Mozambique Faces Human Rights Crisis From Government And Insurgents

On May 19th the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Troika on Politics, Defense and Security Cooperation met to discuss the “security situation” in Mozambique’s northernmost province, Cabo Delgado. The province faces a shadowy insurgent group, known locally as “al-Shabab” or “Ahlu Sunna Wa-Jama” (ASWJ). The group has committed 350 attacks since its first October 2017 attack on a police station. The SADC Troika stated its support for Mozambique against the insurgent group in a communique: “[We] committed and urged SADC Member States to support the Government of Mozambique in fighting against the terrorists and armed groups in some districts of Cabo Delgado.” The details about how the SADC will support Mozambique, however, remain unclear.

The May 19th meeting is the first time the SADC has addressed Mozambique’s “security situation.” The SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defense and Security is meant to address such regional security threats. However, until recently, Mozambique chose to downplay the threat posed by ASWJ (and limited journalists’ ability to cover the matter). Instead of acknowledging the reality of the insurgency group, government officials repeatedly blamed attacks on “bandits, fake entrepreneurs tricking youth into violence, and artisanal miners,” according to the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS). Despite Mozambique’s previous denial of the situation’s severity, the ASWJ’s has killed at least 1,000 people in Cabo Delgado and displaced over 100,000 others. 

ASWJ’s methods and resources have grown increasingly sophisticated. Since March it has temporarily seized control of towns and is now associated with the Islamic State. According to the Africa Center, the group has burned or destroyed over 1,000 homes and has reportedly begun kidnapping women and girls. The week before the SADC Troika meeting took place, ASWJ carried out a series of attacks along the N380 road to the northeast and southwest of Mocímboa da Praia, an important port in Cabo Delgado. The insurgents cut off mobile service for the district; destroyed multiple homes as well as a hospital; and briefly took control of Diaca. The attacks were “well coordinated, and aimed at controlling the main points of entry into Mocimboa da Praia,” according to a report from The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED).

Residents of Cabo Delgado worry about the group’s increased capabilities. The Catholic Bishop of Pemba, Luiz Fernando Lisboa told BBC: “Now [the insurgents] have guns and vehicles, so they move easily and can attack widely. And they are using soldiers’ uniforms.” The insurgent group is likely funded by criminal activities. According to the Jamestown Foundation, ASWJ is in part funded from ruby and timber trafficking. ASWJ makes an estimated $3 million annually from timber, and $30 million a year from rubies, though the foundation notes this is likely an exaggeration. Additionally, The Independent reports that the group is reportedly involved in illegal poaching, mining, and contraband. 

Mozambique’s response to the insurgency has been widely criticized for its lack of competency and alleged human rights abuses. Mozambique did greatly increase the presence of military and private security forces in Cabo Delgado. However, CSIS notes that security forces reportedly did not respond to the late-March attacks on Mocímboa da Praia and Quissanga. According to Moz24Horas, some service members shed their uniforms to blend in with civilians, left their weapons, and fled. Worse, in their October 2019 report, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) found that the state effectively suspended human rights and limited the flow of information.

Journalists reporting on the situation in Cabo Delgado face substantial dangers. According to the Human Rights Watch, “state security forces are intimidating, detaining, and prosecuting journalists” who cover the situation in Cabo Delgado. One journalist, Amade Abubacar who interviewed displaced villagers was arrested and illegally held in military barracks for 13 days, where soldiers allegedly beat him. This is not a solitary case: the Human Rights Watch cites several other arbitrary arrests of journalists reporting on Cabo Delgado. A journalist told Reporters without Borders: “We have a lot of difficulty in accessing this region… the authorities refuse to provide information. The latest official bulletin was back in October but we continue to hear about new violence almost every day.”

Civilians, too, face substantial censorship and harassment from security forces. ISS alleges that intelligence has infiltrated “every tier of society,” severely limiting civilians’ ability to speak freely. According to a report from ACAPS, “affected populations have been indiscriminately arrested with blatant human rights abuses, or in some cases wrongly accused of being the perpetrators of the insurgency.” Additionally, ACLED notes frequent reports of civilians—particularly traders—targeted at check-points for carrying cash, with traders sometimes even detained. Such harassment disrupts the economy (especially as most rely on cash) and increases public resentment towards the Mozambican military and government.

Many in Cabo Delgado already felt disenfranchised by the government. Cabo Delgado is Mozambique’s poorest province—and one of its most resource-rich. Notably, a February 2020 Al-Jazeera article notes that three of Africa’s largest liquid natural gas (LNG) projects are in Cabo Delgado, worth billions in investments. However, the projects have hurt locals more than helped them. The vast majority of jobs created go to outsiders (mainly men from the capital, Maputo, per ISS).

