Image Source: International Policy Digest
Among the multiplicity of security crises that beset the African continent, the rising jihadist insurgency in northern Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado often escapes the global spotlight. However, it stands as a solemn vigil of the complex security dilemmas confronting numerous African nations. This overlooked conflict, rooted in a confluence of historical grievances and contemporary socio-economic disenfranchisement, calls for an integrated response from both Mozambique and the international community. Concerted international security cooperation, involving a strategic partnership between the Mozambican government and international stakeholders such as the South African Development Community (SADC), the United States, and the European Union, is vital for a sustainable resolution to the conflict.
Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province, bears historical significance and unparalleled economic potential, housing the globe’s most abundant ruby mines and the continent’s third-largest natural gas reserves. However, despite its natural wealth, the province suffers from stark socio-economic disparities, which have been exacerbated by a jihadist insurgency since 2017. This conflict has claimed over 4,000 lives and caused more than 940,000 to flee their homes.
The group driving the insurgency, known as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a (ASWJ) or al-Shabaab in Mozambique, has capitalized on the economic and political dissatisfaction prevalent among the region’s young, predominantly Muslim population to bolster its ranks and influence in Cabo Delgado. Although the group pledged its loyalty to ISIS in June 2019 and subsequently renamed itself ISIS-Mozambique, its actions appear to be predominantly influenced by local socio-economic dynamics rather than a broader global jihadist doctrine. While ASWJ maintains certain operational connections and foreign volunteers have joined the insurgent group, its actual links to the global jihadist movement, including ISIS and the Islamic State Central African Province (ISCAP), are subject to debate and are considered weak. Regardless, in response to the escalating threat posed by ASWJ, the United States Department of State formally classified it as a foreign terrorist organization in March 2021.
Efforts by international coalitions to stabilize the province have been substantial but insufficient to secure, let alone pacify, the region or rejuvenate its economic activities. Spearheading the efforts, the South African Development Community (SDAC) deployed a stabilization mission, known as the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), comprised of troop contingents from eight African states in 2021. The mission set out primarily as counter-terrorism, and therefore, it has entailed a focus on military operations and counter-insurgency warfare. More recently, the SADC announced a shift in strategy, altering the operational mandate of SAMIM from pure counter-terrorism to a more multidimensional mission. Meanwhile, the United States and the European Union launched training missions to Mozambique in 2022 to improve the Mozambican armed forces.
However, despite notable tactical successes in countering ASWJ, these initiatives have fallen short of reinstating security in Cabo Delgado, where the situation remains volatile and insurgent activity continues. While humanitarian assistance is being rolled out, many internally displaced people are unable to return, and the goal of reinvigorating economic activity on a large scale remains elusive. The impact of the conflict on the region’s economic prospects is particularly profound.
One striking instance that exemplifies the economic ramifications of the continued instability is the suspension of a multi-billion-dollar liquefied natural gas (LNG) project led by Total Energies. This decision followed a bold insurgency assault on the town of Palma in the northern part of Cabo Delgado in 2021. While the town has since been recaptured and dialogue between the Mozambican government and Total Energies has been reinitiated, with President Filipe Nyusi engaging with company officials in February 2023, the project’s future remains in limbo.
Furthermore, the Montepuez ruby mines, also located in Cabo Delgado, remain under threat. In October 2022, an attack on the mines caused heavy fighting, displacement of locals, and the halting of mining operations. A proposed construction project, which would expand the processing capacity of the mining complex, has not gone forward due to the continued security crisis. The case of ruby mining is yet another example highlighting the complexity of the crisis. This story illustrates the pervasive uncertainty that continues to overshadow the area, leaving its critical socio-economic issues largely unaddressed.
So, what does this mean for the violence-torn region? First and foremost, charting a path forward for Cabo Delgado requires addressing its foundational need for physical security and stability. Restoring peace is a critical prerequisite for resolving the intertwined social, economic, and political issues plaguing the region. Admittedly, a narrow focus on military operations and counter-insurgency strategies does not address the full complexity of the issue. The United States Integrated Country Strategy for Mozambique and SAMIM’s strategic and operational shift constitute tentative steps in the right direction, emphasizing an integrated approach to peace-building on the one hand and de-emphasizing counter-insurgency on the other. These approaches encompass not only effective counter-insurgency measures that hamper ASWJ’s activities by dislodging the insurgents from their strongholds, seizing materiel, and depriving them of revenue sources; they also recognize the need for structural policies. However, these structural policies, such as economic recovery and humanitarian assistance, can only begin to unfold their full potential under the condition of stable peace.
The inability of persistent – yet disparate and uncoordinated – military engagement to quell the insurgency underscores the need for a more comprehensive strategy that overcomes separated military assistance and brings together all relevant stakeholders. The ability of Jihadist militants to continue recruitment and operations is largely due to unresolved socio-economic, political, and religious grievances that drive individuals to their ranks. The narrative of an insurgency fueled by unaddressed local issues is a repetitive one, and it is critical to consistently revisit this understanding to realign policy priorities and reshape engagement strategies in Africa toward partnership building, beginning with a partnership for security in Cabo Delgado.
