The insurgency in Cabo Delgado

The climate crisis, resource extraction, and the insurgency by a group claiming affiliation to ISIL in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province.

Cabo Delgado, 2018 (Stéphane Neckebrock, via Flickr CC).

A violent insurgency in the resource-rich northern province of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique is threatening to destabilize East and Southern Africa. The brunt is being borne by the local population—they make up 85 percent of the 900 lives lost and more than 170,000 of them are currently displaced. Around 3,000 private and public structures are destroyed or damaged.

Then on April 11, there were reports of a massacre of between 50-70 people in the Muidumbe district. A day before, a helicopter operated by South African mercenaries working for a Russian private security firm hired by the Mozambican government to fight the insurgents was downed. In October 2019, seven members of Russian private security forces from the Wagner group were killed by insurgents.

The violent activities by the insurgency, known as Ahlu Sunnah Waj-Jama’a (ASWJ), began in October 2017. The attackers have been emboldened, hoisting a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) over Mocímboa da Praia, on March 23. Since June 2019, ISIL has claimed 30 attacks on Cabo Delgado. The ASWJ is a breakaway group from a 1998 breakaway group of the Islamic Council of Mozambique (CISLAMO). In late 2019, ASWJ in Mozambique was added to Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP). On April 6 and 7, ASWJ specified their political goal of establishing an Islamic government. Yet this group and its grievances emerged over a long period of regional disenfranchisement and recurrent humanitarian crisis induced by climate change. To fully understand the multi-layered forces at play in Cabo Delgado requires a threefold approach: engagement with the complexities of political economy on the ground; a regional lens on the security dimensions of the conflict; and acknowledgement of the deteriorating environmental conditions (especially climate).

The attacks began only after the discovery of massive reserves of oil and gas in the region. These vast deposits have attracted both external investors and external threats. The insurgency is part of a much wider geopolitical struggle (especially in neighboring Tanzania), but also a national struggle among the elites in Mozambique, for these mineral riches.

The ASWJ is exploiting particular grievances surrounding this discovery and the ongoing, widespread poverty in Cabo Delgado, the least developed province in Mozambique. Most of the members of the ASWJ have been described as young uneducated youth, between 20 and 35 years of age, with few economic opportunities. Interviews with residents of Cabo Delgado often suggest that the group is comprised of locals. The new extractive industries are perceived as providing work mainly to outsiders (from the southern provinces and/or from outside the country), while pushing local youths out of their traditional work (fishing and subsistence agriculture). Illegal activities remain the sole means of survival for some.

It has been known since 2018 that ASWJ was more criminal than jihadi. It first profited from the heroin trade route in the region—allegedly Mozambique’s biggest export at the time. Alongside illegal logging, mining, and human trafficking, some estimated ASWJ made up to several million dollars per week—a lot of resources to recruit a desperate population. Militarized responses by the state, alongside declining human rights standards (due process, treatment of prisoners, media restrictions and attacks on journalists), might have further alienated this population and driven recruitment.

Illicit funds allowed for the group’s rapid expansion and transnational linkages to criminal syndicates and others in support of jihadism. Mobility across porous borders in the region also facilitated such growth. Mozambique was identified in the 2019 Basel AML Index as at highest risk for terrorist financing due to poor border control and weak institutions.

The linkages between multiple non-state armed groups in East Africa are growing fast. Conflicts once driven by local grievances in individual countries have become transnationalized. The combatants on both sides of these attacks illustrate not only how a regional conflict is emerging, but also the massive transnational, private interests involved. The struggle is privatized, as are the profits and the security responses. Here, the state is the weakest dog on the block, if present at all, and is mostly concerned with assisting the private sector in extraction. This is where private mercenaries are stepping in to help—further blurring the lines of sovereignty.

Lacking capital, and in order to attract and protect investors, Mozambique maintains a narrative of stability and peace conducive to investment. This has produced authoritarian state behavior to combat the insurgency including abuse of suspected insurgents, among others. But it has also meant the inclusion of private armies, backed by powerful state allies. Russian military and/or Russian private mercenaries are growing in number, fighting and dying alongside Mozambican soldiers. Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Mozambican counterpart Filipe Nysusi signed energy and security agreements in August 2019. Political analyst Sergey Sukhankin sees this as Russia’s well-established “Syrian model”—that is, offering para-military services in exchange for resource extraction rights—playing out in Mozambique.

