Peole gathering aid from the World Food programme in Cabo Delgado, MozambiquePhoto: World Food Programme on food security situation in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique.

First the jihadists burned down the houses. Then they rounded up villagers, who had fled into the bush. They forced them on to Muatide’s football pitch and, from Friday to Sunday, beheaded more than 50 people and dismembered them, women and children included, the local Pinnacle News reported. More jihadists attacked Nanjaba village, decapitating two people and abducting women. In April militants beheaded more than 50 youths who refused to join them.

Atrocities have become commonplace in Cabo Delgado province and these ones prompted little reaction globally. Yet each attack displaces thousands more people and sends shockwaves rippling through the region – another 13,000 fled ahead of the Muatide massacre, with 40 drowning when one of 270 boats carrying them to Pemba sank. Known as Cabo Esquecido (the ‘forgotten cape’), the province was still recovering from the devastation wrought by Cyclones Kenneth and Idai in 2019. The insurgency has now displaced at least 560,000 people, up by 125,000 in two months, according to government figures, with the death toll swelling from 39 in mid-2018 to more than 2,440. Mozambique is now ranked as the world’s seventh most risky country for business, ahead of Iraq, by consultants Verisk Maplecroft.

Mozambique’s insurgency began in 2017 with isolated attacks on police stations and officials; by August 2018, when it was featured in Commonwealth Update, more than 1,000 people had fled. Each year the Islamists have become more emboldened as President Filipe Nyusi’s Frelimo government and military fail to contain them. Cabo Ligado, a monitoring site, lists 721 incidents of ‘organised violence’, in which 1,237 civilians died, by 2020. Last December, it described beheadings, women kidnapped, arson attacks, cars ambushed, stores and fishermen robbed. In November government militias mistook soldiers for insurgents and attacked them as well as beheading suspected rebels. The insurgents roam equally freely at sea: fishermen were warned not to venture north of Ibo as a desperate military began firing on any boats. Apart from worsening food security, it closed the escape route to Palma. In October rebels captured another strategic prize, the district capital of Muidumbe, and Mueda appeared vulnerable, despite its military base. Last August Mocimboa da Praia was seized by rebels, who overwhelmed Mozambican forces despite South African mercenaries’ aerial support. Estacio Valoi, writing for Moz 24 Horas, said troops arrived too late and lacked weapons, equipment, training and local knowledge. Militants attacked at dawn and massacred soldiers, leaving ‘bodies and body parts’ in the streets. It was January before the strategic port was retaken.

The region was brutalised by Mozambique’s independence war against Portugal from 1964-74, and civil war from 1977-92 (fuelled by apartheid South Africa destabilising neighbours). For years locals were ignored in distant Maputo, with land and concessions summarily granted to mining companies. Aid donors’ efforts to promote transparency and accountability stalled in the face of entrenched corruption, as detailed in a 2009 US diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks. Accordingly, the vast mineral wealth, and the prospect of this bypassing locals to benefit foreign companies and Frelimo leaders in the capital 1,000 miles away, has perhaps been the conflict’s prime catalyst; Cabo Delgado has the world’s most lucrative ruby mine and largest offshore gas reserves, worth $60bn. ‘It does not even seem that we are part of Mozambique,’ Bishop Luiz Fernando Lisboa of Pemba said last year. ‘If they don’t involve the population, if they don’t bring jobs to the youth, the resources end up becoming a curse.’ A human rights campaigner, David Matsinhe, said people were marginalised and despairing. ‘They are not only unemployed, they are also unemployable. They are saying … it’s only outsiders who come here to benefit and we’re sitting here watching them. The government has done for the radical preacher about 80% of the job. He just comes to harvest,’ he said. As the insurgency gathers strength, much-vaunted energy wealth seems elusive; the French multinational Total evacuated staff from its $20bn liquefied natural gas project in January.

Even now, little is known about the insurgents. Often called Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamaa (‘Followers of the prophetic tradition’ in Arabic), they are also known as Ansar al-Sunna (‘Supporters of the tradition’) and locally as al-Shabaab (‘the youth’), though they have no link to the Somali Islamists of that name, or Swahili Sunnah (‘the Swahili path’). As well as pointing to the influence of fighters from over the border in Tanzania, which has twice as many Muslims relative to population as Mozambique, it suggests the idea of a supranational Swahili state may be as powerful an inspiration as jihadist doctrine. Like other Islamists in Africa, they pledged loyalty to Islamic State (Isis/Isil), which in turn claimed it as a ‘franchise’. The Islamists are not Mozambique’s only insurgents: Renamo Military Junta, a faction of the South African proxies who waged civil war against Frelimo for 15 years, has been ambushing vehicles in Mancia and Sofala. A fragile peace accord with Renamo’s main bloc was seriously weakened by blatant electoral fraud and intimidation in Nyusi’s unlikely landslide win in October 2019.

While poverty amid a resources boom, an underdeveloped province’s marginalisation and millenarian Islamic zeal seem reason enough for rebellion, authorities arrested Andre Mayer Hanekom, a 60-year-old white South African living in Cabo Delgado for 30 years, on charges of supplying arms, medicine and funds to insurgents. Hanekom, whose family strenuously denied all charges, died in police custody. ‘There is a sense the government is trying to pinpoint the instability now for a quick gain,’ said Africa analyst Jasmine Opperman. ‘It seems like he has become a target of this agenda.’ Organised crime seems far more significant; Chatham House has catalogued its penetration of the state. Joseph Hanlon, at the London School of Economics, has noted how heroin became a major Mozambican export, worth $100m a year. It was so highly regulated by Frelimo that just 5-13kg of the drug were seized over five years when up to 200,000kg passed through en route from Asia to Europe. Most of this illegal trade – with ivory, gems, precious wood and other contraband going the other way – has been via northern Mozambique. In 2018, Hanlon described a shift to ‘disorganised crime’, in which heroin trafficking became a gig economy similar to Uber. The insurgents expanded in the vacuum left by drug kingpins’ waning power. Simone Haysom, of Global Initiative, noted: ‘The market is opening up for other groups to control smuggling routes, and to capitalise on the disaffection of local young men. [Ansar] Al-Sunna has made some inroads in the latter, and may, eventually, muscle in on the former.’

