People leaving their villageResidents of Naunde, in Macomia, Cabo Delgado, flee their village following an attack in June, 2018. [Photo: Human Rights Watch].

A growing Islamist insurgency in the north and the sudden death of the veteran rebel leader Afonso Dhlakama have threatened the chances of a lasting resolution to Mozambique’s fraught peace process, just as a long-heralded bonanza from vast energy reserves seemed about to materialise. Attacks by armed Islamists in the northern province of Cabo Delgado have killed at least 39 people – most of them beheaded – and displaced more than 1,000 since May, Human Rights Watch reported, while the death of Dhlakama, who declared a truce in 2016 and had recently held meetings with President Filipe Nyasi, could yet derail advanced negotiations on a sustainable peace deal.

Dhlakama had led the Renamo rebel group since 1979, waging a guerrilla war on the Frelimo government – with the help of the apartheid regime in South Africa – for 16 years until 1992. He was a presidential candidate in all five of Mozambique’s multi-party elections – 1994, 1999, 2004, 2009 and 2014 – but only came close to winning in 1999, when he gained 48% of the vote. ‘He was convinced he had won all five elections and had been defeated by fraud’ but research at the London School of Economics proved ‘while there was fraud, it was never enough to explain Dhlakama’s loss’, according to Joseph Hanlon at Mozambique News Reports & Clippings.

Conflict erupted again in 2014 and the 65-year-old leader had been living in hiding in the Gorongosa mountains when the latest peace initiative began. Alex Vines, of the Chatham House thinktank, told AFP: ‘I expected a deal within the next eight weeks, but no longer as power in Renamo was centralised around Dhlakama and all key decisions needed to be agreed by him. This will impact the peace negotiations and will also impact Renamo’s electoral prospects in next year’s elections.’ Hanlon argued that ‘Frelimo’s weakness and his own improved campaigning gave him a chance of winning the October 2019 presidential elections.’ Dhlakama would be remembered for challenging Frelimo’s abuses but also for allowing Renamo forces to commit serious human rights violations with impunity, Zenaida Machado, of Human Rights Watch, told AFP. ‘His death and the unknown succession plan within Renamo will bring uncertainty. It raises critical questions about the next Renamo leader’s ability to control hundreds of armed men in the bush and negotiate a long-lasting peace deal with the government.’

However, the emergence of the Islamist insurgency last year has arguably made the internecine struggle between Frelimo and Renamo of secondary importance. In one of the more recent attacks in the gas-rich region, 1,800km north of the capital Maputo, the militants of Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama (‘followers of the prophetic tradition’ in Arabic) had hacked to death a man, set fire to 27 houses, and thrown a crude bomb into the church, Bloomberg reported. All of the houses burned down belonged to the largely Christian Makonde ethnic group, while homes of the predominantly Muslim Mwani ethnic group were spared. Days earlier raiders murdered six people in Lalane village, while an attack on Goludo found only an empty village as people take to sleeping in the bush to avoid the rebels, Mediafax reported.

The group originated in 2015, according to a study by the Institute of Economic and Social Studies (IESE) and the Civil Society Support Mechanism (MASC), when unemployed and disaffected youth, many of them informal traders in markets, began to form themselves into fundamentalist cells and tapped into surprisingly extensive international networks of arms and military training, radical Islamist clerics and financial backers. They are also known locally as al-Shabaab (so named because it means ‘the youth’ in Arabic rather than due to any explicit link with the Somali Islamists) and Swahili Sunnah (‘the Swahili path’), according to the Africa Center for Strategic Studies (ACSS), which noted that the latter name ‘suggests a goal of establishing a Swahili state among the Swahili-speaking coastal populations’.

