Fighting Fire With Fire – Why Violence Will Not Solve Mozambique’s Insurgency

Over the past four years, a violent insurgency has increasingly destabilized the Cabo Delgado province of northern Mozambique. In March of this year, hundreds of militants lay siege to the town of Palma, killing dozens, whilst the Maputo government has routinely declined to provide assistance. In its latest development, the port city of Mocímboa da Praia was successfully retaken by Rwandan and Mozambican military forces on Sunday the 8th of August, following a sharp increase of attacks by militant groups. Although this marks a significant success over the insurgency, many are concerned that violent retaliation will only fan the flames of this insurrection.

Origins of the Movement

The 5th of October 2017 marks the start of this insurrection when 30 armed rebels raided three police stations in the town of Mocímboa de Praia. Since then, violence attributed to this cause has continued to escalate, while the effectiveness of Mozambican state forces to contain this threat has wavered on account of corruption, poor training, and ineffective equipment. Ansar al-Sunna, known by locals as Al-Shabaab (not to be confused with Al-Shabaab in Somalia), are the main insurgent faction and are reported to have ties to the Islamic State (IS). Many have labeled them ideological terrorists attempting to create a secessionist Islamic caliphate and establish a sharia-based political order in the region. However, the reality is more nuanced than that. As Eric Morier-Genoud argues in ‘The Jihadi Insurgency in Mozambique: Origins, Nature, and Beginning,’ although the Ansar al-Sunna sect was influenced by external factors, the shift to armed jihadism was a consequence of the historical trajectory of domestic grievances. This religious organisation has flourished in Cabo Delgado, where youth unemployment and widespread poverty have fostered a hostile environment ideal for radicalisation. The emergence of this militant sect threatens Mozambique’s national stability and economic development, as the region is projected to become a petroleum mining hub. Despite the region’s riches and abundance of natural resources, economic development has remained marginal. Ansar al-Sunna preachers have successfully utilised these domestic grievances to advertise their movement as an opportunity for the unemployed to improve their livelihoods. Under their preaching, jihadism is the only viable solution to bring justice and equality.

The Mozambican Government’s Efforts

According to a UN News report, since the beginning of the insurgency over 3,000 people have died, 800,000 have been displaced, and the threat of an acute hunger crisis is looming. President Filipe Nyusi’s response has thus far mirrored the ‘iron-fisted’ responses of Somalia against al-Shabaab and Nigeria against Boko Haram. Unsurprisingly, this has continued to exacerbate and perpetuate violence in the region, further alienating local populations. The militant group has committed abhorrent crimes in their campaign, but the state security forces are not without criticism. According to the Human Rights Watch World Report 2021, “State security forces were implicated in grave human rights violations … including arbitrary arrests, abductions, torture of detainees, excessive force against unarmed civilians, intimidation and extrajudicial executions.” To combat this threat, the government must avoid the temptation to fight fire with fire, as violence by state forces only perpetuates local grievances and furthers the appeal of joining insurgent movements.

The International Community’s Involvement

Why has Mozambique resisted international assistance for so long? Prior to the bloody siege of Palma in March 2021, Mozambique officials routinely remained reluctant to accept international support. Analysts suggest that Mozambique’s’ hesitancy stems from three factors: alleged involvement in Cabo Delgado’s illicit economy, the potential damage to the regime’s legitimacy, and threats to elites’ abilities to enrich themselves. Many critics of President Nyusi and the FRELIMO government indicate that they are attempting to keep involvement with the global drug trade away from public eyes. Top officials are reported to be implicit in the narcotrafficking industry through bribery, and Mohamed Bashir Suleman (Mozambique’s largest narcotrafficker) is alleged to be a large donor to FRELIMO. If this were to come to light, the government’s credibility among domestic and international actors would significantly crumble. Secondly, allowing foreign troops into the country to deal with a domestic issue publicises the regime’s ineffective leadership. As General Secretary of FRELIMO, Roque Silva told Deutsche Welle reporters, “we have capable men who are led by a capable commander-in-chief. All we need is training and logistics…” By admitting their inability to contain the situation, FRELIMO’s narrative of political and military invincibility stands tenuous at best. In addition, some see the conflict as an opportunity to continue profiting off large sums of foreign aid. According to the Institute of Security Studies, Mozambique receives almost two billion US$ in foreign aid, and political elites have profited off this through a strategy of extraversion where large sums of aid are siphoned off into personal funds.

However, bowing under international pressures to contain the violence, after the Palma incident, President Nyusi has begun to acquiesce. The European Union, spearheaded by Portugal (the former colonial ruler) has established the European Union Training Mission to provide technical assistance and train the state’s military forces. France is also likely to be interested in the mission, as the French energy firm Total was forced to declare a force majeure to its project in Cabo Delgado due to the current security issue. The US is also providing similar assistance through technical advisory and training.

