Johannesburg — Over 2,000 people have died since the first attack by an Islamist armed group in Mozambique's northern province of Cabo Delgado. These attacks started in October 2017 when a local jihadist group, now generally referred to as Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jammah (ASWJ), attacked three police stations in Mocimboa da Praia, a district in Cabo Delgado.
Since then attacks have escalated and some of the gruesome attacks include the beheading of women and children. The group continues to terrorize people in the area, attacking villages, killing civilians, kidnapping women and children, and burning and destroying properties.
The attack in the Palma district has drawn more international attention to the humanitarian situation as it left a dozen civilians dead and according to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), thousands of people are fleeing the area in search of safety. Before the violence in Palma, nearly 670,000 including about 160,000 women and adolescent girls as well as 19,000 pregnant women were already internally displaced in Cabo Delgado, and neighbouring Niassa and Nampula provinces.
There have been calls by civil society organizations and rights groups asking for the African Union and the regional bloc, Southern African Development Community (SADC) to intervene. In August 2020 during its 40th Heads of State summit meeting, the SADC pledged commitment to support Mozambique in addressing terrorism and violent attacks. This year Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi, who is the current chairperson of SADC, said the Politics, Defence, and Security of the SADC is set to meet to discuss the attacks.
David Matsinhe, a Southern Africa researcher at Amnesty International and Adjunct Professor of African Studies at Carleton University, Canada says SADC intervention is vital to end this violence.
"In my view exclusive reliance on military intervention is counterproductive, it is not enough because violence only begets violence, death begets death and that is what is happening at the moment in Mozambique. We have seen the problem of economic social exclusion of the region is deeply ingrained in Cabo Delgado so rather than simply relying on militarisms it is very important to have a more comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach that will bring development projects and programs to build education and infrastructure, the health infrastructure, roads and bridges for people to be able to move their goods and trade with each other within the province and elsewhere in the country and beyond.
"These are the developments and projects that could contribute towards the restoration of peace and security in the region in addition to that, I think it is very important to open up the province of Cabo Delgado and allow more access to humanitarian organisations to deal with the growing humanitarian crisis in the region," he says.
Matsinhe says the biggest problem in the area is unemployment and lack of opportunities for, especially the youth, who feel neglected by their government.
"Mozambique became independent 45 years ago in 1975 and the province of Cabo Delgado back then during the colonial era was a neglected space and this was carried forward, it continued after independence which means the people of Cabo Delgado have been neglected by the current government. There has been little investment in social services such as education, construction of infrastructure such as roads and bridges, there has also been little investment in health services, water, and sanitation. About 10 years ago or so the province of Cabo Delgado showed to have large reserves of natural resources including gold, rubies, graphite and there's also a large reserve of natural gas so it attracted not only the government to come to Cabo Delgado but also multinational corporations interested in exploiting these resources," says Matsinhe.
He also says lack of investment in education for the past 45 years means that the people of Cabo Delgado, especially young people, were left without skills, there was no skills development which means not only are they unemployed but they are also unemployable in the growing mining and gas industry in the province.
A chapter published within the Extremism in Africa anthology series by Leigh Hamilton and Rami Sayed speaks more in-depth on the spread of Islamist ideology especially in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado and on how empowering local communities could prevent violent extremism in the area.
"In recent years Cabo Delgado has been a source of national optimism as some of the African continent's largest Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) reserves are being explored and prepared for future extraction. Several multinational companies have established a presence along the northern coast, from the provincial capital of Pemba to Palma near the border with Tanzania. These include the Texan company Anadarko, Dutch Shell, the Italian Eni, the Canadian Wentworth Resources Ltd and Exxon-Mobil, among others. With the discovery and future extraction of LNG, Mozambique is predicted to boom economically over the next decade. However, on the ground, the situation has been less optimistic. Many in Cabo Delgado feel the economic boom brought about by LNG extraction will not positively impact local communities – sentiments that have been exacerbated by recent government corruption scandals that have left the country in a serious debt crisis," Hamilton and Sayed write.
The report also gives examples of when locals tried to voice their grievances or lost their land in order to make way for international businesses. "Human rights groups have argued that Anadarko's construction of an LNG plant in Palma, which displaced several villages and resulted in local fishermen and farmers losing their ancestral way of living, took place without prior consultation. Moreover, local citizens have demonstrated several times in Pemba demanding jobs, which, they say, fossil fuel companies have given to non-locals."
Matsinhe, who shares the same sentiments, says multinational corporations and the government work together to displaced people, dislocate them from the inland in order to make room for these business ventures without properly consulting with the locals.
"They are standing aside and looking at outsiders, those who come from elsewhere within and outside of the country benefiting from the developments of these mining and gas projects and that creates huge discontentment especially among young people and mind you it's not only Cabo Delgado, all those provinces in northern Mozambique including Nyasa and Nampula are facing the same issues," Matsinhe said.
The report by Hamilton and Sayed recommends how grievances could be addressed and how gas companies, communities, and religious groups could all work together to promote tolerance.
"NGOs and Community-Based Organisations (CBOs) working in Cabo Delgado should set up civil society forums and networks to promote communication, collaboration, and learning. They should sponsor regular meetings for civil society forums to discuss protection-related issues and develop locally led solutions. It will be important for LNG companies to attend forum meetings, and NGOs and CBOs can use their platforms to pressure LNG companies to attend and to shame those that do not.
"A clear and inclusive policy is urgently needed to address community grievances, including land-resettlement issues for fishing communities forced inland by the LNG companies. The policy could also articulate how corporations in Mozambique need to strengthen civil society as part of their mandated corporate social responsibility plans. The civil society forums could also conduct regular dialogue with religious institutions in Cabo Delgado. They could work together with religious institutions to promote tolerance and pluralism while steering people away from those preaching a more radical or violent interpretation of the faith."
Some analysts have tried to find the links between the Islamic State in the Middle East, Somalia's Al-Shabaab to the militant groups in the gas-rich Cabo Delgado province, and some have said they may be working hand in hand - but Matsinhe believes the groups are young people who feel neglected and excluded by the government, especially from the natural gas projects in the area.
"There has been a tendency to emphasize especially among international scholars and within the government of Mozambique, there is a tendency to emphasize the external elements of this conflict arguing that it is external forces from ISIS that are invading and violating Mozambique sovereignty and creating problems for the country, Well, Islamic insurgents are actually young people that have been recruited due to these local grievances from within these three provinces. That is the overwhelming majority of fighters creating problems in the northern province of Cabo Delgado," he says.
The Mozambican government's response - deploying army units - backfired. Amnesty International accuses the state security forces of human rights violations against civilians including arbitrary arrests, abductions, torture of detainees, and excessive force against unarmed civilians. The crisis also led to multinational companies having to put some investment in the gas projects on hold. Total, the French energy company, had to temporarily withdraw all its personnel from its Afungi liquid natural gas (LNG) facility near Palma due to rising insecurity.
A week after the Palma attack, the Mozambican armed forces are reportingly in full control of the town of Palma, driving out the remaining Islamist terrorists who had attacked the town on 24 March. To prove this to the world, the Mozambique Armed Defense Forces (FADM) flew a group of local and international journalists to Palma so that they could witness for themselves that the town is now in the hands of the country's defense and security forces.
The SADC has since announced that the summit to deliberate on measures to address the attacks is set for April 8, and it will reveal chair and Botswana President Masisi's plan and Mozambique's President Filipe Nyusi's response to it.