The conflict with an Islamist insurgency in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado is entering its sixth year. The southern-dominated FRELIMO party which has ruled the country since the signing of the Rome Peace Accords in 1992, is allying with local militias as part of a counter-insurgency strategy against the jihadist rebels. Yet an alliance with the Naparama militia, while providing some strategic advantages, could prove difficult to control. Unleashing non-state armed groups against each other could cause even greater death, destruction, and displacement while posing serious post-conflict challenges. These challenges will be exacerbated if the government continues its failure to respond to the deep-rooted local grievances that are driving the conflict in the perpetually marginalized north.
The Naparama have already played a significant role in the fight against the jihadists, known locally as al-Shabbab (no relation to the Somali group of the same name), who have had a presence in Cabo Delgado province since 2017. While it and other local militias fill a security gap for the government and act as an intermediary to the public with whom the military shares a tense relationship, they have also been accused of severe human rights abuses.
Moreover, the use of such non-state actors to perform government functions (providing law and order for example) raises concerns over and above their arbitrary and often violent behavior toward the local population. For example, how will they be compensated? Will they be a source of future instability? Could they transform the conflict from a counter-insurgency into a civil war?
The Naparama are particularly problematic. Formed in displaced-people camps in the late 1980s in the context of a civil war, in which more than one million people died it quickly became an effective fighting force numbering in the thousands. Members were recognizable by their red rags and refusal to be armed. Inspired by their spiritual leader Manuel Antonio, they believed that bullets could not harm them. Throughout the following years, the Naparama overran 24 rebel strongholds in Zambezia province, allowing 200,000 beleaguered civilians to return home across the frontlines.
After a three-decade hiatus, the group resurfaced in November 2022 but is now spreading across Cabo Delgado, “vaccinating” entire villages against jihadist bullets. Local inhabitants are visibly excited by the Naparama renaissance, which takes place in the context of a local conflict that has seen more than 4,600 killed and 1,200,000 displaced in over five years of fighting. The Naparama’s comeback is not a triumphant one, but rather a reflection of the government’s failure to adequately address local grievances.
Expectations were high after the discovery of massive offshore gas fields in 2010 promised unprecedented prosperity to the neglected province. But economic improvements seen in the south have not been forthcoming in the north, where the overwhelmingly rural population continues to suffer from chronic underdevelopment. Indeed, it is this systemic neglect of Cabo Delgado that also pushed many young men into al-Shabaab.
The Mozambican government officially began using local armed groups against the insurgents in December 2022, when parliament passed a bill legalizing village militias it referred to as “Forças Locales.” Such groups, comprising mostly war veterans, began popping up in 2019 when many villages found they could not depend on the regular security forces for protection in the face of insurgents known for decapitation, mutilation, and rape. Although the bill states that the Forças Locales fall under the military chain of command, the Naparama are excluded due to their being considered an “independent peasant militia.”
With the help of external forces from Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community, the government has been able to push back the insurgency, which reportedly now numbers a mere 280 hardcore fighters, down from 3,000 in 2021. Therefore, this may be the right time to assess the risks attached to the use of the Naparama and the Forças Locales. These groups could easily turn to well-ensconced, transnational criminal networks or become political pawns for the government, exacerbating inter-communal violence in Cabo Delgado.
To protect civilians the government should prioritize enhancing its own military capabilities such that it can enforce law and order, obviating the need for such groups in the future. It should also make a concerted effort to improve the transparency and accountability regulating these groups’ behavior and help to clearly define their functions. And it should consider potential remuneration packages that both manage expectations and recognize these groups’ contribution to the counter-insurgency effort.
Most importantly, it should address underlying local grievances, such as economic marginalization, that are driving people toward insurgency, as well as to militias like the Naparama. Coherent and equitable economic policy addressing these long-term challenges could improve the lives of Cabo Delgadans, helping to build a foundation for an end to the conflict and halting the further spread of unchecked armed groups. A failure to take such steps could see these militias spread into neighboring provinces, wreaking chaos and causing yet more bloodshed.