Contentiously, the Mozambican government approved of the establishment of a multinational standby force from the South African Development Community (SADC) following their Summit on 23rd June 2021. Mozambique’s neighbouring states have become increasingly wary of the potential for insurgent conflict to spill into their borders and promote fervent radicalisation. At the Summit, they stressed this and advocated for collective action to overcome Mozambique’s limited state capacity and porous borders. South Africa, the regional power, has been particularly vocal about its concerns and has spearheaded the SADC movement. Mozambique’s reticence to approve this standby force is owing to sovereignty concerns and its diplomatic tensions with South Africa.

Despite SADC protest, Mozambique has strategically welcomed a 1,000-person contingent of soldiers and police from Rwanda to assist the state to quell this insurrection. According to Ryan Cummings, a security analyst with Signal Risk in Cape Town, South Africa–Maputo is determined to dictate the terms across all operations and avoid losing control to SADC. Insisting that it remains committed to working with SADC, the bilateral agreement between Maputo and Kigali stems from a memorandum of understanding signed between the two countries in 2018. In a Financial Times report, President Nyusi stated that “we solicited support from Rwanda for its experience and its immediate availability… Rwanda’s participation is under the principle of solidarity for a noble and common cause, and because of that it is priceless because it’s about saving lives.” So far, the Rwandan forces have successfully recaptured the port city of Mocímboa da Praia, the de facto headquarters of the insurgency. Yet the fighting is not over yet; the militants have fallen back into the dense nearby jungle and regrouped into smaller guerrilla factions.

Likelihood of Success?

Will the multiple foreign parties successfully contain the insurgency? The current record of success against Islamist militants in Africa suggests otherwise. French involvement in Operation Barkhane in West Africa’s Sahel has been mired in continual political instability, while East African forces in Somalia have faced limited success against the Al-Shabaab militia. SADC has a mixed legacy of intervention. Having ignored stolen or undemocratic elections in member states like Zimbabwe and Uganda, SADC does not have the political might nor institutional capacity to manage the Mozambican insurgency. Further, SADC intervention in the DRC has been challenged by the array of actors in this conflict theatre and efforts to bring lasting peace are not coordinated effectively. As it stands, the Mozambican trajectory is beginning to parallel Nigeria’s Boko Haram as multiple actors like Rwandan and SADC forces – with their own commanding officers and campaign areas – have yet to define their coordination with Mozambique’s state forces.

Fanning the Flames

In an interview with the Guardian, security analyst Jasmine Opperman said that “Mozambique needs help and that is a definite … but will the presence [of the international troops] translate into an overall defeat for the insurgency … I don’t think I can be optimistic.” While it is easy to label the Cabo Delgado insurgency as a violent ideological conflict that requires a militant solution, a more nuanced examination of the root causes yields a multifaceted issue that is in dire need of policy change.

A prevailing consensus among analysts suggests that the discontent and ideological extremism of Ansar al-Sunna stems from domestic grievance factors like entrenched poverty, widespread corruption, and political neglect. Although Cabo Delgado is rich in natural resources, minerals and has significant economic potential, it is one of Mozambique’s poorest provinces. According to Aljazeera, the region is home to Africa’s three largest LNG projects, but the local communities have yet to see any benefit from the billions of dollars invested, and reports of forced displacement are rampant. Further, as a hub for illegal logging, wildlife and human trafficking, and the global drug trade, corruption is prevalent among officials. The combination of these factors has left many aggravated communities vulnerable to ideological extremism and as Saide Habibe Et al. argue in ‘Islamic Radicalisation in Northern Mozambique,“the Al-Shabaab group argued that the solution to problems such as unemployment, widespread corruption in the officialdom, political exclusion and social inequalities lay in adherence to the puritanical version of Islam.”  Stabilising northern Mozambique by violent means will only exacerbate the anger and frustration felt by these aggrieved communities. Evidently, policymakers must adjust their responses to focus on the political and socio-economic dimensions driving the violence in northern Mozambique. By addressing the current humanitarian crisis and developing economic and social opportunities to build trust with civil society, the vicious and self-perpetuating cycle can end.

Looking Forward

Peace is possible and Mozambique has made some steps in the right direction. President Nyusi of the FRELIMO party and RENAMO military junta leader Ossufo Momade signed a peace treaty on 6th August 2019, marking an end to a long-running civil conflict. The mobilisation of the Agency for Integrated Development of the North (ADIN) is also a positive step. Designed to provide socio-economic support to northern Mozambique and take advantage of its economic potential, ADIN has four development pillars: humanitarian assistance, economic development, community resilience, and communication. As a government agency, ADIN is well-positioned to receive financial and political support from the ruling elite and multinational institutions. However, the government must ensure that its operations are transparent and free of corruption to ensure that trust between the state and civil society is built.

The situation in Cabo Delgado is troubling, but the severity and magnitude of violence have not yet reached levels akin to conflict in the Sahel and Somalia. To avoid escalating the violence and the spread of Ansar al-Sunna’s radical extremism, an over-militarised counterinsurgency response must be avoided. Instead, a nuanced and strategic response that tackles domestic grievances can help bring reconciliation and peace to the region.


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