A humanitarian crisis looms as a violent insurgency continues to sweep over northern Mozambique. As many flee to safety, the question remains: who, or what, fuels the fire?
Over the past decade, there has been an increase in foreign investment in energy and gas development in Mozambique in East Africa. But since October 2017, attacks in the northernmost province of Cabo Delgado – believed to be exacerbated by contestation over these resources – have morphed into extremism in a region with fertile conditions for it to thrive. As a result, a humanitarian crisis has reared its head.
Oil deposits, liquefied natural gas fields and gemstones, projected in 2010 to be worth billions, have culminated in a shift in the political and social climate in neglected Cabo Delgado. Extremist insurgents, which some have claimed are linked to Islamic State, are operating with a sophistication and weaponry that have not previously been seen in the country. Their exact demands and political and economic ideology are currently unknown. On the other hand, some have argued that there is no evidence of a direct link to Islamic State and that this narrative is being driven by the Mozambican state and the multinationals, because it is likely to bolster powerful external forces to mobilise against the insurgency.
According to the United Nations, more than 300 000 people have been displaced, while more than 2 000 civilians have been killed. Experts say the violence, which has left villages abandoned as many flee to safety, cannot solely be linked to the Islamic State.
Zenaida Machado, Angola and Mozambique researcher in the Africa division at Human Rights Watch, says the needs of the people living in the affected areas must be prioritised over profit. “The richest resource that Mozambique has is not the gas, oil or rubies, it’s the people. There is no point in defending multinationals and all the wealth that they are bringing when those villages will be completely abandoned either because the residents have died, or because they ran away,” she said.
Cabo Delgado, like the rest of the country, has a high unemployment rate. There were a number of young artisanal miners working in the area before multinational corporations swooped in. Youths who needed jobs were kicked out and became vulnerable to the insurgency, and the external drive to make them join it has grown since.
Bitter fruits of discontent
Machado says the insurgents are able to operate in the province because they are able to exploit local political discontent. “When people find themselves hopeless, with no one to help them and nowhere to hide, there is the idea of if you can’t beat them, rather join them. And there is also the kidnapping element, where young men and young boys are kidnapped to join the insurgents. We had a situation of young men being massacred a few months back for refusing to join,” she said.
If anything has been done to protect the people living in the affected areas, it has not yet been felt or seen. People are afraid of sleeping in their homes, opting to spend nights in the bush so that they can spot imminent danger, flee and escape. “Families are having to walk long distances to get to accommodation… People are running away from the violence and seeking refuge in Covid-19 hotspots because those are the only safe areas for them to be,” said Machado.
Énio Viegas Filipe Chingotuane, head of the department of peace and security at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Maputo, says no single theory can meaningfully explain the origin of Cabo Delgado’s violent extremism. “Only a mixed explanation can bring us close to the real motives, causes and reason for the uprising,” he said.
Chingotuane says Mozambique is a fragile state from every point of view and there are many factors that lure extremists, particularly in the marginalised Cabo Delgado, which he says can be called “an ungoverned territory”.
“It is the poorest province with high unemployment, and no fair share of the wealth because of greed and corruption. The revenue is directed to things that aren’t a priority, crippled further by a weak judicial system and a partisan security force… There is a need to save lives. They [the government] are doing certain things right, but there is a lot which is kept secret and this makes it difficult to assess what they are doing” says Machado.
Machado adds that if the government had the ability to handle the insurgency, it would not have struck deals with multinational corporations. “The level of destruction that this group [of insurgents] has created without us knowing who they are? I don’t want to see what they will do once we know who they are… Right now it’s about proving their strength.”
The role of multinationals
Many have contested the view that multinational corporations should be approached for solutions as they are largely seen as part of the problem. The Mozambican government and French energy giant, Total recently signed the biggest energy deal in Africa, worth billions of dollars. Total has clinched the largest share in the deal’s liquefaction projects, but there is interest from other partners too.
“My concern with Total is that all that discussion about security never discusses people, it always discusses the infrastructure, the staff of the multinationals, the expatriates,” said Machado. “It doesn’t discuss the locals and I find it very unfair, disgusting and inhumane that people who have lived in those areas for decades now are forced to run away because gas has been ‘discovered’. Or [they] see themselves ignored because the priority is not to defend them, it’s to defend the multinationals and the infrastructure of the big investments that are there.”
The American multinational ExxonMobil and the Italian oil and gas company Eni SpA, which are also investing in the country, are in talks with the Mozambican government to protect their workers while monitoring the situation.
Chingotuane says eight main districts in the northern region have been affected, namely Mocímboa da Praia, Palma, Nangade, Muidumbe, Macomia, Meluco, Quissanga and Ibo. Traumatised locals flee to safety and refuge in districts with semi-guaranteed security such as Pemba, Metuge, Mueda, Montepuez and others. On 13 October, Minister of Health Armindo Tiago announced that he had tested positive for Covid-19, and although infection numbers stand at just more than 10 000 in the country, Pemba is known to be a virus hotspot.
The port in Mocímboa da Praia, a strategic logistical location, was taken over for the third time in mid-August by a group of insurgents. This led to a disruption in the heavily foreign-backed project as the port is used to transport building materials, oil and gas equipment.
