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  • Maddie Small

Insurgency, Displacement and Corruption: the Cabo Delgado Crisis

Since 2017, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province, has been the scene of a deadly insurrection.

The conflict threatens national stability, just as the Mozambican government is fulfilling a peace deal with the country’s leading opposition group, RENAMO, and risks becoming a new frontier for global jihad to exploit.

As several foreign projects, such as inland mining and commerce, are situated in and around Cabo Delgado (including France’s Total LNG project that has been forced to freeze in the light of the takeover), the recent escalation of the situation has prompted heightened involvement from Mozambique’s neighbours, as well as from states further abroad.

The Cabo Delgado Region

In 2011-2012, gas and oil multinationals Anadarko and ENI made a massive discovery; a gas field containing 700 billion cubic meters of gas off the coast of Cabo Delgado. As a result, the region became the world’s fourth-largest offshore gas project.

After lengthy Portuguese domination and bloody civil war between the FRELIMO and RENAMO parties in 1992, the gas was viewed as a way to solve Mozambique’s dependence on international donors and adjustment programmes of the IMF. Economists expected the Mozambican government to triple the country’s GDP, and nations began to invest in the nation.

Despite high expectations, the reality is that Cabo Delgado is suffering from a phenomenon known as the resource curse, occurring when countries with extensive natural resources display little to no economic growth, increasing inequality, armed conflict and corruption.

The al-Shabaab Insurgency

In 2017, several years after the arrival of the gas companies, an armed extremist group referred to locally as ‘al-Shabaab’, not to be confused with Somalia’s al-Shabaab, gained traction in the region. The insurgent’s cause is not explicit but is considered a combination of religious and social factors due to the region’s Muslim majority and extreme inequalities. The group is also suspected to be connected to ISIS, but there have been no confirmations.

Al-Shabaab's previous success, and subsequent growing confidence, have led them to launch coordinated attacks. These attacks have been ongoing since March 2020 and have resulted in insurgent victory, with the group seizing Mocímboa da Praia, the district capital of Cabo Delgado.

The seizing of this port town is a significant step up from the previous skirmish and ambush strategy that al-Shabaab had been following. Moreover, the takeover signifies a political victory for the insurgency force, which allows al-Shabaab to gain a platform for its propaganda campaigns.

The armed extremist group has also committed gruesome acts against the citizens living in Cabo Delgado, killing over 3,000 civilians and leaving over 1 million displaced.

Governmental Response

In response to the insurgency, the Mozambican government has deployed its military and police forces to the region to combat the group. However, the limited human resources of the Mozambique armed forces (approximately 12,000 soldiers for a country the size of Pakistan) soon resulted in considerable operational deficiencies. The government is also actively seeking aid from its neighbours, linked to broader foreign policy goals.

While these initial efforts have had some effect in blocking al-Shabaab from having complete control over the region, there are still areas for improvement. Moreover, the overall inefficiency at solving the problem may be traced back to the region’s vastly forested, remote areas, which give al-Shabaab and their guerrilla strengths an advantage, as well as the underlying socio-economic issues that lay unresolved.

A solution, however, is imperative. With the nation on the verge of a peace deal with rising opposition group RENAMO and as national elections appear on the horizon, the growth of the insurrection could once again pull the country into a civil war, spreading down the Eastern Coast and providing larger jihadist organisations such as ISIS a new front.

Therefore the situation in Mozambique remains volatile, with both the government and civilians as targets of al-Shabaab’s attacks, displacing thousands and disrupting the economy. Even with countermeasures taken, it remains difficult to say to what extent the government's response has effectively addressed the crisis.

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