Communities in Mozambique believe the insurgency was fuelled by ruby and natural gas discoveries in the country. New field research in Cabo Delgado sheds light on one of Africa’s least understood violent conflicts.
The conflict erupted in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province just a few years after some of Africa’s largest gas reserves were discovered in the offshore Rovuma Basin. Mozambicans don’t see that as a coincidence.
The study by the Pretoria Institute for Security Studies and the Mozambique Judicial Training Institute covered extensive field research in Cabo Delgado, and shows that citizens blame the discovery and poor governance of resources, notably natural gas and rubies, for the escalation of terrorism in the province. More than 4,000 people have been killed and 800,000 displaced due to the insurgency that erupted in late 2017.
Of the 309 people and 28 key informants interviewed during the survey, almost half said that natural resources have added to the crisis. Announcements of $60 billion investments in liquefied natural gas came with promises of enormous wealth and opportunities for the country. But residents feel marginalised by corrupt elites. Some have lost their land and livelihoods to gas infrastructure built on land. They doubt that these projects will reduce poverty and improve services.
Meanwhile, the discovery of some of the world’s largest ruby deposits at Montepuez in Cabo Delgado has attracted fortune hunters and informal diggers from across East Africa. They were driven out when multinationals took over the mine, leading to protests in 2019.
Asked to choose from a range of options, 45% of respondents said the main cause of the insurgency was the discovery of rubies and natural gas. Another 4% mentioned poor governance of natural resources.
This confirms that the recruitment movements of the Islamic State-backed militant group Ahlu-Sunna wal Jama’a (ASWJ) in Mozambique were facilitated by the so-called natural resource curse. It has not only increased inequality, but raised the stakes in the province. What was initially a small radical group has grown into a major threat that has driven away large multinationals like TotalEnergies.
Prior to the insurgency, Cabo Delgado province was already notorious for illicit activities such as drug, timber and people trafficking, as well as ruby smuggling. The study, however, showed no significant links between the terrorist group and organised crime. So far, there is no indication that ASWJ’s main aim is to get its hands on this lucrative illicit business.
The strongest evidence linking the insurgents to drug smuggling dates back to the seizure of 250kg of heroin in 2021 in a building previously occupied by ASJW militants. No one has been arrested and no other evidence links the insurgency to the heroin trade, which has long been plentiful along this coastline.
Although study respondents referred to the insurgents as being involved in arms, drugs and human trafficking, they did not believe this was the group’s source of income. Only 8% said the insurgents fund their organised crime activities. A much larger proportion (38%) mentioned foreign sources and 13% said the group uses its own resources.
This confirms reports that the illicit economy, donations and assaults on local sources such as banks are the main sources of funding. In the attack on Palma in March 2021, US$1 million was stolen from banks and businesses.
Residents of Cabo Delgado believe that regional disparities between the privileged elites based in the capital Maputo in Mozambique’s far south and the marginalised in the north play a more significant role in driving the conflict than ethnic considerations.
Tensions between the majority-Muslim coastal communities of the Mwani and Makua groups and the Makonde Christians are mentioned as a backdrop to the crisis. However, these communities have lived together peacefully for centuries. Ethnicity was seen by only 2% of respondents as the main driver of the insurgency.
The role of extremist ideology, recruitment and radicalisation of ASWJ should not be overlooked. Just over 60% of people said religion plays some role in the violence, although many believe Islam is being instrumentalised. The group’s messages and modus operandi in recruiting young people were described by victims and eyewitnesses as similar to those of violent extremists in other parts of the world.
Mozambicans, particularly those in the country’s three northernmost provinces, where more than 60% of the population declares itself Muslim, have historically belonged to the Sufi orders. However, in the early 2000s, more radical anti-sufi groups emerged. The emergence of ASWJ is seen as part of a global Islamic revival movement. The teachings of Kenyan cleric Aboud Rogo Mohammed played a particularly significant role in radicalisation in Mozambique.
The Cabo Delgado study found that radicalisation occurs predominantly in mosques and, to a lesser extent, in markets. This is contrary to the global trend in which radicalisation increasingly takes place online and through other illicit networks.
There is a need for dialogue and reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in Cabo Delgado, also among Muslims. Other necessary government actions include partnering with local organisations to address legitimate grievances, creating a commission of enquiry into the drivers of violent extremism and developing a national strategy to deal with all aspects of the crisis.
Military interventions alone will not end the insurgency. However, more effective strategies by the Mozambican security forces and the country’s international partners play a critical role. Strengthening border security and improving intelligence sharing is also vital.
There must also be greater cooperation between the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) and Rwandan forces on the ground. The forces should consider scenario six of the SADC counter-terrorism strategy, with a focus on peacekeeping, as an exit strategy. And the African Union should regularly discuss the situation and assist SAMIM.
The ASWJ threat in Mozambique has proven to be one of Africa’s least understood and most nebulous insurgencies. Little is known about the identity, objectives and ideology of the group, and the militants have no clear communication strategy. This makes resolving the crisis even more difficult. However, recognising and tackling the root causes of the crisis is essential for long-term peace in Cabo Delgado.
Carta de Moçambique