Enhancing Humanitarian Aid and Security in Northern Mozambique

Leaders of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) renewed the deployment of their Mission to Mozambique (SAMIM) to the Cabo Delgado province on August 18, 2022, in order to carry out the SAMIM mission of assisting the Mozambican Defence Armed Forces (FDS) in countering the Islamic State-affiliated insurgency that has been active in the province since 2017. The SAMIM deployment, following the Rwandan police and military deployment in July 2021, introduced a dramatic change in the security picture in northern Mozambique. Joint Rwandan and FDS operations dislodged insurgents from their coastal strongholds, while SAMIM and FDS units worked to clear established insurgent bases. This more aggressive approach to the insurgents and the changing security landscape created a new calculus for insurgents and civilians alike in northern Mozambique, as each reassessed the best approach to secure their survival. For the insurgents, intensified security operations in northern Cabo Delgado resulted in a geographic shift into less militarily active areas and a return to guerilla warfare. For civilians, the relocation of the insurgents forced new waves of displacement as some communities sought to avoid violence, while others reconsidered the prospects of returning to their reportedly now-cleared home districts.

The uncertainty of this evolving security environment has created new challenges for the humanitarian aid sector as it works to address an expanding portfolio of humanitarian needs. While new communities are displaced in southern districts, other communities are tentatively looking to restart their lives in their home districts despite widespread destruction, weak government presence, and lingering security challenges. At the same time, a lack of funding and government bureaucratic requirements for humanitarian workers continues to stand in the way of an effective response, requiring renewed attention from the donor community and Mozambique’s foreign partners to help stem this growing crisis.

Changing Battlefield Dynamic Heightens Risk to Civilians

The deployment of Rwandan and SADC security forces to Cabo Delgado in July 2021 represented an important step in Maputo’s recognition of the extent of the security problem it faced. However, it did not reverse the course of the conflict, but instead altered its trajectory. Initial progress in dislodging insurgents from Palma and Mocímboa da Praia—coastal towns key to commerce and liquified natural gas (LNG) development in the province—and dismantling insurgent operating bases created the basis for claims that the insurgency had suffered irreversible losses. However, this optimism was premature; the insurgents adapted their approach to the new battlefield dynamic and the threat to civilians increased. The concentration of foreign forces in the northern districts of Cabo Delgado prompted the insurgents to split into smaller, dispersed cells, with some units relocating to safer, southern districts which had not previously witnessed significant combat. This organizational shift to more stable parts of the province allowed fighters to more easily evade government forces and their allies and gave them both space to recover and access to new supplies. At the same time, the group continued small-scale hit-and-run attacks in the north, stretching government forces thin and undermining government claims that it had restored order to the area. Furthermore, fighters operating in these districts maintained the same tactical approach used in their former geographic base, attacking civilians and looting villages for supplies. Civilians are now the group’s primary target, despite recent engagements with military forces.

A Deepening Humanitarian Crisis

The shifting security landscape, with its impact on an expanding proportion of the civilian population, is worsening the humanitarian crisis in Cabo Delgado as humanitarian aid and government programs fall short of meeting the needs of a growing number of people on the move.

The fresh threat of insurgent attacks has triggered a new wave of displacement from areas previously considered relatively safe, with data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) indicating that 57,880 individuals fled their homes in June alone.
Internal displacement has increased by 35 percent since June 2021 with nearly one million individuals seeking shelter within Cabo Delgado or neighboring provinces. These recent displacements are in addition to over 1.5 million people in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance, including healthcare, water and sanitation, and food in the region. Within Cabo Delgado, Nampula, and Niassa, the absence of aid services and distrust surrounding government assistance have led 99 percent of internal displaced people (IDPs) to settle within host communities. Due to the region’s poor development status, this influx of new arrivals has strained social services and resources within host communities. The willingness of local communities to welcome IDPs into their homes has seen the population nearly doubling in some towns. For poor host communities, however, this generosity has bred new insecurities as public services have become increasingly inaccessible. Global inflation has already resulted in a 161 percent increase in the cost of essential food commodities within Cabo Delgado, and the compounding impact of new arrivals has increased economic insecurity. In the village of Muaja, the planned construction of an accommodation center to house 2,400 displaced families is on hold because of security threats.


The absence of adequate aid services, the desire for a better quality of life, and perceptions of improved security conditions has motivated 141,884 displaced individuals to return to their homes. With the support of Rwandan security forces, displaced residents have returned to previous areas of insurgent activities like Mocímboa da Praia and the Muidumbe or Palma districts. The devastation of the insurgency in most areas, however, has destroyed the economic, social, and security infrastructure necessary to support these communities. While many returnees hope that rehabilitation and stabilization will enable peace and generate employment opportunities for young people, they are faced with the challenge of rebuilding their lives while low-level insurgent attacks continue. The government of Mozambique has been inconsistent in its position on the return of IDPs, with some leaders directing them to return and others being more cautious. To the extent the government has tried to provide services to displaced and relocating communities, insecurity has disrupted these efforts. The intensification of violent attacks across new areas of the province has forced the shutdown of schools, health centers, and humanitarian activities. Due to the impending crisis fueled by this economic and social strain, the government has requested humanitarian support in relocating 20,000 IDPs from the provincial capital, Pemba, to alternative sites.

