Towards understanding the insugency in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique

Towards understanding the insugency in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique


Since the October 2017 attacks by alleged Islamist insurgents- commonly referred to as Ahlu Sunnah Wa-al-Jama and locally know as Al Shabab- on Mocimboa da Praia, it has not been entirely clear who the attackers were, what their strategic objectives are, and on whose domestic and international support they rely. Today, almost everyone is aware of who these people are: the disgruntled youth of Cabo Delgado, who are demanding a slice of the resources that are found in abundance in their region. This paper, grounded in a historical understanding of conflict in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province, seeks to identify possible stakeholders and scenarios in what we no longer see as an insurgency, but a war. This study will also seek to highlight the drivers of the conflict in Cabo Delgado, and attempt to answer the following questions: what does a peaceful intervention by the African Union (AU) look like? what must it avoid as a block to achieve normalisation and stability?  



The attacks by the so called “Islamist terrorists” have been happening at a critical juncture in Mozambique’s history. In August 2019, a peace agreement, the third, between the Government and the Renamo opposition was signed by President Filipe Nyusi and the Renamo leader Ossufo Momade (1). Complementing a decentralisation reform through a change in the Constitution, with a focus on provincial governments, the agreement focusses on the “Demobilization, Disarmament, and Reintegration” (DDR) of more than 5,000 Renamo soldiers – an ongoing process which commenced very slowly and exclude a section of the Renamo guerrillas still active and lethal in central Mozambique. The government’s response capacity is limited, politically and financially. It faces stringent budget constraints caused by several interrelated factors. The major ones are: the economic and fiscal fall out of the USD 2.2 billion secret debts contracted in 2013 to finance dubious fisheries and maritime security projects (2); a decline in economic growth and foreign direct investment, and in tax revenue (except for windfall revenue from the sale of Anadarko and its gas extraction and liquefaction concession in Cabo Delgado to Total): and, finally, the drop in aid allocated via budget support. This last issue, together with a cautious good governance attitude of the IMF and major bi- and multilateral cooperating partners: forces government to increasingly resort to non-concessional domestic and international credit to finance its budget deficits (3). This has resulted in the deterioration in the provision of public services and maintenance of public infrastructure, especially outside the capital Maputo, together with a disenchanted electorate concerned with corruption and a trend towards authoritarian rule. However, this did not affect the outcome of the presidential, parliamentary, and provincial elections on 15 October 2019. Frelimo and its presidential candidate Nyusi won by a large margin, amidst accusations by opposition parties, civil society organisations and international observers of massive fraud and irregularities in all phases of the electoral process (4). With dwindling domestic and international support, the President and his party now face major obstacles to delivering on their promises to combat corruption, promote and consolidate peace, boost small scale agricultural and food production and processing, as well as to improve public services, notably water supplies, in a more inclusive way. 


Drivers of the Conflict in Cabo Delgado

There are several possible drivers of the conflict in Cabo Delgado. Several analysts and President Nyusi himself, have attributed the conflict to high levels of poverty and unemployment and noted that these conditions are being exploited by foreign and local militants looking to recruit members (5). In addition to that, government corruption, and the heavy-handedness of the security forces in dealing with the local people, needs to be addressed.

The government and those multinational companies operating in the province should start to address these problems immediately in order for peace to return to the area. There is a need to settle the issue of land which was taken away from the people to pave way for the multinational companies to set up their mining operations. The government of Mozambique needs to pay some form of compensation to the people who were dispossessed of their land as a matter of urgency. 

So rather than asking what impact the conflict will have on the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) sector, we should ask what impact the LNG sector is having on local communities if we are to better understand how to prevent and counter violent extremism.

To add to that, unemployment and poverty alone do not predict the emergence of violent extremist organisations. Several studies show that relative deprivation, perceptions of marginalisation and discrimination, violation of human rights and a history of hostility between identity groups are far more relevant in predicting where such groups will emerge and how they will recruit from local populations.

These challenges are now, in early 2021, exacerbated by the socioeconomic impact of the state of emergency declared on 31 March 2020 due to Covid-19. Under these difficult circumstances, LNG projects in Cabo Delgado, with major reserves and an estimated total investment of more than USD 50 billion to become Africa’s Qatar, represent a silver lining of hope on the horizon, at least in terms of upstream and downstream investment and revenue generation, from 2024 onwards (6). But this silver lining may vanish and turn out to be a mirage, for two interconnected reasons. The first could be the tumbling of global energy prices, which could be partly due to the increase of production of oil e.g., by both Russia and Saudi Arabia, causing an expected decline of demand, refinery output, available storage, and return to investment expectations in energy exploration. This may negatively affect the inclination of gas and oil giants Total and ExxonMobil to proceed with their onshore investment in Cabo Delgado as planned (7). The second factor is the expanding armed activities of insurgents in Cabo Delgado, which the government and its reinforced “Defence and Security Forces” (FDS), have not been able to contain, even with some support from “Private Security and Military Enterprises” (PSMEs) and police cooperation with neighbouring Tanzania. Combatting the armed activities exacts a high toll on both the government and investors’ budgets. 

