In an event that made little impact in the international press, Rwandan troops this week entered Mocímboa da Praia, a major city in the province of Cabo Delgado in the far north of Mozambique. For four years, this vital port in an area rich in natural resources has been a stronghold of a brutal Islamic insurgency which has defied any attempt at suppression by the forces of the Mozambican government. The conflict in Cabo Delgado has attracted little attention from popular media sources: perhaps it is just that bit too remote, too complex, with too many factors for the fleeting 24-hour news cycle to properly explain. As a consequence, it remains largely unheard of outside southern Africa, and of relevance only to those directly affected and a handful of international commentators. Now, after such atrocities, thousands dead and hundreds of thousands displaced, this little-known conflict may now be entering its final stage.
The war in Mozambique has many lessons for the future of Africa and for low-intensity conflicts globally. At the height of its power, the group, Ansar al-Sunna, commanded thousands of fighters and many of the major settlements of Cabo Delgado province. The group’s ideology is Islamic fundamentalism, with international influences from the radical Kenyan cleric Aboud Rogo and Al-Shabaab in Somalia to the main body of the Islamic State in the Middle East. But like many such groups its success lies in the socioeconomic problems of the province itself, which represents both an isolated Muslim enclave within a predominantly Christian country, and a tragic example of economic mismanagement and social disenfranchisement. As the Kenyan journalist Sunguta West wrote in 2018, ‘Cabo Delgado – with its large Muslim population, high youth unemployment and marginal economic development – provided a suitable environment for the militant group to grow its membership’. Here, as elsewhere, international Islamism has proved a catalyst for turning disaffection and simmering anti-government sentiment into a brutal armed conflict.
The story of the insurgency now seems a familiar one, an international pattern repeated from Iraq to Yemen to Mali: a weak government lacking control, a disaffected region with its own grievances against central authority, and a brief but brutal reign of terror in the areas controlled by the insurgents. In particular, there were bloody scenes of terrorist atrocity familiar to any who followed the highly-publicised actions of Islamic State in Iraq: in November 2020, over fifty people were reported to have been beheaded by the militants on a village football pitch in the province. The fighters of Ansar al-Sunna are drawn from the same committed, angry, and underemployed young men that flocked to Islamic State across the Middle East. In this case they are disaffected at how the natural gas and ruby wealth of the region has not benefited the local population. In the latter case they have met with some success: the French energy giant Total SE has suspended its $20bn liquefied natural gas project in northern Mozambique. This investment might have helped the economic development of one of the world’s poorest countries, but the initiative seemed to many in Cabo Delgado as yet another example of their natural wealth being diverted away from a local population which remains economically disenfranchised. When Western companies like Total move in, they tend to employ foreigners – not Mozambicans – and this further added to the grievance the young population of Cabo Delgado have felt towards the West and the central government.
Alarmed by regional instability and the success of the insurgency, Mozambique has been assisted militarily by regional powers Zimbabwe, Rwanda and Botswana, and this week the South African government announced the deployment of 1,500 troops to their troubled northern neighbour. The insurgency’s deliberate targeting of foreigners has also seen the conflict attract special forces and training teams from the United States, Britain and particularly Portugal, the colonial power in Mozambique until 1975. As in many modern low-intensity conflicts, however, a great deal of the tactical heavy lifting has been done by mercenaries and other non-state actors. These include the Dyck Advisory Group, a South African mercenary group led by the eponymous and, incredibly, septuagenarian Rhodesian soldier, Colonel Lionel Dyck. The DAG was hired by the Mozambican government to make up for the clear shortcomings in the quality and training of government forces and played a leading role in the Battle of Palma in the spring of 2021, in which the insurgents sacked and destroyed most of the coastal town.
Also included, tenuously, in the list of mercenary units currently in Mozambique is the Wagner Group. A Russian paramilitary organisation which occupies a grey area between a private company and a covert arm of the Russian state and intelligence services, this organisation appears in whatever conflict the Russian government wishes to play a deniable geostrategic hand. This international interest, and the vying for influence between regional African neighbours, Western powers and Russia, is typical of the problems facing states that have neither economic clout nor effective governance to ensure their internal and external sovereignty and integrity. A similar situation is being played out on the other side of the continent in Mali, where another Islamic insurgency has attracted a wide international reaction under the auspices of the United Nations and of France, which still sees its former possessions in West Africa as part of its sphere of influence. Conflicts like those in Mozambique and Mali are at a crossroads between conventional war, ideological insurgency and organised crime, with gemstone smuggling forming a major part of the instability of the province.
The multinational nature of the anti-Islamist coalition now driving Ansar al-Sunna out of their last strongholds is matched by the international outlook of the insurgents themselves, who presented regional disaffection in the language of global jihad. The long-term success of the counter-insurgency operation remains to be seen, as does the efficacy of any attempt the Mozambican government might make to address disenfranchisement which drove some in Cabo Delgado into the ranks of the Islamists. In an era of instant communication and the total globalisation of media, it is likely that insurgent groups will continue to latch onto Islamic State and its affiliates as a global and ideological justification for what might be very local grievances.