The forces ranged against the insurgents seem equally opaque. Mozambique’s military was once battle-hardened and adept at bush warfare after years of fighting Renamo, as well as Rhodesian and South African special forces. Over-confident but ill-prepared Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private military company linked to the Kremlin (widely seen as using Wagner for ‘deniable’ military policy abroad) soon suffered heavy losses and pulled back. Opperman said Russia intervened ‘so economic benefits can be derived from the oil and gas industry.’ (The US also offered assistance in counter-terrorism, perhaps eyeing Moscow’s inroads.) But faced with Wagner Group’s heavy losses and ineffectiveness, Mozambique’s police brought in Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), South African mercenaries using helicopter gunships. The army, meanwhile, hired another South African defence group, Paramount. Cabo Ligado called the dual contracts ‘counterproductive’. It said: ‘Evidence of friction between the police and the military abound … parallel DAG and Paramount contracts reflect intra-governmental and intra-Frelimo power struggles more than strategic considerations.’

The Mozambican journalist Estacio Valoi is not hopeful. ‘All efforts by the government to bring the situation under military control have failed so far,’ he said, calling mercenaries ‘expensive solutions, without success’. Hugo Decis, at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, warned: ‘Mozambique might have underestimated the insurgents, whose strength now appears to be growing.’ The UN secretary-general’s representative, Mirko Manzoni, told Switzerland’s Le Temps: ‘Donors contribute to Mozambique’s budget. It would be wiser if they helped the Mozambican army directly, without hypocrisy.’ In counter-insurgency warfare, state forces often fuel the conflict with misdirected and heavy-handed attacks. Footage of a naked woman being beaten and executed by soldiers has emerged, which the defence ministry pledged to investigate. Amnesty International accused the military of torturing suspected extremists, obtaining videos of prisoners being abused.

The UN secretary-general, António Guterres, called for an investigation, ‘shocked’ at the massacres. Amnesty criticised UN inaction: ‘The world cannot continue to turn a blind eye to the suffering of civilians in Cabo Delgado. After the Rwandan genocide, the UN called its own failure to act a ‘sin of omission’ … Mozambique is a sign that history is repeating itself.’ Many commentators believe conflicts in Africa prompt less reaction globally. ‘Africans are children of lesser gods,’ lamented one Canadian journalist after a mass beheading.

Analysts warned that the insurgents were reaching the same stage as Nigeria’s Boko Haram in 2014 and Mali’s Jama’a Nusrat al-Islam wa al-Muslimin’ four years ago, with the number of attacks roughly doubling each year from 2018. Fears are growing that the insurgency will spread. Mohamad da Costa Ali Yassine, a former Mozambican MP, told VOA: ‘Nothing can prevent insurgents from mixing with the displaced and eventually settling in Niassa [province] … [It] has been expanding as it wins more battles.’ The prospect of the insurgency spreading alarmed regional leaders enough for Presidents Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe and Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana to visit Maputo in December after Nyusi failed to attend a Southern African Development Community summit in Gaborone. Sources told South Africa’s Daily Maverick that Mozambique had no strategy but merely a ‘shopping list’ of arms and equipment, amid scepticism about its ability to use any materiel effectively. South African officials believe Maputo’s indecision stems from fear of losing control to outside forces, denialism, secretiveness, Frelimo’s divisions and tensions within the security forces over strategy,  in light of the army’s incompetence.

Frelimo took Cabo Delgado, historically a relative stronghold for the ruling party, for granted. João Mosca, director of Mozambique’s Rural Environment Observatory thinktank, noted militants’ support in the north and urged a hard look at the inequality that led people to support militants. ‘The military option alone will not solve the conflict,’ he told VOA. Foreign investment counted for nothing, Mosca warned in 2019: ‘The population is not living any better.’

Maputo proposed a $760m development fund for the north in September. But it soon admitted it had no money for the ADIN fund: ‘Though the agency expects to receive major funding from international donors, that money has been slow in materialising.’ For years, Hanlon explained, Mozambique was ‘a favoured child of the aid industry, introducing neoliberalism and encouraging exploitation of coal and gas by foreign corporations [but] the international community allowed Frelimo and the state to be corrupted. For the most part, they now appear to be willing to simply walk away – keeping only enough involvement to ensure access to natural resources.’ Despite offers of help from Portugal and Japan among others, it may come down to regional efforts. However, as a Chatham House paper suggested, Mozambique’s relations with its most affected neighbour, Tanzania, are ‘patchy’. RW Johnson, in South Africa, claims Mozambique is ‘pleading for re-colonisation or something rather like it, which will still leave the local elites free to plunder’. He believes jihadism will inevitably pull in the US military.

But as the Council on Foreign Relations put it, ‘a military-first approach cannot cure a failing state … hollow institutions and rampant corruption are at the core of Mozambique’s problems.’ Without more focus on human rights and protecting civilians, greater efforts to alleviate poverty and boost development, and giving local people a stake in exploiting their own resources, no counterinsurgency campaign can hope to succeed.