade, reiterated that the situation was “under control”. He also, however, provided worrying information on the strategy pursued by the military group known as al-Shabab.
The group has been conducting its activities dressed in national army uniforms as well as using drones to identify its targets. This, alongside the group’s use of civilians as human shields, renders the situation “complex”, according to Miquidade. The minister’s statements followed last week’s encouraging news of a collaboration with South Africa on eliminating the insurgent threat in Cabo Delgado, the northern region affected by al-Shabab.
The response of the Mozambican government to the insurgency in Cabo Delgado has been under scrutiny. Its persistent downplaying of the gravity of the situation meant that effective action has been critically delayed. The seriousness, however, is all too apparent. The New Humanitarian reported that al-Shabab has been responsible for displacing over 150,000 people since 2017.
Furthermore, there have been alarming reports of the government’s attempts to silence journalists describing the reality on the ground. However, the recent announcement of a collaboration with the South African Development Community (SADC) on the issue could be seen as an uplifting change in the government’s approach, wishing to involve other countries and face up to the truth of the situation in Mozambique.
It is this recent change of direction that contributes to the uncertainty of Amade Miquidade’s press conference. The alarming use of guerrilla warfare, Mozambican military uniforms as well as drones seems difficult to square with the interior minister’s description of a situation that is “under control”.
Furthermore, it was noted that the interior minister did not reveal where the insurgents had got their military uniforms. The news of insurgents blending into villages and communities as national soldiers will only serve to further complicate the loyalties of the population of Cabo Delgado.
As Mozambique’s most richly resourced yet poorest region, some have commented that the rise of al-Shabab stems from feelings of abandonment and exploitation from the government. The disguise assumed by the insurgents is thus a clever and worrying move; it allows citizens to safely show covert support by offering them the excuse of misidentification. It is not encouraging news.
Commentators have been worried by the way in which insurgents seem to be capitalizing on local tensions as a means for garnering support. This matches the common strategy seen in IS and Boko Haram insurgencies, which particularly target disenfranchised young men and channels the anti-establishment resentment that can be built up from a broad range of political and economic factors.
Eric Morier-Genoud, a Belfast-based academic, described it as “very significant” that a recent video published by al-Shabab featured a self-proclaimed local Mozambican man, denouncing the corruption of the national government. This all points towards the increasing tension that residents of Cabo Delgado will be put under, as al-Shabab goes underground and will try to exploit any anti-government and pro-insurgent sentiment it can detect.
The interior minister’s comments, then, suggest that more honesty is required about the implications on the ground. This is essential in order to reassure Mozambicans of the government’s dedication to establishing peace in Cabo Delgado, rather than covering up a politically embarrassing situation. In this case, the significance of al-Shabab’s assumption of guerrilla-style warfare should be fully expounded, and the coming strains upon the loyalty of affected villages and populations must not be underestimated. The repeated echo of a situation that is “under control” may in fact be critically counterproductive.
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