Trajectory of Violence in Northern Mozambique Points to Long-term Security Challenge

This commentary provides an updated state of play and roadmap for the insurgency in northern Mozambique, outlined in the October 2019 CSIS report Northern Mozambique at a Crossroads: Scenarios for Violence in the Resource-rich Cabo Delgado Province .

During the past year, the Ahlu Sunna wa Jama (ASWJ) insurgency in northern Mozambique has increased its warfighting capacity, while the government has continued to rely on the use of force as its counterinsurgency strategy. The CSIS Africa Program published a report last year to outline four potential trajectories of violence in Cabo Delgado province based on insurgent capacity and government strategy. The continuation of the first scenario, “Militants and a Hostile Government Drive Away Civilians,” will likely result in a more lethal insurgency as the group exploits Mozambican security services’ weaknesses to expand its presence in Cabo Delgado and potentially beyond. At the same time, the humanitarian situation continues to decline, and civilians find themselves caught between two armed actors who have shown little regard for human rights. The resolution of this conflict rests with the political elites in Maputo, but Mozambique’s regional and international partners can take concrete steps to tip the scales in favor of a more comprehensive and effective approach to improving security in northern Mozambique.

Continuation of Scenario One: Militants and a Hostile Government Drive Away Civilians

The current scenario in which ASWJ increases its strength while the government counters the group exclusively with violence has been reflected in the nature and frequency of ASWJ’s attacks, the government’s heavy-handed response, and the significant increase of internally displaced persons (IDPs) during the past 12 months. Between January and October 2020, ASWJ launched an estimated 395 attacks, double the number it conducted during the same period last year, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). The quality of these operations has improved significantly, as the group has shifted from attacks against isolated villages to ambushes against Mozambican security forces and sophisticated attacks against district capitals. ASWJ has been strategic in its targets and priorities, taking control of primary transportation routes, destroying infrastructure, and clearing civilians from its areas of operation. ASWJ has also tightened control of the Mocimboa da Praia port, which it captured in August, increasing its maritime operations and attacking islands off Cabo Delgado’s coast that had served as a refuge for civilians fleeing the conflict. Last month, ASWJ extended its operations into southern Tanzania, publishing videos of its attack against police and civilian infrastructure and criticizing Tanzanian president John Magufuli. ASWJ’s ability to operate simultaneously in multiple areas suggests the group has grown its number of core fighters, likely using familial and social networks, kidnappings , and financial incentives to fill its ranks.

Government actions during the past 12 months have been focused on using police and military force—with the help of private military companies—to roll back the insurgency, an approach that has proven largely ineffective. Even in instances where government forces have reportedly halted an insurgent advance or reasserted control over a town, these victories are usually short lived and have been insufficient to slow ASWJ’s expansion. Frequent reports of human rights violations—from harassment of civilians and journalists to extrajudicial killings —continue to make headlines in Mozambique and abroad, likely fueling local support for the insurgency and exacerbating distrust between civilians and the government. Government officials have publicly denied the most widely publicized instances of gross human rights violations, reinforcing the insurgent narrative that “the government . . . humiliates the poor and gives the profits to the bosses.” Local press reports indicate low morale within the security forces and that they lack the necessary resources to be effective, likely contributing to desertions and defections to the insurgency.

The escalation of violence and the government’s heavy-handed security response has led to the rapid growth of IDPs. The number of IDPs increased from 90,000 people in early 2020 to over 300,000 in late October, according to the United Nations. While the majority of IDPs have relocated to relatively safer areas within Cabo Delgado—Pemba, the capital city of Cabo Delgado, has seen a one-third increase in its population this year—the number of IDPs relocating to neighboring Niassa, Nampula, Zambezia, and Sofala provinces is growing. The insurgency has made a regular practice of clearing civilians from its areas of operation, forcing some civilians to relocate multiple times as the insurgency has expanded its geographic footprint.

