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Mozambique’s northern insurgency continues to rage


Mozambique’s northern insurgency continues to rage


The insurgency in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado Province has continued to grow in strength despite Maputo’s military-intensive counter-insurgency tactics and appeals for regional assistance.


– The shadowy insurgent group Ansar al-Sunna has escalated its attacks on civilians, security forces and government facilities, and captured the district capital Mocimboa da Praia in August
– Harsh counter-terrorism tactics, private military companies and bilateral arrangements have done little to aid Maputo in the fight against the militants
– Chronic socioeconomic inequalities, security force vulnerabilities and regional institutional paralysis continue to inhibit an effective state campaign against the militants


After a long battle with Forças Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique (FADM) soldiers, Ansar al-Sunna militants (a.k.a. Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo) captured the coastal port town and district capital of Mocimboa da Praia on August 12 in a milestone moment for the insurgency. The escalating insurgency is now affecting eight of Cabo Delgado’s sixteen provinces. Approximately 310,00 people, over 15% of the provincial population, have suffered displacement. The seizure of Mocimboa da Praia by the home-grown insurgents is especially embarrassing for the Nyusi administration given Maputo’s recent assumption of the chair of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).


Image: BBC

Since the outbreak of the insurgency in 2017, Ansar al-Sunna fighters have killed over 700 civilians and targeted security force personnel, infrastructure and weaponry. Known locally as al-Shabaab — with no known ties to the infamous militant Islamist group in Somalia — the insurgency has affiliated itself with the Islamic State. Analysts stress that the degree of collaboration with IS and its influence over Ansar remain speculative.

For decades, residents of the natural gas-rich Cabo Delgado province have received little government support and thousands have lost their livelihoods in farming and fishing from government resettlement to make way for mineral resource projects. With some estimates pegging the value of northern Mozambique’s natural-gas fields at US$60 billion, insurgent recruiters often capitalise on local resentment for the lack of wealth redistribution to regional inhabitants. Ansar al-Sunna is able to bolster its popularity amongst those citizens who are disenchanted by the lack of economic opportunities and religious marginalisation by presenting itself as a better, more locally engaged alternative to Maputo. Observers agree that the militants have steadily adopted a pragmatic, sophisticated approach to the insurgency, looking to win the hearts and minds of local residents while maintaining a balance of respect and fear. Foreign fighters from Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, The Gambia and Burundi have been implicated in militant activities, but local fighters comprise the majority of Ansar al-Sunna.

Maputo has consistently implemented counter-productive measures to combat the insurgents: after playing down the initial threat of the group, a tough government crackdown ensued. Authorities have been implicated in extrajudicial killings, media disappearances and torture, and security forces were brought into international disrepute in September after footage of an apparent summary execution of a naked woman by men wearing army uniforms went viral. A dearth of morale, equipment and funding has dogged security forces, who are often reported to retreat or surrender immediately when faced with combat. As to the continued occupation of Mocimboa da Praia, reluctance from Maputo to allocate additional finance, coupled with divisions between the Policia da Republica da Moçambique — the primary security body leading government counterinsurgency efforts — and the FADM, have stalled efforts to drive the insurgents from the port town.

To compensate for these operational deficiencies, Maputo has sought external assistance, pursuing bilateral agreements and recruiting private military companies (PMCs) to bolster its counterinsurgency efforts. Governmental cooperation with Russia, France and Pakistan has helped Maputo acquire some additional military equipment. Despite the sustained operations of PMCs in Cabo Delgado, insurgents have continued to evolve in capability and sophistication. The Russia-based Wagner Group, which was contracted by Maputo in November 2019, was forced to pull back from the front lines after insurgent infiltrators carried out a series of ambushes. The South African PMC Dyck Advisory Group has also been brought into the fray, but astute insurgent tactics, inadequate intelligence lines and the enormous distances between its bases and target areas have frustrated its campaign.