The insurgency began on 5 October 2017, when a group of armed men attacked three police stations in Mocímboa da Praia, near the Tanzanian border. Fourteen militants, two policemen and a civilian were killed, AFP reported. The government responded to the assaults, which it blamed on ‘extremist Islamist sects … spreading disorder’, by closing three mosques in Pemba, capital of Cabo Delgado. After further attacks on outlying villages and an ambush that killed the intelligence chief of the police paramilitaries in December, marines backed by helicopters raided an Islamist stronghold that led to the deaths of about 50 people, including women and children, Mozambique’s AIM news agency reported. According to the ACSS, police had arrested 470 suspects by March, of whom 370 were prosecuted. (Most were locals, although there were also 52 Tanzanians, three Ugandans and one Somali.)

According to a study quoted in the independent news outlet Mediafax in April, the insurgents have been helped and trained by former Mozambican police officers and border guards at training bases both in and out of the country. Training has also been carried out by militias in the Great Lakes region and paid for by the Somali Islamist group Al-Shabaab. As with so many Islamist insurgencies, marginalised and uneducated youth are the foot soldiers, with radical clerics and obscure financial support behind them. Researchers say the insurgents are from the marginalised Mwani. Initially, they claimed to be reforming what they saw as the decadent Mozambican form of Islam – in fact, an old tradition of moderate sufism, according to the Portuguese historian Jaime Nogueiro Pinto – and would walk into mosques wearing shoes and carrying knives. Eventually they broke away to form their own mosques and began to call for the imposition of sharia and outright opposition to the authorities.

João Pereira, assistant professor at Eduardo Mondlane University and director of MASC, said the group did not aim to create an Islamic state in the north and were more intent on fomenting instability and boosting recruitment. But this had led to support from informal elites involved in illicit trade of ivory, timber and rubies because it created more space for their business, Mozambique News Reports & Clippings quoted him as saying.

The gemstones are of particular significance. A 2016 study by the news site 100Reporters identified the discovery of the top-quality precious stones, which fetch twice as much at auction as the emeralds mined by the same firm, Gemfields, as fuelling unrest and exacerbating inequalities in the region. ‘In the seven years since ruby deposits were first discovered in Montepuez in northern Mozambique, where the Gemfields concession is located and operated by its 75%-owned subsidiary Montepuez Ruby Mining (MRM), locals say they have been forced off their land; armed robberies and violence have soared as speculators have flocked to the area; and a growing number of small-scale miners have been beaten and shot. Some say miners even have been buried alive.’

Meanwhile, the promise of glittering energy wealth for the country – or at least the Frelimo elite – has never been closer. But eight years after the first major deep-water gas discoveries, the current political setbacks threaten to scupper prospects of an incipient energy boom. Foreign energy firms are preparing to invest some $30bn in developing vast gas deposits in the north of the country. ‘Gas supplier to the world,’ declared the Financial Times in June as a $7.7bn liquefied natural gas project, with enough reserves for 120 years at initial production rates, got the green light. Western gas suppliers such as BP, EDF and Centrica are now lining up to secure 20-year contracts for gas, with one scheme, led by the US exploration company Anadarko Petroleum and including the Indian multinational ONGC Videsh, estimated to hold reserves of 75tn cubic feet (2.1tn cubic metres). Meanwhile, the Italian conglomerate ENI and the US major Exxon have begun marketing gas to come onstream from their own project from 2022. The consortium behind the Anadarko-led project told the FT that Islamist militant attacks were ‘high on our agenda’ and the company was looking at its security arrangements.

With huge foreign investments in the country at stake, some are asking whether the Mozambican government is downplaying the insurgency. While acknowledging that ‘no foreign investor invests in a region where there is warfare,’ the Mozambican minister of industry and commerce, Ragendra de Sousa, nevertheless told Deutsche Welle that this was not the situation in the north. ‘When groups of criminals attack villages with machetes, that is not guerilla warfare, but unrest brought into the country by foreign troublemakers.’

In his blog, Joseph Hanlon, of the LSE, sees the insurgency as the local manifestation of a global reaction to the growing inequalities brought about by neo-liberal economic policies. Rather than a highly ideologically-driven challenge, he says, ‘the message is simply a demand to be heard and taken seriously.’ Time perhaps for the Mozambican government to start listening more.

Related articles:

Human Rights Watch – Mozambique: Armed Groups Burn Villages