Mozambique: A Nation of Unrealized Potential

Mozambique is a country rich in culture and has a vibrant population anxious to capitalize on their nation’s potential. After decades of civil war, there was an opportunity to capitalize on national resources such as fishing, natural gas, rare earth minerals, and gems. This prospect, however, is increasingly becoming out of reach due to institutional corruption, instability, and the impact of climate change. These factors erode the foundations of equality and prosperity across the 11 provinces, which in turn make the paths to peace and stability difficult, requiring systemic change. Despite the monumental effort required, the United States and many across the international community are striving to unlock Mozambique’s potential.

The Global Fragility Act (GFA) and subsequent Strategy to Prevent Conflict and Promote Stability (SPCPS) to implement the GFA is one of the levers the U.S. government has to assist Mozambique in the pursuit of peace and stability. Mozambique, like each of the nine nations of GFA, has its own unique roots of instability. U.S. government efforts on the ground stood out as an positive example of interagency cooperation. This commentary focuses on three main challenges: institutional failures, instability, and inequality. These and many more are addressed in the SPCPS country plan. While this commentary does not capture all factors at play, it helps shape the conversation and could provide direction for stakeholders to enact positive change in Mozambique.

Mozambique SPCPS Country Plan Objectives: 

  • Objective 1: Mozambican communities, individuals, and civil society organizations demonstrate improved capacity and have equal opportunities to be active participants in political, economic, and social processes.
  • Objective 2: Mozambican institutions are strengthened and professionalized through more transparent, accountable, and effective systems.
  • Objective 3: Mozambique’s economic and business environment fosters inclusive and sustainable development, to include increased private sector investment that creates local employment for previously marginalized communities.
  • Objective 4: Mozambican institutions are responsive to local needs and reliably provide basic services.


Institutional Failures: Lack of governance and corruption in some ministerial organizations are significant hurdles to overcome in the pursuit of trust. Listening to the voice of every citizen is key to correcting this longstanding mistrust. Government officials need to be present in every district and village to engage with citizens. The simple act of listening to citizens fosters trust and gives local leaders a voice. Doing so is a proven effective way to garner support in a nation with high illiteracy and lack of access to communication tools. Citizens across the country depend on tribal leaders and elders to share information, that is where the government needs to engage at the local level. Following up on the concerns of these respected local leaders by putting in the effort to improve quality of life can combat the drivers of conflict and instability.

Building on trust established through such engagement, the government could drive real change through transparency and equality. Freedom of expression has experienced setbacks in recent years, especially journalism and news media. These setbacks hinder the transparency required to inform the local population on national investments and agreements made with international partners. All citizens deserve to clearly understand long-term plans for national and regional development. This will further give citizens a renewed hope that they have a say in their future and will share in the rewards of such investments and agreements.

Instability: Mozambique overcame a decades-long civil war and was on a path to capitalize on the nation’s economic potential. Unfortunately, since 2014 the country has experienced a steady decline in stability and a rise in violence due to a wide variety of issues. Two primary factors are the lack of governance and the insurgency in the nation’s northern territory, Cabo Delgado. Terrorist activity in the north has been the primary focus in Washington, and while important to getting Mozambique back on a path to stability, it should not be the sole focus.

The current insurgency began in 2017 and has drawn the attention of international governments, investors and dozens of nonprofits, religious, and aid-based NGOs. Many in the Mozambican government see the insurgency as solely driven by outside instigators, but strong local evidence suggests the root of the issue is disaffected locals, especially youth, disenfranchised by local provincial and national government officials. This feeling of having no hope of a prosperous future under the current system makes them easy targets for recruitment by insurgents and extremist groups. Recent numbers estimate the insurgents at less than 1,000, down from the peak of 2,500 fighters, operating in the Cabo Delgado region, many of whom are known community members. Sadly, indoctrinated, disaffected youth who are recruited practice their violence on their own families and communities.

Pemba is the capital of Cabo Delgado with over 250,000 Mozambican citizens. Most of the population in the north is Muslim, compared to the majority Christian south. The conflict, however, is not religious but rather an ideological group that has exploited the Islamic State (IS) idea of statehood through violence. Ahlu Sunna wa Jama (ASWJ), or al Shabaab, as it is more commonly known in Mozambique, first emerged as an armed group in October 2017 and the U.S. government subsequently labeled them ISIS-Mozambique. This ideology can be linked to many causes, two examples: lack of government support and the transnational organized crime that flows through the region, primarily in coastal communities and influenced by foreign fighters. Recruitment has not been a concern for the insurgents due to the large, alienated youth population with no prospects or outlets.

Global investment in Mozambique, where the United States is the largest bilateral aid donor, has focused on stabilizing the Cabo Delgado conflict. Stemming the current conflict would allow aid to reach the population and bolster international investment, but would not result in long-term stability. True change will occur from within, a population that is empowered, has prospects, and a voice in governance is critical for stability.

Inequity: Quality of life in the south, especially in the capital of Maputo, is vastly different than Pemba and the villages north of the capital. Inequality between the south and the north of the country must be addressed. Even though many current governmental officials hail from the north and reside in the nation’s southern capital of Maputo, the economic and quality of life between the south and the north show no sign of changing. Access to water, food, healthcare, education, and opportunity are the primary disparities and drivers of discord across the nation.

