Centering Civilian Protection in Northern Mozambique

Mozambican president Felipe Nyusi on July 10 publicly confirmed that 1,000 Rwandan soldiers and police had begun deploying to Cabo Delgado Province in northern Mozambique and that a Southern African Development Community (SADC) standby force—which SADC leaders authorized in June—would follow, although the time frame and the financing for the SADC force remains undetermined. These deployments, which aim to support Mozambican security forces in combating a deadly, four-year-old insurgency, have serious implications for civilian protection in the troubled region.

It is important that President Nyusi has acknowledged the need for external support to tackle the challenges in northern Mozambique, a proposition that he had resisted for more than a year due to sovereignty concerns. However, the prioritization and emphasis on additional external security partners belies the complexity of the overall situation, which is rooted in historic grievances around inequality and continued distrust of armed actors. While additional security is needed in northern Mozambique, the mandate for foreign interventions should consider the fragile humanitarian situation on the ground and prioritize a civilian protection focus, including accountability and oversight frameworks to ensure that the deployment of foreign forces help facilitate that mission. Such a mission, with a clear mandate and oversight, could potentially lay the groundwork for the Mozambican government (with the support of the international community) to implement a more holistic approach to addressing the humanitarian crisis.

An Escalating Humanitarian Crisis

The humanitarian crisis in northern Mozambique has rapidly deteriorated over the past year, largely due to conflict escalation between Ahlu Sunna wa Jama (ASWJ)—also known as al-Shabaab or ISIS-Mozambique by the U.S. government—and Mozambican security forces. As of June 2021, an estimated 1.3 million people were in need of assistance, over 700,000 were internally displaced, and more than 900,000 faced crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity—primarily women and children. Internal displacement increased by 650 percent in 2020, soaring after ASWJ’s June attack of Mocímboa da Praia. Many internally displaced persons (IDPs) face repeated displacements and have sought shelter with family and friends elsewhere in Cabo Delgado, particularly Nangade, Mueda, Montpuez, Pemba, and Ibo Districts, as well as neighboring Niassa and Nampula Provinces. Given preexisting capacity limitations on critical infrastructure and essential services, these arrival destinations and the host families in them are struggling to cope with the growing number of IDPs; 45 percent of health facilities in Cabo Delgado lack access to water and there is reportedly one health center for the entire Quirimbas Archipelago. As mass displacement continues, so too will these capacity challenges.

Inadequate funding, access challenges, climate change, and Covid-19 further compound this humanitarian crisis. As of July 2021, Mozambique’s humanitarian response plan (HRP) remains severely underfunded with $38.5 million (15.2 percent) of the required $254.1 million received. Despite increased donor funding after the March 24 Palma attack ($26 million between April and July), civilian needs continue to vastly outpace modest increases in funding. Bureaucratic constraints and physical insecurity present significant access challenges, stifling the provision of aid in Mocímboa da Praia, Quissanga, Palma, Meluco, and Muidumbe, with partial access in Macomia, Ibo, Mueda, and Nangade. Aid workers reportedly face delayed visas and customs clearances, significantly hampering the ability of aid organizations to deliver assistance to civilians; at least 70 visas were reportedly pending as of March 2021, driven by a skepticism of aid organizations and the delivery of aid itself. This skepticism stems from the government’s desire to control the conflict narrative and fears that an external presence could undermine it or be exploited by ASWJ through the infiltration of IDP camps and negotiations between nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the insurgents (e.g., through diverted aid). Recurrent climactic shocks and rising temperatures continue to drive displacement and impact livelihoods. According to the ND-Gain Index, Mozambique is the 42nd most vulnerable country to climate change, but the 21st least ready country to address the issue. Lastly, despite low case numbers in the north, the fallout of Covid-19 continues to impact the socioeconomic stability of individuals, due in part to lost incomes and a battered economy.

Mozambican civilians who cross into Tanzania face additional challenges. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, between January and June 2021, more than 9,600 Mozambicans were forcibly returned (refouled) from Tanzania through the Negomano border point in Mueda District. The porous nature of the Mozambique-Tanzania border, particularly in the Mtwara region just north of Cabo Delgado, makes it difficult to fully assess migration patterns and adds a layer of complexity to this situation. However, while Tanzania may be returning individuals to comparatively safer areas in Cabo Delgado, returns are still carried out involuntarily, and access challenges in these areas leave civilians without long-term humanitarian assistance and care. In other words, refouled individuals may be marginally safer than before, but they are not more secure.