Moreover, according to Al-Jazeera, the projects have required hundreds of individuals to relocate, while nearly one thousand families lose access to cultivated land, and over three thousand people lose access to fishing grounds. This is particularly significant given that a large majority of residents rely on agriculture and fishing to earn a living, per an April 2020 report from ACAPS. Additionally, the region faces substantial food insecurity, in part due to unusual, extreme weather events caused by climate change. The region was hit by two cyclones in March and April last year, and a damaging 2019/2020 heavy rain season, according to the U.N. Further, in February 2020, a cholera outbreak was identified in the region, in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The insurgent group has only exacerbated these challenges. As noted above, insurgents have attacked hospitals, which is particularly damaging given the current pandemic and the already-low number of hospitals Cabo Delgado has per capita (about 104 per 560,000 households as of 2017, according to WHO). Additionally, many schools have closed and families have stopped tending to the fields, per an October 2019 ISS report, due to fear of terrorist attacks. Yet, despite the widespread challenges Cabo Delgado currently faces, the Mozambican government has largely responded in a military capacity, offering little in the way of humanitarian aid.

Experts from many organizations (such as CSIS, ACLED, and ISS) argue the government’s abuse of human rights only strengthens the insurgents position. Mozambican historian Yussuf Adam told BBC, “The army, from the beginning… beat people up, took them to jail, tortured them. There’s a lot of Islamophobia. They’re discriminated against because they’re northerners – people think they’re dumb.” The province is often characterized as being “forgotten” or “ignored” by the government (ISS notes that Cabo Delgado is colloquially known as “Cabo Esquecido,” meaning the Forgotten Cape).

ASWJ uses government actors’ corruption and abuse to its advantage. In a propaganda video, covered by BBC, a masked insurgent condemns Mozambique’s government: “We occupy [the towns] to show that the government of the day is unfair. It humiliates the poor and gives the profit to the bosses.” With the exploitative situation locals face in Cabo Delgado, such rhetoric can be effective recruiting material.

The government’s response, conversely, has not only been ineffective, but greatly damaging to the country collectively and to citizens as individuals. Successfully combatting a radical insurgent group requires more than indiscriminate military action. Cabo Delgado needs substantial humanitarian aid and investment. As noted above, Cabo Delgado faces a plethora of long-term structural issues in addition to the insurgent group. Better access to healthcare and education; investment in infrastructure; as well as aid for and acknowledgment of those displaced by the conflict would help stabilize the region. Notably, healthcare access and quality are particularly important in our current moment, given the cholera and COVID-19 outbreaks.

Additionally, CSIS advocates for establishing economic development programs in the region. This is particularly important among young adults, who have a high unemployment rate and are more likely to join the insurgents. As ISS’ October 2019 report emphasizes, increasing youth employment is tied to better educational access—Cabo Delgado has one of the lowest literacy rates in the country. Similarly, infrastructure investment will help integrate Cabo Delgado with the rest of the country, while improving economic opportunity (as it enables the transport of goods and services). Providing such resources will help ease tensions between the people of Cabo Delgado and the Mozambican government, strengthening the governments’ sovereignty and stabilizing the province.

Secondly, military involvement in Cabo Delgado requires substantial reform. Security forces should be focused on legitimate threats to public safety—not civilians and journalists. As the Human Rights Watch advocates, security forces in Cabo Delgado should be trained in accordance with human rights standards. Those who violate human rights should be reported and subject to trial. The CSIS notes that Mozambique does have a National Human Rights Commission, but it has limited capacity to investigate abuse. Relatedly, Mozambique should allow foreign and domestic journalists to freely report on the conflict. Stronger oversight of security forces’ conduct would help restore the relationship between civilians and the government.

Finally, stabilizing Cabo Delgado will require outside help. President Nyusi’s decision to appeal to the SADC was a positive one. At the same time, as previously noted, few details were released about how the SADC will provide support. Before the meeting took place, the Human Rights Watch urged the SADC to support Mozambique with humanitarian efforts in Cabo Delgado and pressure Mozambique to “end human rights violations.” The SADC—along with other actors such as the African Union, the United Nations, and major trade partners and donors (e.g. the United States, Portugal, Japan)—should follow their advice. It is in the best interest of everyone, from the region’s civilians to heads of state, to end the conflict in Cabo Delgado. To stabilize the region, domestic and international actors must invest in its people and their welfare.

Alexa Grunow


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