Although a security force contingency has been sent to deal with the insurgency and regain the port, it remains to be seen if the state can contain it as it is understaffed, underequipped and underfinanced. Chingotuane argues that the state has no ability to handle the insurgency on its own.
“Mozambican security forces are in a bad shape due to many years of low funding and neglect. None of its arms is up to the task in Cabo Delgado. The air force is almost nonexistent, the navy is far from its military capacity and the army is [struggling] to maintain its functionality and execute its mission. The cavalry, infantry, artillery, engineering and communications are all badly affected by poor financing. Problems also involve strategy, doctrine, logistics, training and military exercises,” said Chingotuane.
On Sunday 4 October, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi said he would continue strengthening the military intervention capacity of the defence and security forces so that they can respond “more effectively to terrorist attacks”.
He was speaking at Praça dos Heróis (Heroes’ Square) in Maputo, incidentally on the same day that the country celebrated its Peace and National Reconciliation Day. The holiday marks the end of the 15-year civil war between ruling party Frelimo and rebel group turned political movement, Renamo, with an agreement signed in Rome in 1992.
“We strongly condemn these acts and reiterate that, as a state, we will continue to use all the resources at our disposal to guarantee public order and security, because the Mozambican people deserve to have a country at peace,” said Nyusi.
On 29 September, Nyusi was named the 2020 “Person of the Year” by Africa Oil & Power, an investment platform for the energy sector. The accolade goes to people who supposedly display “true leadership and innovative thinking in steering their countries … to the forefront of the global energy sector”.
Also in September, Reuters reported that Mozambique approached the European Union for help and support in training local security forces to counter the recurring wave of attacks. This is a different strategy from the initial denial, dismissal and downplaying of the attacks as criminal activity.
Security forces’ role
Machado says the security forces behaving in hostile ways towards suspects, who could be innocent, breeds anger and resentment among the population. “We have documented in the past cases where security forces arrived in a village following an attack and rounded up people. Any person that was seen running away, carrying machetes or [who was] still physically okay in a place of chaos was seen as a suspect.”
In 2019, Human Rights Watch raised concerns over the number of people being detained unlawfully in overcrowded cells for lengthy periods, including women with young babies who were accused of aiding the insurgents. They were later released owing to a lack of evidence linking them to the conflict, and the judiciary pleaded with the security forces to exercise caution during arrests.
Machado says there is a need for everyone to go through the lawful justice process because many have been arrested and have not seen a court, which allows for radicalisation to take place. “Many are arrested and placed in jail for months in the same cells with insurgents. Once released, they are either further radicalised, recruited or join voluntarily, or they are unable to be located as they do not return to their villages because of the fear of reprisals and stereotypes,” she said.
In disturbing footage circulated in September, a naked woman is seen running as she is hounded by a group of men – one of whom is video recording the incident – clad in security force uniforms and carrying heavy arms. As the woman slows down, they catch up to her and one starts beating her with what looks like a stick before telling her to go. Another man then shoots her at close range before she is hit by a hail of more than 30 bullets. Even when her lifeless body is on the floor and a man says in Portuguese “that’s enough”, different men continue to shoot at her before one says proudly to the camera, “We have killed Al-Shabaab.”
On 10 September, Colonel Omar Nala Saranga, a spokesperson for the defence ministry, said “one of the tactics used by terrorists in their macabre incursions against the population is to pretend to be elements of the FDS [Defence and Security Forces]”. He denied Amnesty International’s allegations of abuses by claiming that the videos and pictures were fake. He distanced the FDS from the murder and essentially claimed that it was the work of militants. In mid-September, the ministry condemned the act but did not confirm or deny that these were members of its rapid intervention unit.
Machado says the actions of the security forces and the government are boosting rather than reducing the capacity of the insurgents, and the government is losing the trust of the people as more heinous allegations of human rights violations, including beheadings and torture, surface.
“They need to stop people from being recruited. In an environment of mistrust and resentment, it’s very easy to divide and rule. And if the government really wants to recover that trust from the Mozambicans, one thing they should do is to communicate better on what they are doing and protect people… People also need to see people in uniforms as their protectors, not their offenders or abusers,” she said.
In areas such as Macomia and Mocímboa da Praia, where villages have been attacked and the conflict has been problematic, the healthcare offered was already deficient before the violence flared up. “Humanitarian groups that were operating in some of those areas … have left because of the [lack of] security. The kind of shelter they had was poor, but some of it was also destroyed by Cyclone Kenneth which hit the country, so the government was already struggling to take care of people in those regions,” said Machado.
At the end of September, Minister of Economy and Finance Adriano Maleiane stated that a finance margin was needed to redirect resources to support “the war effort”, describing the situation in Cabo Delgado as bad for families and the economy. “The few resources we are allocating to the social areas are not sufficient and we must invent … more resources for the war,” he said in Maputo.
However, Machado says the government needs to ensure that there are strategies in place to deal with the humanitarian crisis coming out of this conflict. “In a moment of conflict, all the resources available go to ensure that the insurgents are defeated and the locals are left on their own… Those who manage to get to camps find other challenges such as a lack of tents, low supplies of food, sanitation issues, cholera and malaria.
“People need shelter, they need food, missing persons will need to be found, children have been away from school for the past three years, hospitals and schools are getting destroyed. The level of trauma that these people are affected by is high,” she said.