Mozambique: Aid Prospects Bring Hope to Cabo Delgado, but Civilians Still Face Danger

As thousands of Mozambicans displaced by the war in the northern Cabo Delgado province return home, the prospects of aid to address the under-development which has fuelled the insurgency are improving.

However, while the number of attacks by insurgents is declining, civilians remain threatened by isolated attacks and the deployment of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along roads. And as some insurgents pursue a “hearts-and-minds” strategy with local people, there is increasing concern at the reported abuse of civilians by undisciplined Mozambican forces.

These developments have been reported in recent updates by by the Mozambican observer group, Cabo Ligado, a project of the international monitoring group, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) and the Mozambican news outlets Zitamar News and MediaFax.

Statistics kept by Cabo Ligado indicate that more than 4,600 people have died in political violence in Cabo Delgado since the conflict began in 2017, 2,008 of them in violence targetting civilians. About 950,000 people were displaced by the fighting, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

As the insurgency intensified, the militia – known as “al-Shabab” by local people – launched their most spectacular attacks on coastal towns in the far north of Cabo Delgado, such as Mocímboa da Praia and Palma, forcing the energy consortium headed by French multinational TotalEnergies to call a halt to its $20 billion natural gas development in the Palma district in 2021.

But troops from Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community, brought in to support Mozambican forces during 2021, have reclaimed substantial territory from the insurgents.

Reporting on activity in the first four months of 2023, Cabo Ligado recorded a “sustained decrease in political violence” but cautioned that “insurgents’ technical expertise in the preparation of IEDs has improved…” The group also noted that insurgents “show astuteness in their varying approaches to communities. In Mocímboa da Praia and Macomia districts, they have tried to build relations with communities, through trade and, at times, cash distribution.”

After a spike in political violence in May – with 19 deaths – the group’s weekly reports for June so far reflect a renewed decline in violence. They also show that most conflict has moved south, mainly into Muidumbe and Macomia districts and the Messalo river basin, where insurgents are harassing communities.

With attacks by insurgents having declined, Cabo Ligado’s latest weekly report on June  21 says that while violence against civilians by state forces is not new, “in the context of reduced insurgent activity, and the increasing return of displaced people, these incidents present a significant challenge to the Mozambican state.

“Firstly, they present a challenge to the state to maintain basic security in areas of return. Secondly, it makes more urgent the need for security sector reform, particularly the integration of local forces into the FADM [the Mozambican Defense Armed Forces], as has been legislated for. Failure in these areas runs the risk of insurgents successfully embedding themselves in communities, as we see them attempting in Macomia.”

In May, Mozambique’s Minister of the Interior, Arsénia Massingue, spoke out against police misconduct in an address in Maputo. Apparently responding to criticism from national and international NGOs of violent police behaviour, she told police “to stay away from the practices that tarnish our performance and discourage honest policemen to act in a serious way, in the right way.”

Taking advantage of improved security, more than 400,000 people have returned to their homes, according to Cabo Delgado’s governor, Valige Tauabo.

Speaking during a tour of the Mocímboa da Praia, Macomia and Muidumbe districts in early June, he reported on efforts to rebuild and rehabilitate economic and social infrastructure, including buildings, roads and water supplies.

In a stop which Cabo Ligado said “indicates confidence, or at least hope, that security can be sustained”, Tauabo visited the settlement of Mbau in Mocímboa da Praia, long an insurgent stronghold. Overall, his tour of the province “sent a strong message to a domestic and international audience that stability is being maintained”.

Accompanying the return of displaced people to their homes have come announcements of development projects to improve their lives.

In February the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the national government signed up to a two-year $20 million project, financed by the Netherlands and the European Union, to help stabilise Cabo Delgado by improving security and the rule of law, rehabilitating infrastructure and providing socio-economic support to individuals and communities.

And in May, TotalEnergies announced that the consortium developing the natural gas project in the Afundi Peninsula in the Palma district would establish a $200 million foundation to implement a socio-economic development programme across Cabo Delgado.

The foundation, governed by a board comprising representatives from the consortium  and civil society, will promote “shared prosperity in the province, without waiting for the revenues expected during the production phase of the project,” TotalEnergies said. (The project is not expected to export liquefied natural gas before 2027, according to the Bloomberg news agency.)

Accompanying the announcement was a detailed action plan and a 76-page report on “the socio-economic, humanitarian and human rights situation” in the area centred on the site of the natural gas project on the Afungi peninsula of Palma district.

The report, the lead author of which is French human rights activist Jean-Christophe Rufin, attributes the insurgency to multiple factors, including inequality between the developed south of Mozambique and the under-developed north, a lack of public services in Cabo Delgado, the exclusion of its people from the benefits of economic activity such as mining and the presence of mafias trafficking in illegal drugs and other goods.

Rufin’s report also cites ethnic and religious factors but warns against over-simplifying them. It notes, however: “The fact remains that this region, far from the capital and left out of the development process, close to neighbouring Tanzania and with a Muslim majority, constitutes a favourable environment for insurrectionary propaganda…

“The Mozambican Shababs’ affiliation with the DAECH network [known in the West as Islamic State or ISIS] provides them with an echo chamber and gives their actions an international impact. There is also evidence that the individual paths of some activists have brought them into contact with international terrorist groups…. However, this ideological claim has not yet translated into significant foreign military support.”

Rufin report concludes that the insurgency “cannot be reduced to ‘foreign contamination’… The participation of local elements is undeniable; it is rooted in strong inequalities as well as in the underdevelopment of the area.

“The events themselves confirm this: the taking of important cities could only be achieved by a combination of external attacks and local sympathy. This is important because, while it is difficult, if not impossible, to influence external factors, actions in favour of local populations are an undeniable way to reduce their propensity to support violent rebellions.”

But while the prospects of development aid being pumped into Cabo Delgado generates hope for improvement in the lives of ordinary people, many of them face the classic dilemma of civilians in insurgency.

On the one hand, observes Cabo Ligado, “The ongoing approaches made by insurgents to communities… force recent returnees to risk being seen as collaborators by state forces.” But on the other hand, “Those same forces provide limited protection against insurgents. This leaves citizens with unenviable decisions to make.”


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