But it is not only ASJW or the Russians with such ambitions in Cabo Delgado. Many nationals of various counties—including in the West—are known to have engaged in various sorts of damaging and illicit trade. China is investing heavily in Mozambique, and is logging Cabo Delgado extensively. South Africa is continuing to invest in exploring gas in the Rovuma basin and wants a stable neighbor. The United States has conducted naval exercises in the Mozambique Channel off Pemba and the gas fields. France also claims several islands in the Mozambique Channel.

But there is one material factor underlying this entire process: climate change. Climate change has long been known to be severely impacting the poor in Mozambique and increasing levels of poverty. The people of Cabo Delgado are highly vulnerable. Essentially a subsistence economy, survival in these areas depends on local resources, especially rain-fed farming and fishing. Climate change means both people and landscape are highly susceptible to tropical cyclones and sea level rise. The dramatic increase in extreme weather events in this region has produced a nearly permanent humanitarian crises in recent years. The 2019 cyclones Idai and Kenneth were particularly devastating—and the first time two such storms came in quick succession. With Kenneth, floodwater “covered the coastal town of Pemba.” Kenneth was the strongest and most northern cyclone to make landfall in Mozambique. Cyclones were not supposed to happen that close to the equator where the Coriolis force is too weak, yet this is no longer the case.

The heavy rainy season of 2019/2020 was also unusual with the December 2019 flooding leading to widespread damage. Thousands of fishermen were affected by lost and damaged boats, and farmers lost about 4,000 hectares of usable land. Infrastructure is weak at best in Cabo Delgado, and the flooding led to the collapse of a vital bridge over the Montepuez River, leaving an estimated 1,000,000 people isolated.

These climatic changes have exacerbated tensions brought on by the mass appropriation of natural resources currently underway. The community has also been dramatically affected by the redistribution of wealth from the extractive industries away from the local population. Resettlements have heightened preexisting grievances, disrupting traditional power structures, and land use—land vulnerable to capture by elites. Such resettlement recalls the social trauma of similar schemes by both the colonial Portuguese military and the ruling party FRELIMO. Multinational mining giant Rio Tinto has been behind similar resettlements in the nearby province of Tete and accused of neglect by Human Rights Watch. The jobs promised by the discovery of the gas fields remain low for the local population as they are unskilled. The International Labor Organization recognized back in 2015 that jobs in these extraction industries “will be limited if there is no local capacity.”

Yet developing such capacity has lagged. Attempts by NGOs to increase non-timber forest products and sustainable income-generating activities in Cabo Delgado bore little benefit. Attempts by the private sector (like Catalisa) to accelerate commercial horticultural production and smallholder farmers in Cabo Delgado have been marred by resettlements and climate change—and these efforts, in fact, are part of major energy group Total Mozambique’s liquefied natural gas project tied to the deposits.

Why are the people impoverished if their region is so resource rich? It is this ongoing economic abjection that has contributed to the radicalization of a brand of Islam that refuses to recognize the government, state institutions, local leaders and imams—the ASWJ. A short video, shared widely on social media, is telling. The group says they are:

occupying [territory] to show that the government is unjust. [They] humiliate the poor and give advantages to the bosses. (…) We intend [to set up] an Islamic government … We are children of this area … We want to take the military out, because [for us] they are pigs.

This reveals how the conflict is over economic inequality and injustices of the state foremost, and far less about radical Islam.

In March 2020, the African Regional Forum on Sustainable Development expressed “the urgent need to deal with climate change and silence the guns” in Africa. It identified how problems of climate change and unemployment (especially among youth) are directly linked to increasing forms of violence and instability—two variables clearly present in the Cabo Delgado insurgency. This complex relationship shows the urgent need for distinct types of research into climate security based on local conditions and community needs for socioeconomic reproduction.

Further Reading