An additional complication overlooked thus far is the persistent problem of governmental corruption and malfeasance in Mozambique. Positioned at a troubling 142nd on the Global Corruption Perception Index, Mozambique continues to grapple with corruption as a significant systemic issue, even as it takes judicial action against officials guilty of financial misconduct. This raises a critical question about the viability of the Mozambican government as a partner for progress, especially considering its domination by the Frelimo party since the Mozambican War of Independence and the alleged involvement of government forces in human rights violations in Cabo Delgado.
While it may be a difficult pill to swallow, the central government in Maputo is indispensable to any peacebuilding effort despite its shortcomings. It is essential to acknowledge the government’s legitimacy and relevance. As Thomas P. Sheehy put it:
“Despite concerns about the Mozambican government, the international community should recognize that there is no equivalence between it and the militants. Despite flaws in its 2019 elections, the government is internationally recognized, democratically elected, and has the responsibility and right to deploy force if necessary to defend its sovereign territory.” (USIP, 2021)
Hence, any viable, enduring security strategy for Mozambique must – and should include – working with the government.
To bolster the security situation in Mozambique, several other measures could be instrumental. A necessary first step would be to integrate security activities and further cooperation in the region. This would involve bringing together the operations of Mozambique’s military, regional bodies like the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and global partners, such as the United States and the European Union, under a common framework. Such integration could streamline military strategies and close operational gaps, enhance training, promote intelligence sharing, and foster better civil-military relations. It would also improve resource efficiency by eliminating parallel programs and advancing the existing institutional security collaboration between Mozambique and international entities, which experts agree is critical. The Multinational Joint Task Force (MJTF), which operates in the Lake Chad region and aims to counter Boko Haram, may serve as an example of how such security integration could be structured.
This consolidated effort could also serve as a powerful statement to mitigate concerns about neocolonial dynamics involving Western powers, particularly former colonial rulers, in their involvement in Mozambique. In conjunction with the Mozambican government, the SADC should have a leading role in any integrated security cooperation, demonstrating clearly that any involvement is not interventionist but rather cooperative and led by African nations working towards agency over their security. It could represent a new paradigm of partnership between African nations and Western countries, where mutual interests, such as natural resource management, could drive cooperation.
It is important to acknowledge that the proposed cooperation is no easy feat to achieve. Despite the potential benefits, this cooperation must navigate significant challenges. Given Mozambique’s history of colonialism and post-colonial conflicts, any security initiative must be sensitive to the local populace’s valid grievances. Furthermore, while there is some alignment in goals, such as curtailing the influence of ISIS-M, the partners involved do not have perfectly aligned interests, which has led to frictions in the past.
A focal point of the security cooperation in Cabo Delgado should be working towards resuming commercial enterprises and industrial projects. The reignition of economic activities, particularly the dormant LNG initiatives, stands out as a pivotal and tangible goal. Acknowledging the paradox that fossil fuel extraction exacerbates climate change — a phenomenon acutely impacting Cabo Delgado and Mozambique — the region’s right to pursue economic development is equally undeniable.
These opportunities should be woven into the fabric of a sustainable security strategy that addresses not only immediate threats but also the socioeconomic drivers of instability. In this vein, private corporations in Mozambique must assume a more active role in fostering economic growth and stability, as corporate involvement can constitute a viable avenue for local development. While a philanthropic transformation of multinational companies might be improbable, it is feasible that a broad international alliance, encompassing both Mozambique and the private sector, could exert substantial influence.
Through well-established cooperative frameworks, such collaboration could ensure that the wealth derived from local resources translates into tangible benefits for the people of Cabo Delgado, including job creation and economic empowerment. The United States’ recognition of Mozambique as a priority under the Global Fragility Act, directing aid to the country, underscores the potential of integrated efforts to enhance resource efficiency.
A security cooperation framework could form an initial vanguard to facilitate this collaboration by getting all relevant stakeholders into one room and establishing and solidifying institutional cooperation mechanisms. Such a framework could – and should – be extended to include other partners, such as humanitarian organizations active in the region.
The final, less tangible, but vitally important issue to address is the critical need for trauma recovery and coping mechanisms. The insurgency, superimposed on a backdrop of long-standing marginalization, has not only taken lives and caused physical injuries but also inflicted deep psychological wounds. Addressing the complex issue of mental health requires a sustained and dedicated approach, but foundational steps can be initiated through a security cooperation framework.
Establishing a secure environment is paramount for enabling displaced individuals to safely return to their homes and lives. Moreover, the effective operations of international aid organizations in providing necessary support are contingent upon the substantial containment of insurgent activity. Ensuring physical safety is the initial, crucial stride toward healing the psychological impacts of conflict and fostering a landscape where comprehensive recovery can take root.The crisis in Cabo Delgado extends far beyond the scope of this column, including the participation of other global powers like China and Russia or the international heroin trade that affects Mozambique and the jihadist insurgency. Additionally, there is more depth on how Mozambique’s internal politics, particularly the Frelimo party’s dominant role, perpetuates regional disparities. Acknowledging the layered complexity of the situation, the imperative remains clear: action must commence, albeit with the understanding that no initial measures will be flawless. Incremental progress is both possible and necessary. A crucial step in this journey is establishing physical security in Cabo Delgado, ideally through a coordinated effort involving all key international and domestic actors, as part of the broader strategy to confront and ultimately resolve the crisis.