An Islamist insurgency in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province and the grave humanitarian crisis it has created is threatening the promise of development offered by the discovery of vast reserves of natural gas in the region. It is imperative that the Mozambican government, with the support of the international community, make a concerted effort to return peace to this strategically important part of southern Africa.

The Cabo Delgado boundary bridge in northern Mozambique. (CC BY-SA 2.0/F Mira)
The Cabo Delgado boundary bridge in northern Mozambique. (CC BY-SA 2.0/F Mira)

Since 2017, Mozambique has faced a brutal insurgency that has forced nearly 700,000 people from their homes in Cabo Delgado. In the past year, Islamic State-affiliated al-Shabaab insurgents have stepped up attacks on natural gas projects that are critical to transforming the country’s economy. In April, the French oil giant Total, citing the deteriorating security situation in Cabo Delgado, declared force majeure on its $20 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) project and removed all staff from its site on the Afungi Peninsula.

The worsening situation in Cabo Delgado should serve as a wake-up call for both the Mozambican government and the international community. It should also serve as a reminder of the importance of people-centered policy making; it is critical to have a government that delivers for its people. Unfortunately, as a consequence of a lack of both political will and capacity, this is not the case in Cabo Delgado today.

The Importance of Cabo Delgado

On May 13, the U.S. Institute of Peace hosted a panel discussion on the situation in Mozambique — part of what will be a larger body of work on this important country. As the moderator of the discussion, I asked Mozambican Ambassador Carlos dos Santos why he believes Cabo Delgado is strategically important. Noting Cabo Delgado’s special place in Mozambican history — it was the birthplace of the liberation struggle against Portuguese colonialism — the ambassador also pointed to its important geostrategic location on the Indian Ocean, the pristine Quirimbas Archipelago that attracts tourists and the province’s rich reserves of natural resources, including hydrocarbons.

Dos Santos described the discovery of natural gas off the coast of Cabo Delgado as a “game changer” in terms of the country’s economy, the region, and the whole continent of Africa. Cabo Delgado, he said, “is a new global province of natural gas.” That said, the prospects of prosperity now hang in the balance.

Dos Santos is mindful of the fact that in order to reap the full benefits of hydrocarbons it is essential for the government to restore peace and stability to the region. He believes it is important to have a holistic approach to the problem — one that deals with the security and humanitarian situation, but also prioritizes socioeconomic development, including building resilient communities.

Distrust of the government runs high in Cabo Delgado. The residents are angry about being pushed off their ancestral land to make way for foreign mining companies engaged in resource extraction. The fact that the Mozambican capital, Maputo, is over 1,500 miles from Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado — more than six times the distance between Washington, D.C. and New York City — intensifies feelings of alienation. If the government is to deliver to its people, and by doing so repair some of the mistrust, it is critical that it be closer to the people; this can be achieved through well-thought-out decentralization that is based on participation, citizen engagement, accountability and supported by transparent allocation of resources for local governments and decentralized units to be effective, particularly in delivering basic services.

What Is Driving Extremism in Mozambique?

A combination of corruption, human rights violations and displacement is driving locals to join al-Shabaab. While the group has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, the conflict is not mainly ideological; it is driven by grievances combined with criminality and some elements of outside support, though that remains murky.

Corruption is rampant in Cabo Delgado, one of Mozambique’s poorest provinces. Local officials, including the police, are involved in or have been corrupted by those engaging in the illicit trade of gems, wildlife, and drugs. Dos Santos made the point that corruption often involves foreign partners and that other governments must take responsibility. Nevertheless, Gregory Pirio, president of Empowering Communications Associates, sees corruption as a big factor behind the public mistrust of the authorities. It is one reason why, Pirio said, al-Shabaab counts among its leadership local traders who have been driven into the arms of the insurgency by police harassment for bribes.

Violence by state forces is a key driver of insurgencies around the world — the same is true for Mozambique. “They adopt this narrative of vengeance,” explained Pirio, referring to those who join these groups out of desperation.