Obstacles to Humanitarian Intervention

The mutated security environment has created new complexities for humanitarian response efforts. Before the intervention of security forces, humanitarian needs were significant, and interventions focused on the provision of food and shelter services to displaced individuals.

This new insecurity has generated rapidly growing demands for humanitarian assistance throughout large swaths of the province. Humanitarian actors now face an immense challenge in responding to competing needs among IDPs, host communities, and returnees over a larger geographic area, with limited governance and social service capacity.


Each of these communities presents unique needs for food, shelter, health, and rehabilitation support, but widespread destruction of infrastructure and limited availability of social services has debilitated the already low response capabilities of local authorities. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimates 80 percent of provincial health infrastructure has been destroyed in conflict-affected areas, limiting the capacity of public health services in the face of rising cases of malaria and a polio outbreak. These insecurities are further exacerbated by the economic impact of Covid-19 lockdowns, and the destruction caused by a series of severe tropical storms. In March, the Maratane settlement for IDPs was destroyed by Tropical Cyclone Gombe, leaving 27,000 refugees and asylum seekers in need of emergency assistance.

Although the IOM has warned that the conflict’s resonating impact on instability will continue for up to five years, humanitarian appeals remain severely underfunded. Over the last two years, funding gaps have forced the World Food Programme (WFP)—the region's primary aid provider—to cut aid rations by half. As a result, WFP has limited the provision of food aid and cash-based assistance from 1.1 million food insecure individuals to only those facing the most severe need. Across the aid sector, funding constraints have significantly limited the ability of agencies to respond to the needs of the newly displaced, those seeking to reestablish their homes and livelihoods, and the growing insecurities of host communities.

Due to ongoing security threats, humanitarian access and in turn, humanitarian aid is incredibly limited. Violent confrontations and insurgent control along main junctions threaten the safety of aid workers in moving supplies into areas of critical humanitarian need. Furthermore, following recent attacks near Ancaube, checkpoints established by the FDS have suspended humanitarian access. As a result, humanitarian partners are unable to establish displacement camps or provide aid to more than 42 percent of IDPs in hard-to-reach or partially accessible areas. Furthermore, the government has continuously undermined humanitarian efforts, delaying the processing of humanitarian visas and refusing to facilitate staff passage through checkpoints.

Although the government of Mozambique and SADC continue to appeal to international donors for funding based on community development plans, the government has been unsupportive of humanitarian aid operations. Economic interests regarding LNG projects, which drove support for the external security intervention, have been prioritized over diplomatic and aid initiatives. Although activities to support humanitarian assistance and reconstruction efforts were outlined in the SAMIM deployment mandate, the demand of expanding insurgent activities has preempted the treatment or facilitation of the return of IDPs.


Despite extensive international investments to support the government of Mozambique and its coalition security forces, the crisis in Cabo Delgado is far from over. Intensifying violence across the province has generated new risks for civilians and the security of neighboring regions. There are clear insufficiencies in the ability of coalition forces to combat the insurgency and to respond to intensifying humanitarian needs that should be addressed.

  1. Enhance the capacity and coordination of security forces and humanitarian actors. Weak coordination between Rwandan, SADC, and Mozambican forces has created operational gaps that work in the insurgents’ favor, undermine the protection of civilians, and increase the risk to humanitarian aid agencies. Greater operational coordination between counterinsurgent forces themselves and between these forces and humanitarian actors will be an important step in reducing this risk.

  2. Facilitate humanitarian access. The Mozambican government, in directing security force operations, should treat humanitarian access as a priority. It should remove bureaucratic access constraints and encourage security forces to facilitate humanitarian access through road checkpoints. Humanitarian organizations should be allowed access to areas of recent violence and displacement to assess and respond to emergent humanitarian needs. The government should recognize the potential value of such aid access to prevent further displacements and its impact on recipient communities.

  3. Increase funding for emergency response and reconstruction efforts. Donors need to rebalance investments in security efforts with funding to support humanitarian agencies in responding to new humanitarian challenges. For example, the SAMIM mission has received $100 million of international funding, and the European Union, under the European Peace Facility (EPF), recently doubled its investment in security operations in Mozambique, but at an organizational level has yet to contribute funding to the WFP request. Although combating the insurgency is important, international investments in security operations have failed to prevent or treat the rapid deterioration of humanitarian conditions. Security forces within Mozambique lack the capacity or specialized skills needed to treat the complexity of humanitarian needs within Cabo Delgado and surrounding areas. International donors should recognize the intensifying humanitarian threat accompanying the conflict’s escalation and increase their contributions to aid organizations operating in the northern provinces.

Sierra Ballard is a research assistant with the Humanitarian Agenda at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Emilia Columbo is a senior associate (non-resident) with the CSIS Africa Program.

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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Sierra Ballard

Sierra Ballard

Former Research Assistant, Humanitarian Agenda