Violence Escalates In Mozambique As Al-Shabaab Tightens Grip In Country’s North

After months of clashes between police and members of the self-proclaimed Islamist group known locally as ‘Al-Shabaab’, the Conversation UK reported thatMozambique’s northern coastal province Cabo Delgado has escalated into full scale violence. Since mid-May, the brutal attacks have claimed the lives of at least 35 people. Hundreds of houses have been burned and residents have been warned to exercise caution. Fear has pervaded many to the extent that they have refused to go to work. Last Friday, the US embassy issued a security alert and strongly advised its staff to depart from its district headquarters of Palma in the Cabo Delgado province for fear of an ‘imminent attack’ on government and commercial centres.

According to the Mozambique News Agency, “unidentified criminals, believed to be Islamic fundamentalists, decapitated ten people” on May 27. These assaults took place “against two villages in the Palma district”. Mozambican police have described the attackers as wielding machetes which they used to behead people, including two teen boys. The armed operations against the government that have been ongoing since October of last year are believed to be carried out by the same group. The group claims that mainstream Mozambican mosques have abandoned the teachings of the prophet Mohammed and are a degenerate form of Islam, and thus Muslims have been an additional target of the group. In light of this information, some Muslims have been encouraged by the state to avoid wearing religious garbs.

Police have detained more than 300 people believed to be involved in the various attacks. The spokesperson for the General Command of the Mozambican police, Inacio Dina has stated that most of those detained were Mozambicans, however a considerable number were from Tanzania, which is bordered with the province and is claimed to be a location where members of the group received military training. Though the Mozambican state has responded forcefully to the threat through entering into security agreements with the DRC, Tanzania and Uganda are moving more troops to the north. Analysts have reported the situation demands much more than a military response.

Despite having no known connections with the Somali group Al-Shabaab, the locals use this name to refer to the group as it means youth in Arabic. The attackers have been described as young men, typically unemployed and facing forms of social exclusion, an analyst from Queens University, Belfast has stated. Al-Shabaab’s formation is relatively recent, announcing itself in October of 2017 and described by some as Mozambique’s own version of Boko Haram as their birth had similar trajectories. Both emerged as a religious sect which transformed into a radical guerrilla group. While it has been claimed by some that Al-Shabaab may be linked to a wider network of Islamist terror groups, Eric Morier-Genoud, a lecturer in African history at Queen’s University Belfast, has emphasised the need to view this movement as primarily a local phenomenon, with its own specific social and historical dynamics. In particular, there is a need to understand the movements emergence as derived from feelings of marginalisation, particularly of the Mwani people who have felt disenfranchised from the state, particularly due to a lack of economic development and migration in to the area according to Genoud.

The coastal province of Cabo Delgado is expected to become the country’s natural gas hub since the discovery of vast gas offshore deposits. Infrastructure is being developed to accommodate this, however according to some experts, some locals feel frustrated by the limited land that exists, being taken away with little compensation.

The response needed thus exceeds that of military measures. Constructive engagement with the community, particularly as the gas project expands must require dealing with issues of land ownership and the corresponding economic disenfranchisement of many. Sectarian tensions must be addressed while ensuring Muslims are not isolated by security operations so as to prevent the Islamist group from utilising local grievances to accrue support.

Though the conflict is yet to amass into that of Nigeria’s Boko Haram problem or Somalia’s Al-Shabaab, if left unchecked, it has the potential to inflate dramatically. With current levels of violence, Genoud has suggested that gas majors may feel the need to move oil and gas processing plants offshore, leading to local job loss and further disenfranchisement. As the violence continues to disrupt the daily lives of people, who fear their safety, a displacement issue might occur. A rounded response must follow.