Trajectory Threatens Complex Security and Humanitarian Situation

Cabo Delgado faces an increasingly complex security and humanitarian situation if it stays on this trajectory. As the Mozambican security forces struggle to contain the violence, other armed actors are starting to appear on the scene. Mozambican media outlets have started reporting on local armed civilian militias combating the insurgents, including allegations of extrajudicial killings. While civilian militias can be effective in counterinsurgency operations, they need to be under tight control of the security forces and included in any eventual demobilization program; however, given the Mozambican security services’ own difficulties with discipline and human rights, coordinated operations between the two may still have a negative impact on civilians.

Maputo has been reluctant to request formal assistance from the Southern African Development Community (SADC), but as the security situation declines, Mozambique’s neighbors may begin taking unilateral measures to safeguard their interests. Tanzanian troops have increased their presence along the border and carried out operations against alleged insurgents. After the ASWJ attack inside Tanzania last month, press reports indicate Tanzania launched “rockets” into northern Mozambique. The South African Navy as of late October was reportedly considering ways to enhance security to counter the insurgents’ expanded maritime presence.

Meanwhile, continued displacement of Cabo Delgado’s residents will create pressure on neighboring provinces and the few areas of Cabo Delgado that are still relatively secure. As of late September 2020, 19 percent of IDPs were in government-run camps, while the majority of displaced persons continued to shelter in overcrowded, private homes. Officials in Pemba report they have run out of space to build accommodation centers for IDPs and will send newcomers to other districts within Cabo Delgado and Nampula province. UNHCR officials assess the number of displaced people in Nampula could reach 40,000 by December. Local organizations are struggling to keep up with the continued influx of displaced people, a demand that will only increase if this trajectory of violence holds over the long term.

Bringing Stability to Northern Mozambique

Altering this trajectory will require a deep commitment from the Mozambican government and elites to develop and invest in policies that address both the conflict drivers and reduce the insurgents’ warfighting capabilities. Maputo would benefit from international expertise and investment in developing an approach that addresses deficiencies in its security forces, improves intelligence collection and analysis, and prioritizes programs to address the underlying grievances driving the conflict.

The government should increase funding for its Agency for Integrated Northern Development (ADIN), which has a broad mandate to implement development programs that address the internal drivers of the insurgency. ADIN’s administrator is a senior member of Mozambique’s ruling party FRELIMO, suggesting that the agency is well-positioned receive elite buy-in and support for its work. Programs that provide training and employment opportunities—like the one recently launched by the European Union and Portugal—offer a potential alternative to youth who join the insurgency for financial gain. Countering violent extremism programs and other development investments that address the social networks and ideological drivers of the conflict would help protect vulnerable youth from joining. The quick and successful implementation of programs that assist civilians would also help start building trust between the state and its citizens.

The Mozambican security forces require a total operational overhaul, particularly those units deployed to Cabo Delgado. Human rights abuses feed into the insurgents’ narrative about an exploitative government and are likely an important factor driving voluntary recruitment. Special attention by regional and international partners needs to be placed on helping Mozambique build its maritime security capacity, considering the insurgents’ increased sea and island activity. Mozambique boasts the fourth-lowest maritime enforcement capacity in East and Central Africa despite having the one of the longest coastlines on the continent. Enhancing government position at sea would disrupt insurgent recruitment, resupply efforts, and undercut any ambitions they may harbor toward expanding their participation in the illicit economy.

Improving Mozambican intelligence collection and exploitation potentially provides an alternate route to reducing human rights abuses and enhancing civilian security. Launching operations based on actionable intelligence would help reduce the risk of collateral damage, while exploitation of captured insurgent bases could provide important insights into group membership and vulnerabilities.

Reclaiming Cabo Delgado

Mozambique faces a difficult road ahead. According to a RAND study of 71 insurgencies since World War II, governments that rely on a heavy-handed approach tend to fare worse than those that employ a mix of counterinsurgency approaches. This same study revealed that governments on the losing end of an insurgency battle can still shift the balance in their favor with an appropriate strategy, but even then it can take at least six more years to turn things around. The opportunity to prevent the ASWJ insurgency from becoming an intractable security issue has passed, but Maputo can still make adjustments to slowly chip away at the group’s success and reclaim Cabo Delgado.

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

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