Without significant changes in the security environment and funding levels, food insecurity and displacement are likely to increase, along with heightened sexual violence against women and girls. The World Food Program has warned that it will have to reduce rations or entirely halt food assistance by August unless additional funds are received. Coupled with rising food prices, this would have consequential impacts on host communities and displaced individuals, many of whom are entirely reliant on food assistance. Similarly, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has stated that underfunding could strain the ability of aid organizations to prevent sexual exploitation and abuse in aid distribution. The insurgents have made a practice of driving away civilians from their area of operation and kidnapping women. Given the recent reports of forced marriage, abduction, and sexual violence against displaced women and girls, as well as past allegations of transactional sex for aid in Mozambique, this is particularly concerning.

Centering Humanitarian Considerations within the Standby Force

While much of the conversation surrounding the deployment of Rwandan and SADC forces has focused on their counterterrorism mission, the incorporation of a humanitarian component to ensure civilian protection will be essential to security for the local population, the capacity to carry out humanitarian action, and the broader effort to improve security in Cabo Delgado. These foreign forces are walking into an environment characterized by a profound distrust of the military and police by civilians, stemming from years of abuses including harassment, shakedowns, and extrajudicial killings. Indeed, a recent survey of 23 former ASWJ captives by a Mozambican NGO revealed that they more often associated human rights abuses with security forces than with the insurgents. To address these concerns and facilitate civilian protection, foreign forces and the Mozambican government can take the following steps.

Establish institutional accountability. Holding soldiers and police accountable for their actions in Cabo Delgado will be an essential component to building trust with the local population. President Nyusi has said that the Mozambican military would command these deployments, providing them with an opportunity to improve their record on human rights accountability by investigating and responding to any allegations against these foreign forces.

Enhance security for aid operations. Physical access constraints, including violence and insurgent-controlled transportation routes, present challenges for aid workers in Cabo Delgado. Deploying foreign forces beyond Palma and Afungi could enhance security for aid workers and facilitate their access to a broader area of isolated places. This is essential to ensure the safety of civilian populations already displaced multiple times and facilitate the expeditious movement of humanitarian items.

Incorporate SADC Humanitarian and Emergency Operations Center. President Nyusi on June 21 inaugurated the SADC Humanitarian and Emergency Operations Center in Nampula Province, an initiative designed to enhance SADC’s ability to respond quickly to catastrophic climatic events in member states. While the majority of the displaced in northern Mozambique are fleeing violence and are not recent victims of a climatic event, the center’s proximity to this humanitarian crisis would lend itself to serving as a base for SADC to engage with UN agencies and NGOs in supporting the humanitarian response. The emphasis on a military solution to insecurity in Cabo Delgado is unlikely to yield long-term results absent a simultaneous effort to restore governance through programs to address the underlying grievances fueling the conflict.


In addition to SADC incorporating a humanitarian component into the Standby Force’s mandate, there are other short-term actions that the Mozambican government and the international community can and should take to alleviate human suffering and save lives.

Remove bureaucratic access constraints. The Mozambican government should remove bureaucratic humanitarian access constraints, particularly the delayed issuing of visas and customs clearances for aid workers. While some delays are inevitable, others are driven by skepticism and do not justify the delaying or denial of humanitarian assistance to civilians. It is imperative that humanitarian organizations receive the necessary documentation—in a politically expedient and impartial way—that allows them to assist the growing numbers of IDPs in northern Mozambique.

Hold corrupt Mozambican actors accountable. President Nyusi should ensure that corrupt government officials who seek to disrupt the equitable provision of humanitarian assistance are held accountable. There is increasing concern that local officials are diverting and inequitably distributing some humanitarian aid, prompting the Mozambique Red Cross to stop accepting lists of aid recipients from officials in Pemba last month. In May, there were multiple incidents of denied humanitarian access by Mozambican security forces. External actors should consider conditioning bilateral military assistance on the accountability of these and other human rights abuses.

Clarify engagement with Tanzania on migration. The Mozambican government should better engage with Tanzania on refugee and repatriation issues. Despite Tanzania’s claim that the Mozambican government consented to the refoulement of Mozambicans from Palma, if carried out involuntarily it constitutes a violation of the 1951 Refugee Convention and puts civilians at risk. The Mozambican government should clarify how it is handling such reports and be transparent on how it will engage with Tanzania on these issues going forward.

Increase funding. International donors should increase their contributions to Mozambique’s HRP and local and national aid organizations operating in the north. Without adequate funds and supplies to distribute, improved humanitarian access will not have a meaningful impact on those in need. In the face of new military deployments and a likely increase in operational tempo, responding to urgent funding needs will become even more important.

Emilia Columbo is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). Kelly Moss is a research associate with the Humanitarian Agenda at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Kelly Moss