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Mix of Islamist insurgency and energy windfall proves toxic to Mozambique

The fall of Palma last week is a warning that while the so-called caliphate has fallen in Iraq and Syria, the ideas that drove it have metastasized and grown teeth.

April 10, 2021 / 09:45 AM IST
(File photo) More than half a million people have been displaced by warfare in Mozambique - the attacks in Palma last week saw thousands more fleeing their homes. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

(File photo) More than half a million people have been displaced by warfare in Mozambique - the attacks in Palma last week saw thousands more fleeing their homes. REUTERS/Rogan Ward

Eden must have been like this: endless stretches of white sand, azure sea, pristine coral in a thousand colours that no artist ever imagined.  Then, one summer morning in 2015, the red stain of violent death spread across the small village of Pangane, near the Mercado De Peixe fish market. Exactly how it began isn’t clear, but young Islamist radicals demanding a ban on alcohol brawled with police; an officer was stabbed. For years, Islamist activists—calling themselves al-Shabaab, or ‘The Youth’—had been demanding the imposition of shari’a law; until then, no-one had taken them seriously.

Last week, the world watched as the Islamic State forces captured the town of Palma, in northern Mozambique, and held it for days—the most lethal jihadist attack in years, and the latest grim episode in a murderous war that claimed its first life that day in Pangane. Fifty-five people, at least, are believed to have been slaughtered; beheaded bodies were left behind on the town’s streets.  Tens of thousands have fled, adding to an estimated 500,000 refugees displaced by earlier warfare.

For the rest of the world, the fall of Palma is a warning that, while the so-called caliphate has fallen in Iraq and Syria, the ideas that drove it have metastasized, and grown teeth. What no-one seems clear about is exactly what needs to be done to fix the problem.

The stakes in Mozambique aren’t small. The Afungi peninsula, off Palma, is home to the world’s fourth-largest natural gas fields, behind only Iran, Qatar and Russia.  Led by French energy giant Total SE, a global consortium that includes ONGC Videsh and Oil India, has been working on a $24.1 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) project that will help power economies across the world. The project should have been helping lift Mozambique out of poverty; instead, it's fuelling war.

Like so much else in Africa, the story of the conflict in Mozambique has something to do with the toxic shadow of colonialism. Faced with the war of independence launched by the Left-leaning Frente de Libertação de Moçambique, or Frelimo, in 1964, Portugal’s military regime began to fear insurrection by the country’s Muslims.


The colonial authorities responded by seeking to build bridges with Muslim communities. The Catholic church, for example, was nudged to end its programme of aggressive proselytisation, and build bridges with clerics.

‘Impure’ folk-Islam—as opposed to the neo-fundamentalist Salafism—a new generation of educated clerics had begun to be taught in seminaries in countries like Saudi Arabia, and was deemed “fittest to be put into use by the colonial authorities as a bar against nationalist African movements”, historian Mario Machaquiero has recorded.

Following independence, Frelimo found itself facing similar problems. Even though the freedom movement had begun in the north, power came to be held by élites in the south. In 2005 one veteran Frelimo commander in the Cabo Delgado region noted the growing economic resentment in the north, and warned the movement “was born here and could end here”.

To make things worse, these regional tensions had strong communal overtones. The Christian Makonde minority in the north had backed Frelimo; the Mwani Muslim majority had supported its Western-backed anti-Communist adversary, the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana or Renamo.  Following independence, wealth, linked to timber and mining, came to be concentrated among Makonde élites. In 2005, following a contested election, savage communal violence erupted in the town of Macombe.

Frelimo wasn’t unaware of the problem. Following the pattern of social control established by the Portuguese, it had sought to reach out to Muslims—simply reversed these ‘good Muslim’-‘bad Muslim’ categories of the colonial authorities. In the 1980s, Frelimo engaged clerics closely linked to Salafist organisations; it ignored the Sufi brotherhoods patronised by the Portuguese.

