Mozambique's Islamic State Insurgency Rages On
One of the relatively new conflicts in Africa is the jihadist insurgency in the Cabo Delgado region of Mozambique, which has now spread beyond the province and national territory. In terms of kinetic militant action, the conflict really began in 2017, although the insurgent movement’s history dates back to years before. It is currently taking place in a region of the country that is rich in natural resources but with a relatively poor population. There are concerns as well regarding relations between the elites from the region and the Central Government in Maputo. The 2019 Election cycle raised further concerns as the ruling FRELIMO party was actually able to consolidate power in winning the polls despite claims of election fraud by the opposition.
The chaos after the election provided oxygen for conflict as the group which would later be called Islamic State Central African Province (ISCAP), a network that also includes a wing in the Congo, went on the offensive during the gap in governance. The group is sometimes referred to as Ahlu Sunnah wa-l-Jama’ah (ASWJ), is known locally as al-Shabab (not to be confused with the al-Qaeda branch in Somalia), and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State’s caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in May 2018.
Most insurgencies in Africa often remain off the radar until one incident takes place that generates both interest and concern among the international community. It appears that the assault and capture of Mocimboa da Praia by ISCAP in 2020 led to more concern among the international community and a willingness to provide assistance to the Mozambican government.
Another point of interest has been the role played by foreign investments in the region. In April 2021 the French energy company Total was forced to shelve indefinitely a project to construct a Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) plant worth $20 billion USD. This decision was taken because of the growing attacks by ISCAP. Total was not the only energy company that suspended a project in Mozambique. The Portuguese company Galp Energia has also announced that it was also suspending operations indefinitely in Mozambique. Currently, there are no figures available that show the impact of this decision on the economy of Mozambique.
The initial response by the Government of Mozambique to the Cabo Delgado insurgency was interesting, to say the least. Instead of asking for foreign military assistance, the government instead decided to hire private military contractors (PMCs) to deal with the militants. Two of the groups that were known to be retained were the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) from neighbouring South Africa along with the Wagner Group from Russia. The results were less than desired with Wagner reportedly leaving the country in April 2021 after several of their fighters were killed by the Militants. DAG often quarrelled with the government during the chaotic evacuation from Mocimboa da Praia about who was doing more to rescue the Mozambican people from the brutal violence of the jihadists.
In lieu of this context, the government of Mozambique came to a crucial decision. It needed assistance that the PMCs did not have the capabilities to provide, so leadership in Maputo decided that the best decision was to reach out to its partners in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for assistance in dealing with the militants. That mission was approved during the summer of 2021.
The assistance that arrived has been twofold. Members of SADC agreed to contribute troops to a mission with the largest contingent being provided by South Africa. Another deployment to Mozambique has been made by Rwanda as well. Their troops have had the most success at driving the insurgents out of the province but there are questions regarding how long their presence will last during this emergency. There has been a small team of US Troops that have been deployed to Mozambique as well since the conflict began. Another such training mission took place in February 2022 highlighting the growing concern in Washington
So, what then is the current situation on the ground? The port of Mocimboa da Praia has been liberated from the control of the militants. However, the conflict has spread further into the neighbouring province of Niassa. On several occasions, the conflict has spilled over into Tanzania as well which adds a degree of concern as most other insurgencies in Africa have had a habit of crossing over borders into neighbouring states.
Yet, there are mixed messages being sent regarding the situation as it continues to unfold. The liberation of Mocimboa da Praia was indeed a positive step for Mozambique. However, the insurgency’s spread into other provinces of the country and into neighbouring Tanzania is anything but a victory.
It appears that the strategy was to secure Cabo Delgado to allow for the multinational corporations to resume operations in order to fill government coffers, without an immediate view of the broader security situation in the region. Contested elections and corruption are other factors that need to be taken under consideration in investigating the rise of and success of this insurgency.
The question of whether short-term operational success will bear fruit or instead evolve into a more long-term problem should be investigated further. At this time, there seems to be no clear answer.