International investment in Mozambique may appear predatory and out to exploit a vulnerable nation. This may be the case, but it is far from all-encompassing. Corruption does funnel profits into the hands of elites but more often results in international partners’ wariness to do business in Mozambique. These corporations are not willing to fund broader infrastructure or support social programs if they know that money will be squandered by the country’s officials.

The U.S. government should continue to offer assistance to the government to create a transparent legal framework for agreements that translates into nationwide progress. This framework should extend to utilizing this income, taxation, and profit-sharing not just into infrastructure but also outreach programs, aid, and security cooperation. Assisting the government in these agreements and contracts will benefit the nation as a whole—not just in the southern capital or isolated to areas of resource extraction.

An example of bridging the inequality gap can be found through social programs, well-established in the south, providing opportunity for youth, often through sports, arts, education, or by trade schools. The outsized impact of these programs are the foundations to building a stable Mozambique and should be translated across the nation, especially in the north. Many of these initiatives cross religious backgrounds and have support from global NGOs. The mayors and governors from the regions should actively promote these programs. Shrinking the inequality gap across the nation is critical to long-term security and prosperity.


Interagency Could Enable Change: The resource-rich north has attracted international support in counterinsurgency and aid efforts. Mineral and gem deposits, rare earth metals, and liquefied natural gas (LNG) exploration promise stability through economic potential. Unfortunately, those resources are unlikely to directly enhance Mozambicans’ quality of life. Many of these contracts are still in the exploratory stage, but the citizens do not trust the government to negotiate with international companies and are suspicious that promised local economic gains are not coming because of corruption. Agreements should not only focus on the large scale mentioned above, but also on small- and medium-sized enterprise investment, which provides opportunities for local businesses and foster private sector ventures, giving a voice to individuals and encouraging community participation.

All contracts should provide local employment, improve infrastructure, and funnel taxes and profit sharing in a government system that invests in national stability by narrowing the inequality gap across the nation. Enabling the framework for nonexploitative agreements have the potential to change the narrative for Mozambique, helping the government to pay down debt, avoid toxic long-term contracts, and provide for their citizens. These agreements are important considering that the majority of Mozambique citizens exchange goods, services, or cash free of a local tax. Thus, leaving a void in funds through domestic resource mobilization to provide governmental services across the nation. This recommendation is tied to objectives 1 and 3 in the SPCPS country plan, enabling economic investment and fostering community participation.

International Support: Counterinsurgency, a mission the U.S. government is intimately familiar with, is an area of training desperately needed in Cabo Delgado. Those not familiar with the true nature of the conflict are likely to advocate for equipping or arming the Mozambique security forces, Mozambique Armed Defence Forces (FADM), to deal with the conflict. Unfortunately, in the past, traditional securitization of Cabo Delgado has rendered poor results due to mistrust and corruption, which makes this avenue less viable. Security forces have not been capable of receiving assistance to both train and equip, more importantly they need to earn the trust of their citizens. Additionally, most Mozambique forces are conscript and often the valuable training that the U.S. government and other partners provide does not translate into long-term professionalization.

FADM deployments into Cabo Delgado have often resulted in reinforcing local wariness to trust national security forces. Logistically unsupported forces have been reported to take food and shelter from locals, leading to human rights violations by not only FADM but also the Mozambique Republic Police (PRM). Lack of training, professionalism and equipment within the Mozambique military also make them an easy target for insurgency forces. This is evidenced by the locals preferring the Rwandan forces and other international security deployed to Cabo Delgado over FADM. Rwandan forces came to Cabo Delgado at the request of the Mozambique government to work with FADM and Southern African Development Community (SADC). African nations, like Rwanda, geographically close to Mozambique have a vested interest in fostering stability efforts, largely due to the more than one million forcibly displaced Mozambiquans. Furthermore, dissident populations on both sides of the border create stronger cultural ties and shared languages that contribute to an enhanced sense of trust that simply does not exist toward the FADM government forces.

Security operations could be rethought, consisting of food provisions and encampment options. It will take time and significant accountability for the U.S. government to gain trust and ensure the equipment provided was used properly—not sold or misused. The European Union has pledged to increase security cooperation to SADC, specifically SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM). This will provide a wide range of assistance that stops short of lethal equipment but includes key enablers to the conflict, such as drones. A portion of the EU security cooperation funding of 15 million euros will flow through FADM; this could provide the U.S. government evidence that government security forces can be trained and trusted as a reliable partner. This cooperation ties directly into the U.S. government objectives 2 and 4 in the SCPCS country plan: institutions professionalized and responsive to local needs.


Unlocking the full potential of Mozambique will take patience, a quality the population has demonstrated for decades and the deserve the long-awaited prosperity. The U.S. government is making strides through stabilization and peace initiatives, SPCPS will be a key enabler in that effort but is just one of the many arrows in the aid quiver. Alongside the international community, the U.S. government should focus on finding a resolution to the northern conflict, encourage investments that result in nationwide benefits, and assist in strengthening government institutions. However, true change will come from the Mozambique government through establishing trust and providing for all citizens.

John Christianson and Courtney Stiles Herdt are military fellows with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not represent official positions of the United States Navy, the United States Air Force, or the Department of Defense.

Courtney Stiles Herdt

Courtney Stiles Herdt

Former Military Fellow, International Security Program
John Christianson

John Christianson

Former Military Fellow, International Security Program