Government patronage of the religious Right-wing, though, didn’t help contain new problems.  In the 1990s, Salafist missionary organisations had recruited students to seminaries in North Africa, West Asia, and South Asia. This new cohort of neo-fundamentalist clerics used youth resentment over economic underdevelopment and lack of political representation to assert their authority over civil society.

The clerics in the state-backed Islamic Council of Mozambique were seen as complicit in the power structure; folk Islam, on the other hand, was cast as a corrupting influence.

From the mid-2000s, members of these new Salafist circles laid the foundations for a separatist Islamic movement, withdrawing children from state-run schools, running campaigns against traditionalist cultural practices, and challenging the established clerical order. Their ranks swelled from 2012 on, as followers of the slain far-Right Kenyan preacher Aboud Rogo Mohammed—mainly ethnic Mwani, like Cabo Delgado’s own Muslims—migrated southwards through Tanzania, in search of safe haven.

The ranks of these newly-formed Islamist networks swelled as wealth began to flow into Cabo Delgado after 2010, a result of oil-sector investments. Local youth found themselves lacking the education and capital to benefit from new opportunities, deepening the sense of alienation.

Even though many local Muslim communities were alarmed by the new jihadist polemic, a stream of volunteers headed north to fight alongside jihadist militia that had begun to spring up in the  Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kenya, Somalia, and Tanzania. Former police officers were also recruited to provide training.

The inevitable confrontation began in 2015: Mozambique’s government began expelling Salafist leaders from the mosques they began to control, leading to clashes. The harsh police crackdown led, inexorably, on to the first insurgent attack, a raid on a jail to free imprisoned jihadists. From the single district of Mocímboa da Praia, the violence spread across six other areas in Cabo Delgado. Fighters driven out of neighbouring Tanzania swelled the ranks of the jihadists; the army, on the other hand, proved ineffective.

Large scale terror—the beheadings of Christians as well as Muslims who refused to join; the kidnapping of women and children; strikes on military and police—steadily grew. There is little evidence that the Islamic State in West Asia has had a direct role in the growing conflict; rather, it appears to have served as a form of brand-building for a local insurgency.

Even though Mozambique’s armed forces hit back as best they could, that local insurgency has continued to grow. Led by commanders with connections to the wider Islamic State network in North Africa and West Asia, the jihadists of Mozambique have demonstrated the capacity to hold territory, and stage complex offensive operations.

At least a third of Cabo Delgado province is now believed to be under de-facto jihadist control; some 1,600 people were killed last year alone. Human rights abuses by Mozambique’s forces have further fuelled alienation.

The government has, for obvious reasons, insisted it is capable of handing the insurgency. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. The battle to retake Palma depended heavily on air support provided by the South African security-services firm; by one estimate, Dyck’s mercenaries were involved in a quarter of the Mozambique military’s battles with the Islamic State last year.

Paramount, another South African firm, has been contracted to train forces, and provide armoured vehicles. France’s navy is working to develop coastal security; the United States has begun training Mozambique’s army.

Experience, however, suggests that such efforts can, at best, serve as a band-aid. France’s Sahel-region counter-insurgent Operation Barkhane has ground on inconclusively since 2014; Afghanistan and Iraq are even more stark examples. To develop local military forces—and civilian administrators—to the point where they are resourced to handle insurgencies on their own can organise a meaningful counter-insurgency.

Finding gas—in the absence of a well-ordered state structure—seems set to yield greater misery for Mozambique, not less. Extortion from contractors and businesses has allowed the Islamic State to acquire ever greater levels of lethality, acquiring more lethal weapons and larger arsenals.

The same pattern has been seen in the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where so called “conflict minerals”—like tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold—have funded the growth of jihadism, among other violent actors. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has preyed on the oil industry; through the Sahel, jihadism straddles the worlds of ideology and organised crime.

Levelling the Islamic State’s dystopian caliphate, the Mozambique story shows, may prove a pyrrhic victory: After all, any region with resources and safe-havens can provide foundations for the global jihadist cause, just as Afghanistan did for al-Qaeda in the build-up to 9/11. The fall of Palma illustrates just how important it is for the international system to develop the tools to address the failures of state-systems, and engage with crises as they occur.
Praveen Swami

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