Mozabmique: Jihadists destroy the country in the forgotten war

Over half a million displaced people, a bloody rebellion, regular attacks on civilians, war crimes and a massive humanitarian crisis. This is the everyday life in Mozambique – one of the poorest and the least developed countries in the world. Its’ inhabitants need immediate help

Cabo Delgado uprising

The bloody uprising in Mozambique has been going on for almost 4 years. Its’ beginning dates back to October, 2017. Since then, nearly 3,000 civilians have died and more than half a million were forced to leave their homes.

“In Mocímboa everything is destroyed. The banks, the hospitals, our house. Everything was destroyed. If anyone says that something is there, they are lying. Many people died. I managed to run away only with my husband and my children. I do not know what happened with other members of my family” – said a woman from Mocímboa da Praia, who fled with her husband and 10 children to Pemba. 

The northern part of the country which used to be very popular among tourists was affected the most. The greatest chaos engulfed the province of Cabo Delgado, which is famous for its rich natural gas deposits. Until now, the government has not been able to suppress the uprising. Instead the insurgents grew stronger and developed new, effective methods of operation. The situation of the civilians is deteriorating day by day. Mozambique is in danger of being declared a failed state.

Causes of the conflict

To understand the causes of this conflict, one must first look at Mozambique’s social and economic situation. Mozambique is a former Portuguese colony that gained independence in 1975. The country that was unprepared for independent functioning plunged into the civil war. It ended only in 1992. However, the end of war did not mean the end of the problems.

Mozambique authorities were unable to fight unemployment, lack of access to basic public services or create effective economic infrastructure. In practice, the central power did not reach some of the provinces. Social inequalities grew rapidly, especially between the poor people of the North and the elite in the South.

The discovery of natural gas and oil deposits in the northern part of the country brought hope for an improvement in the socio-economic situation. The government promised that the profits would make the whole country richer. This did not happen. The first investments did not translate into an improvement in the quality of life of the inhabitants. It only led to the deepening of inequalities and the enrichment of the elite. Additionally, some residents were displaced because they lived in the investment areas.

In recent years, Mozambique has been ranked 181 in the Human Development Index, the global ranking of social development. This caused great frustration, especially among young citizens. It is worth noting that as much as 45% of Mozambique’s population, numbering almost 31 million, is under 15 years of age.

Colonial bridge on the border of the Cabo Delgado province. Photo: F. Mira / Flickr / CC BY 2.0.

Mozambique Jihadists

Who the insurgents are? Al-Shabaab (Arabic “youth”) is a local paramilitary group that decided to rise up by armed forces through the aforementioned long-term underinvestment. They were active in Muslim majority provinces (Muslims constitute less than 20% of the country), which the government neglected.

The group uses jihad as a tool of action. Islamic fundamentalism has matured in Cabo Delgado for decades. But the movement only gained popularity after the emergence of a gas industry that local people believe does more harm than good. The insurgents attack everyone, regardless of their religion. What is worse, he jihadists are close to gaining access to Cabo Delgado’s rich gas fields.

The organization emphasizes that it conducts jihad and follows a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. The insurgents therefore strive to introduce sharia and create a religious state. In their opinion, this is the only way to repair the country. In 2019, it was confirmed that al-Shabaab had sworn an oath of allegiance to the so-called Islamic State. However, there is no evidence that Daesh trained or armed the insurgents.

Radicalization of Muslims in Mozambique

It is worth mentioning that in recent years the number of al-Shabaab recruits has increased significantly. Based on frustration and social discontent, the organization was able to convince many young people to join the rebellion. This is a ready recipe for radicalization.

However, this does not mean that all members of the organization were recruited voluntarily. Reports show that al-Shabaab has repeatedly forced both women and men to join them under the threat of death or execution of their loved ones. There were also kidnappings and recruitment of children to paramilitary units.

In recent months, the insurgents became famous for their numerous acts of cruelty towards civilians. Undoubtedly, the decapitations of children were the loudest.

“We went back after a week and we saw it. That’s how we confirmed what happened by the bandits, who did kill these people. The boys were beheaded and their bodies were rotting” – says the grandmother of the victims who survived the attack on the village.

Dozens of adults were executed in a similar way. It can be concluded that al-Shabaab was inspired by the brutal executions of the so-called Islamic State.

“My uncle was beheaded and chopped. Near the market at the junction, the bodies of many people were left beheaded and chopped. There were many people. The [body] parts were eaten by dogs. So I don’t know how many people died. I collected my things and left for Pemba” – said an inhabitant of Macomia, mother of 7 children, who managed to escape during the massacre.

It is also common for the jihadists to set houses on fire, loot, rape and execute people in public. In this way al-Shabaab was able to intimidate, blackmail and even take over entire villages in the Cabo Delgado province.

Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique map. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Crimes of government forces in northern Mozambique

Unfortunately the civilians are also exposed to violence spread by government forces (military and police) and private military companies. Each party to the conflict is committing war crimes and serious violations of human rights. Mozambique’s army and police do not have adequate training or military equipment that would enable them to fight the insurgents effectively. Morale also leaves a lot to be desired.

The lack of these elements meant that the main goal of the government forces was simply to kill as many insurgents as possible. Often regardless of who they are actually killing. The government, in its helplessness, gave its’ silent approval to the massacres.

“There were soldiers in our neighbourhood, but when the attack took place we saw no

soldiers. The soldiers run away with the community to the forest. They did not fight.” – said a man who survived the al-Shabaab attack in May 2020.

This led to the civilians being wrongly accused of belonging to the insurgents. The treatment of the insurgents themselves is also in violation of international law – few of those captured lived to see the trial. They were usually tortured or killed right away. Government forces, just like al-Shabaab, are accussed of looting, rape, torture and public executions. Even mass graves in which civilians were buried have been found.

“They were all taken to the hole to be killed. They came with a list of names, they asked if we knew them. And we didn’t lie. In that case they took us away too” – said one of the witnesses of the massacre. A mass grave was built behind his house.

European business in Africa

In turn, private military companies were hired by the government to support the ineffective military in terms of training, intelligence and the delivery of weapons. There are also private military companies on site that have been hired by foreign investors to protect the gas sites and workers.

The largest investor is the French Total, which signed a contract worth 30 billion dollars with the Mozambique government. The American ExxonMobil was also planning an investment of a similar size. But it was suspended due to the escalation of the conflict.

Unfortunately, the private military companies have also been accused of violating the humanitarian law of armed conflict. The most famous incidents concerned the Dyck Advisory Group, which, while helping the military and police in anti-terrorist operations, carried out attacks without distinguishing between insurgents and civilians. Both insurgents and civilians died under the fire of machine guns and bombs dropped from helicopters belonging to the company.

“Two helicopters came, one shooting and dropping bombs. One group [of civilians] that was running and raised their hands. They were not shot. But another group that was with the bandits did not raise their hands and they were shot. We saw this. Many people died there. We couldn’t stop to see who. We ran in a different direction” – a woman who survived the DAG intervention in 2020 reported for Amnesty International.

Territories occupied by rebels are black. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

The war in Mozambique does not interest anyone

Civilians are devastated by the attitude of the government. In their opinion, the government only cares about foreign investors and gas. It is evidenced by the way anti-terrorist actions are taking place.

Such a situation took place a few days ago. On March 26 2021 almost 200 people became hostages and a dozen died during the terrorist attack on a hotel in Pemba. Victims and hostages included employees of foreign companies, VIPs and civilians.

The government was not able to lead the anti-terrorist action. A whole operation was taken over by private military companies, which in the first place saved their employees and foreigners. Humanitarian organizations also got involved in the rescue operation.

Interestingly, throughout the conflict, the Mozambique government has not developed any specific request for assistance to neighboring countries or international organizations. Still the interest of the international community in the Mozambique issues remains very low. American green berets have recently appeared in Mozambique to support the military. However, it is difficult to talk about altruism here, because for Americans it is primarily a continuation of the global fight against terrorism.

Photo: ILRI/Mann / / CC BY 2.0.

Deepening humanitarian crisis

The humanitarian crisis in Mozambique is huge and the situation of the civilian population worsens every day. Humanitarian organizations are alarming about huge needs – especially in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to UNICEF data, nearly 2 million civilians, almost half of whom are children, need immediate help. They need food, water, hygiene products and medical assistance. There is a shortage of space and clothes in the camps.

“I’ve been in this line for 3 days. I haven’t eaten anything for 3 days. They say they don’t have food for us.” – sais the man in the line at the Pemba food distribution point.

The funding is also needed to help with education and to create places to work and live. The United Nations estimated that at least $ 53 million is needed to effectively help Mozambique combat the negative effects of the conflict.

At present, the received help is insufficient and it does not reach all those in need. The insurgents effectively block the entry of representatives of humanitarian organizations and the media to territories particularly affected by the conflict.

“In your report, write anything you want to write. But tell the people in charge to fix this so we can go home. I want to go home” – said a displaced mother of two in an interview for Amnesty International.

You can support humanitarian actions in Mozambique organized by UNICEF and Save The Children.

Read more about Mozambique here: 

Anna Słania – national and international security expert, journalist. Interested in the issues of contemporary armed conflicts, terrorism and humanitarianism in international relations. Works in the field of peace journalism.


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