Following these setbacks, the Nyusi administration has been considering non-military solutions, such as negotiations and investment in the socioeconomic development of Cabo Delgado. However, some analysts suggest these policies may arrive too late. In late August, the government launched the Agência de Desenvolvimento Integrado do Norte (ADIN), a development agency with a focus on youth employment and stability in the north of Mozambique. The results of ADIN are yet to be seen, but the first batch of tractors and machinery have been delivered to Cabo Delgado and they are projected to boost agricultural production and productivity within the year.

In sum, Maputo’s efforts in coordinating an integrated regional response to the insurgency have proven largely ineffective. Bilateral security agreements with Tanzania, DRC and Uganda have been implemented in the hope of enhancing operations and training, but little emphasis has been placed on the critical domain of intelligence sharing. Tanzania struck a deal with Maputo in August, agreeing to “coordinate efforts” to prevent border incursions, while Zimbabwe rebuffed a request for direct military assistance in August, with President Mnangagwa citing a preference for multilateral military cooperation. Diplomatic efforts by Mozambiquan officials at the South African Development Community (SADC) have also fallen short of expectations. The regional bloc has been slow in formulating a response and the insurgents have grown in confidence, coordination and capacity in the meantime.


Photo: F Mira/Flickr

Capitalising on Mozambique’s considerable security and economic vulnerabilities, as well as a dearth of regional support, Ansar al-Sunna is primed to remain a threat in the region for some time to come. Analysts have drawn parallels between Cabo Delgado’s insurgency and the early stages of Nigeria’s fight against Boko Haram. Just as Abuja lacked the financial and military resources necessary to combat Boko Haram in the early stages of insurgency, Maputo is unlikely to make headway against Ansar al-Sunna without the depth of resources that would accompany a multinational regional force; a multinational force composed of units from various African countries was integral to preventing Boko Haram’s regional expansion in 2015. Although PMC contacts will help Maputo avert military catastrophe, they are ill-suited to provide the holistic counter-insurgency solution necessary to effectively dismantle Ansar al-Sunna.

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Regional paralysis in establishing a multinational response shows no sign of being overcome. Observers emphasise the potential benefits that would be provided by pooling regional resources and counterinsurgency efforts to bolster the stretched Mozambican coffers. Nevertheless, SADC has been lethargic to respond, and its most recent summit on August 17, five days after insurgents captured Mocimboa da Praia, ended with no practical resolution. The COVID-19 pandemic is further distracting SADC policy-makers. Nevertheless, Maputo has demonstrated a preference for quiet bilateral regional arrangements that — although far from a solution — have demonstrated some usefulness in executing border patrols and procuring military equipment.

The launch of ADIN and increased investment should assist in improving the socioeconomic conditions of Cabo Delgado, yet there is still considerable ground to make up to cover decades of neglect. Moreover, the police and military presence will continue to fuel discontent so long as security forces continue to employ violence against local populations with seeming impunity. Consistent government deflections of videos detailing apparent security service abuses as “fake” or anti-state propaganda suggest near-term reform of the security forces is unlikely. The lack of accountability for security service members seen to be committing such abuses seems set to continue, informing powerful anti-state narratives amongst disenfranchised citizens and insurgent recruiters.

Contributing to the precariousness of Mozambique’s north, the withdrawal of foreign investment due to security concerns is a daunting prospect for Maputo. Energy consultancy firm Rystad Energy recently forecast Mozambican gas production to increase from 72,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day to 730,000 by 2030. Attacks by insurgents threaten these projects and many companies question Maputo’s ability to provide security for their operations. French multinational Total signed a secretive security memorandum of understanding with the government on August 21, which is reported to permit the use of PMCs if the company is not satisfied with Mozambican security forces. However, some companies, such as Exxon Mobil, have postponed investment decisions in the region until at least 2021. Protracted conflict will continue to threaten foreign investment, and observers are concerned that if energy companies were to leave, Maputo would have less incentive to secure Cabo Delgado, possibly leaving residents more vulnerable to insurgent attacks.

With Mozambique’s rainy season approaching — which will render many roads impassable — it is unlikely that counter-insurgent forces will be met with much success this year. As for the longer term, the stark security force deficits, chronic socioeconomic vulnerabilities and a lack of a concerted regional effort are firm indicators that the insurgents operating in Cabo Delgado are unlikely to abate anytime soon.

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