The many roots of Mozambique’s deadly insurgency

New field research in Cabo Delgado sheds light on one of Africa’s least understood violent conflicts.

Conflict erupted in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province just a few years after some of Africa’s biggest gas reserves were discovered in the Rovuma Basin off the coast. Mozambicans see this as no coincidence.

A new study by the Institute for Security Studies and the Judicial Training Institute of Mozambique conducted extensive field research in Cabo Delgado. It shows that citizens blame the discovery and bad governance of resources, notably natural gas and rubies, for the escalation of terrorism in the province. Over 4 000 people have been killed and 800 000 displaced due to the insurgency that broke out at the end of 2017.

Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique

Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique
(click on the map for the full size image)

In a survey of 309 people and 28 key informants, nearly half of the respondents said natural resources escalated the crisis. The announcements of US$60 billion investments in liquid natural gas came with promises of huge wealth and opportunity for the country. But locals feel marginalised by corrupt elites. Some have lost their land and livelihoods to the gas infrastructure built onshore. They are doubtful that these projects will reduce poverty and improve services.

Meanwhile, the discovery of some of the world’s largest ruby deposits in Cabo Delgado attracted fortune seekers and informal miners from across East Africa. They were chased away when multinationals took over the mine, leading to protests in 2019.

Asked to choose between a range of options, 45% of respondents said the main root cause of the insurgency was the discovery of rubies and natural gas. Another 4% mentioned the bad governance of natural resources. Far fewer people thought the availability of illicit arms (13%), economic marginalisation (6%) and elite greed (5%) were the primary causes.

This confirms that recruitment drives by the militant group Ahlu-Sunnah wal Jama’a (ASWJ), supported by Islamic State in Mozambique, were facilitated by the so-called natural resource curse. It not only increased inequality but raised the stakes in the province. What was initially a small radical group grew to become a major menace that drove away big multinationals like TotalEnergies.

Citizens blame the discovery of natural resources for the escalation of terrorism in Cabo Delgado

Before the insurgency, Cabo Delgado was already notorious for illicit activities such as trafficking in drugs, timber and people, as well as ruby smuggling. The study however showed no significant links between the terror group and organised crime. So far, there is no indication that ASWJ’s main aim is to get its hands on this lucrative illicit business.

The strongest evidence linking insurgents to drug smuggling dates back to the 2021 seizure of 250 kg of heroin in a building formerly occupied by ASJW militants. No one was arrested, and no other evidence links the insurgency to the heroin trade, which has long been rife along this coastline.

While the study’s respondents anecdotally referred to the insurgents as being involved in arms, drug and human trafficking, they didn’t believe this was the group’s source of income. Only 8% said the insurgents fund their activities from organised crime. A much larger proportion (38%) mentioned foreign sources, and 13% said the group used its own funds.

This confirms reports that the illicit economy, donations and raids on local sources such as banks are the major sources of financing. In the March 2021 Palma attack, US$1 million was robbed from banks and businesses.

The study confirms that the illicit economy, donations and raids are the insurgents’ major funding sources

Cabo Delgado residents believe regional disparities between privileged elites based in the capital Maputo in Mozambique’s far south, and the marginalised northerners, play a more significant role in driving the conflict than ethnic considerations.

Tensions between the mostly Muslim coastal communities of the Mwani and Makua groups, and the Christian Makonde are mentioned as a backdrop to the crisis. However, these communities have lived together peacefully for centuries. Ethnicity was seen by only 2% of respondents as the primary driver of the insurgency.

The role of an extremist ideology and the recruitment and radicalisation of ASWJ shouldn’t be overlooked. Just over 60% of people said religion plays some role in the violence, although many believed that Islam is being instrumentalised. The group’s messaging and modus operandi when recruiting youths were described by victims and eyewitnesses as resembling those of violent extremists elsewhere in the world.

Mozambicans, notably those in the country’s three northernmost provinces where over 60% of people claim to be Muslims, have historically belonged to Sufi orders. However, in the early 2000s, more radical anti-Sufi groups emerged. ASWJ’s emergence is seen as part of a global wave of Islamic revivalism. The teachings of Kenyan cleric Aboud Rogo Mohammed played a particularly significant role in radicalisation in Mozambique.

Reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in Cabo Delgado is needed, but also among Muslims

The Cabo Delgado study found that radicalisation occurs predominantly in mosques and to a lesser extent market places. This is contrary to the global trend where radicalisation increasingly happens online and through other illicit networks.

There is a need for dialogue and reconciliation between Muslims and Christians in Cabo Delgado, also among Muslims. Other government action needed includes partnering with local organisations to address legitimate grievances, setting up a commission of inquiry into the drivers of violent extremism, and developing a national strategy to deal with all aspects of the crisis.

Military interventions alone won’t end the insurgency. However, more effective strategies by Mozambican security forces and the country’s international partners play a key role. Tightening border security and improving intelligence sharing is also vital.

There should also be greater cooperation between the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) and the Rwandan forces on the ground. Forces should consider scenario six of the SADC counter-terrorism strategy, focusing on peacekeeping, as an exit strategy. And the African Union should regularly discuss the situation and help SAMIM.

The ASWJ threat in Mozambique has proven to be one of Africa's least understood and most nebulous insurgencies. Little is known about the group’s identity, aims and ideology, and the militants have no clear communication strategy. This makes solving the crisis even harder. However, acknowledging and tackling the root causes of the crisis is essential for long-term peace in Cabo Delgado.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Senior Researcher, ISS Pretoria

Register here to join the seminar today on the research findings. The full report on the study can be downloaded here.

Image: © Willem Els/ISS

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Development partners
Research for this article was funded by the Government of Australia. The ISS is also grateful for support from the members of the ISS Partnership Forum: the Hanns Seidel Foundation, the European Union, the Open Society Foundations and the governments of Canada, Denmark, Ireland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and the USA.
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