State security forces have been accused of committing human rights violations in their response to attacks by suspected insurgents in Cabo Delgado. Artisanal miners, too, have suffered torture and death at the hands of police and security contractors hired by foreign mining firms. In 2019, the British firm Gemfields agreed to pay $7.8 million to settle claims of human rights abuses in Mozambique.

The Path to Peace

In order to restore peace and stability to Cabo Delgado and for its resource wealth to benefit the people of the region, the Mozambican government should consider a comprehensive strategic approach that addresses the root causes of the crisis. This approach could include the following priorities:

Restore security: The government must prioritize the restoration of security in Cabo Delgado. There can be no development while bullets are flying.

The Mozambican armed forces require proper counterinsurgency training and logistical support.  The European Union (EU) is considering a request from the Mozambican government for help training its armed forces. The United States is already providing some assistance.

For now, the Mozambican government has opted to boost the capacity and training of its security forces. However, if the need arises, it will consider help from foreign troops, according to Dos Santos. That time has probably arrived. 

Address the humanitarian crisis: Addressing the humanitarian crisis should be another top priority as it is feeding the insurgency, creating a vicious and self-perpetuating cycle. In a communique earlier in May, the G7 ministers urged the Mozambican government to “continue to work with the international community to resolve the humanitarian impact of the insurgency and to tackle the root causes and drivers of conflict and instability, and to prevent a further escalation of violence.”

The United States, through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, is the single largest donor of humanitarian assistance in Mozambique.

Build trust with civil society: The government can restore trust by engaging with communities in a transparent manner. Cídia Chissungo, founder of the National Solidarity Campaign for Cabo Delgado, said civil society groups like hers put pressure on the government to address the situation in Cabo Delgado, and provide assistance to people who have been displaced from their homes.

Chissungo firmly believes that engagement is not optional. “It is important for people to feel that their lives matter,” she said. The question is how to go about such engagement, especially in a challenging security environment. 

USIP can share some valuable lessons drawing on its vast experience convening and fostering community dialogues, and thinking in creative ways to address challenges similar to the ones facing Mozambique today.

According to Pirio, the government should be focused on winning popular support in Cabo Delgado. “Shifting the narrative to [the people’s] suffering and the alleviation of it is very important,” he explained. He also emphasized the importance of a “participatory approach” to the development taking place in the province.

Work with the international community: The Mozambican government is conscious of the fact that it has the primary responsibility to protect all Mozambicans. But the government also recognizes that the solution to the crisis is more than providing security and humanitarian assistance to internally displaced people. The government has set up the Agency for Integrated Development of the North (ADIN) to provide socioeconomic support to the provinces in the north, including Cabo Delgado. Mozambique has also received assistance from USAID, the EU, the African Development Bank, and the World Bank.

In April,  the World Bank approved a $100 million grant to ADIN to be spent on “restoration of livelihoods and economic opportunities, building of social cohesion, and improving access to basic services as well as the rehabilitation of selected public infrastructure intended to benefit internally displaced persons (IDPs) and host communities in targeted areas of Northern Mozambique.” The World Bank also made Mozambique eligible for its Prevention and Resilience Allocation, which gives Mozambique access to another $700 million for similar projects. Participants in the USIP panel discussion noted that it’s critical that this funding be protected from corruption. 

Engage neighbors and learn from other’s experiences: Mozambique’s neighbors, including Zimbabwe and Tanzania, should help alleviate the humanitarian crisis by accepting Mozambican refugees.

The Mozambican government has also expressed an interest in learning from the experiences of other African countries that are dealing with insurgencies. Pirio recommends a strategy that promotes defections from al-Shabaab and reintegration of those youths into society — an approach similar to the one taken when dealing with the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.  Dos Santos endorsed such an approach.

Lise Grande, president and CEO of USIP, has rightly described the situation in Cabo Delgado as an urgent humanitarian crisis that threatens the important progress Mozambique has made toward peace, prosperity and democracy since the early 1990s, when the civil war that had engulfed the country since 1977 came to an end. In order for Mozambique to realize its true potential, it is vital that this crisis be swiftly, and thoughtfully, addressed.

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