Both the government and mining companies routinely emphasise the enormous economic opportunity the LNG projects will bring to Mozambique and the "trickle down" potential they have for communities in terms of "job creation, supply and associated services industries" (8).

In reality, however, mining operations have routinely failed to benefit local communities. Many such projects have created unmet economic expectations, generated human rights violations, reinforced ethno-religious inequalities, and dispossessed local communities of their land.

The idea that the insurgents are spearheading an attempt by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its regional affiliates in Africa to incorporate Cabo Delgado into the Islamic State’s Central African Province (ISCAP) is gaining currency in studies and reports on the Cabo Delgado insurgency. Yet, in our view, solid research-based evidence together with the scientific exploration of other explanatory avenues is still lacking to verify this hypothesis. This is despite the fact that ISIS often claims responsibility within 24 hours after attacks.

In the present analysis, which considers historical dimensions of state building and the political economy in Cabo Delgado, we try to examine additional, complementary hypotheses on the origins and dynamic of what we label a “New War” in Mozambique’s northernmost province. This study will use this concept as an antithesis to the ‘Islamic State onslaught’ thesis which has not seriously been challenged to date. Our argument is that without more profound examination of determinants such as political history and change, ethnicity, interests of private security enterprises associated to investment in extractives as well as international relations, our understanding of the war in Cabo Delgado, its causes and its implications will remain incomplete. The analysis of structural factors such as demographic trends, poverty, disenchanted “youth in waithood” (9), unequal access to land and concession, long-term allocation and distribution of budgets and their effects on public services, structural state violence, among others, will be dealt with in the context of this study. 

This study abstains from summarising what we already know about the ‘insurgency armed groups’, such as their gaining military strength, strategic competence and the increasing efficiency of their armed action.


The Discovery of Rubies in Montepuez

Another critical factor that is adding to current crisis in Cabo Delgado is the discovery of rubies. In April 2009, rubies were discovered near the city of Montepuez in Cabo Delgado (10). By the end of 2010, thousands of artisanal miners, or garimpeiros, were mining the deposits.

In June 2011, Mwiriti Limitada, a Mozambican company owned by army Gen Raimundo Pachinuapa, a senior member of the ruling Frelimo, and London-based Gemfields signed a 25%-75% joint venture agreement to form the “Montepuez Ruby Mining” (MRM). MRM subsequently won mining rights to a 34,000ha concession (11).

Over the next three years, multiple instances came to light of artisanal miners allegedly being beaten, shot, and buried alive by the Mozambican police, the country’s environment protection agency and private security companies.

There were also cases of local communities being forcibly removed from their land and of villages being razed to make way for MRM mining activities.

In 2018, while denying liability, Gemfields publicly recognised that "instances of violence have occurred on and around the MRM licence area, both before and after Gemfields arrival in Montepuez".

The company then agreed to pay £5.8m to settle a case, brought before the London Supreme Court, in which 273 complainants alleged human rights abuses (12).

Back in Mozambique, there was little judicial action. The attorney-general announced an investigation, but it was never concluded. No serious steps were taken to seek justice for victims or to put policies in place to address the use of force against communities affected by the extractive industry.

In addition to food and water insecurity and the loss of supplementary income, the stress and trauma associated with forced displacement has fractured social networks and eroded trust between community members, local leaders, and company and government representatives.

Hundreds of families have been forced to resettle away from their ancestral farmland and fishing grounds to make way for onshore support facilities for the projects.

Speculative investing in land in anticipation of the gas boom, often by Frelimo elites, has also fuelled resentment among villagers, who continue to lose access to land and sustainable livelihoods.

In rural areas particularly, land is inextricably linked not only to livelihoods but also to identity, culture, and history. The Cabo Delgado coastal zone has traditionally been occupied by the Muslim Kimwani-speaking people, who rely predominantly on trading, fishing, and seafaring. The displacement and marginalisation of coastal communities in Cabo Delgado is especially concerning, given pre-existing ethno-religious fault lines.

Many Muslims in the province backed Frelimo’s independence struggle against the Portuguese. However, since the first multiparty elections in 1994, Kimwani speakers have tended to vote for Renamo.

As journalist Joseph Hanlon writes: "Local Muslim leaders have always been annoyed that their role in the independence struggle was not recognised, and they see the largely Christian Makonde speakers from Mueda and Muidumbe districts dominating Frelimo and moving into the coastal areas." (13)

Today, the Makonde form the local elite in Cabo Delgado, while the Kimwani-speaking people are among the poorest in the province and the most negatively affected by the LNG projects.

It is unlikely that the substantial number of jobs created by the LNG projects will go to local coastal communities, given low levels of formal education and the investment in training and support needed to equip community members with the requisite skills.

Any poverty reduction from jobs that do go to these communities has likely already been offset by the thousands of local citizens who have lost access to fishing grounds and small-scale agricultural production.

For communities living in the region, the security situation has deteriorated significantly over the past two years. Not only have they been victim to dozens of attacks by the “Ahlu Sunnah wa-al-jamah” (ASWJ), but the region has become highly securitised. Local communities report "living [in] constant fear of mistreatment by the military and by private security actors rather than feeling protected from the attacks".

In late August 2020, Total’s subsidiary in the region announced it had signed a memorandum of understanding with the government. The government would deploy a joint task force from the defence and security forces (FDS) to ensure security. In return, the Mozambique LNG project would provide logistical support to the FDS, including equipment and subsidies for troops.

As Mozambique’s Centre for Democratic Development notes: "In allowing the deployment of FDS troops to protect private interests in exchange for monetary payments, the government is privatizing the FDS services and, consequently, violating the Defence & Security Policy." The FDS is already stretched beyond the point where it can effectively protect communities in Cabo Delgado (14).

While the defence of strategic interests is one of the fundamental roles of the ministry of defence, it is easy to see how this relationship between the military and LNG sector would be viewed differently by a local population exposed to violence at the hands of armed groups, private military companies, and government security forces on a weekly basis.

Natural gas revenues will only begin to accrue by 2024. This means there is still time for Mozambique to prioritise sustainable development, inclusive growth, and better policies to manage large extractive industry investments.



Although ASWJ maintains transnational linkages, the group is the result of domestic pressures and conditions in Mozambique. At first glance, ASWJ seems like an Islamist terrorist group emboldened through affiliation with the Islamic State. Both Mozambican government officials and Islamic State – Central Africa Province (IS-CAP) statements assert that recent attacks are by the Islamic State. However, not only are those ties murky focusing solely on the threat that the Islamic State poses in the region also ignores domestic insurgencies like ASWJ.

The role of Islam, particularly Wahhabist interpretations, should not be understated. But local ethnic and economic situations laid the groundwork for ASWJ’s extremist ideology to find support in Mozambique. Cabo Delgado and bordering provinces Niassa and Nampula have the highest rates of poverty in Mozambique; they have not reaped the rewards accruing from the natural resources found in their area, particularly natural gas, and ruby deposits. Early ASWJ recruits included disempowered and impoverished male youths in Mocímboa da Praia who looked to Islam as a means of challenging the state and its economic structures. From there, the group developed by articulating a message that resonated with the underserved population in northeast Mozambique.

Economic, social, and political marginalisation are all exacerbated by ethnic divides in the region. The Kimwani, a local Muslim ethnic group, holds grievances against majority ethnic groups, particularly the predominantly Catholic Makonde. This societal cleavage is useful for ASWJ recruitment and popularity, because ASWJ offers the possibility of increased standing and economic benefits if the current social structures are overturned. The geographic origins and spoken languages of many members indicate that the Kimwani community has served as a useful recruitment pool for ASWJ. 

At the same time, ASWJ exists in a fluid environment where other jihadist groups exert ideological influence. Followers of a Kenyan Imam, Aboud Rogo Mohammed, have played an important role in the radicalisation of disaffected individuals in Cabo Delgado. Moreover, although IS-CAP has claimed that ASWJ is an affiliate, their relationship remains tenuous and uncertain.

As the current SADC chairperson, Mozambique’s president should tap into regional support to ensure civilian protection against attacks and to restore security in Cabo Delgado. South Africa’s Department of International Relations, reacting to the latest deadly attack in Palma, tweeted that South Africa stands ready to work with the government of Mozambique in pursuit of lasting peace and stability. Mozambican authorities should take up the offer.

Mozambique authorities, SADC, and the AU need to demonstrate to civilians in Palma and the entire Cabo Delgado province that their security and the protection of their rights is a top priority. Failure to act now could have dire consequences for the people of Cabo Delgado and the entire southern Africa region.

An Angolan scenario, where a political elite captures all the local content opportunities, will only serve to increase grievances, and swell the ranks of the insurgency.




1. Mozambiques Rivals Sign Peace Deal, 11 April 2021


2. Mozambique-Credit Suisse is Liable for 2 billion Secret Debt, 11 April 2021


3.US-Total Mozambique Deal, 11 April 2021


4. Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi Re-elected in Landslide Victory, 12 April 2021


5. How Mozambique’s Corrupt Elite Caused Tragedy in the North, 12 April 2021


6. Growing Risks for 50 billion Mozambique’s LNG Projects, 12 April 2021


7. Going Deep into Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Extremism, 12 April 2021


8. Generation in Waiting: The Unfulfilled Promise of Young People in the Middle East, 12 April 2021


9.Mozambique Ruby Discovery 21st Century, 12 April 2021


10. Mozambique Ruby Giant hit by Virus, 12 April 2021


11. Gemfield Reveals and Denies Fresh Human Rights Abuse Claims in Mozambique, 13 April 2021


12. Gemfields Compensate Over Mozambique’s Mining Abuse, 16 April 2021

13. Mozambique’s NGO Criticises Privatization of Sovereignty in Government Accord, 13 April 2021

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