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Mozambique's northernmost province of Cabo Delgado has since 2017 been home to a festering insurgency, linked to Islamic State. Picture: SUPPLIED
Mozambique's northernmost province of Cabo Delgado has since 2017 been home to a festering insurgency, linked to Islamic State. Picture: SUPPLIED

An Islamic insurgency is raging in the northernmost region of Mozambique, on SA’s doorstep. The fast-degrading situation has weighty consequences for Southern Africa. It threatens regional stability, may infect other countries and worsens SA’s energy emergency. These make the search for a solution at once complex and urgent.

In less than five years an apparently home-grown Islamist sect now affiliated with the Islamic State has evolved in Mozambique’s province of Cabo Delgado. It has grown from little more than a mob of young men into a military force that brushes off Mozambican security forces, controls a de facto emirate with a capital, Mocímboa da Praia, and has spooked oil majors Total and Exxon into suspending natural gas projects that are central to the country’s economic plans.

Total’s decision came after the Islamist group, known alternatively as Al-Shebaab and the Ahl al-Sunnah wa al Jamma’ah (ASWJ), overran the city of Palma, looted it, and terrorised its inhabitants for 10 days before finally withdrawing. As things now stand, ASJW is unassailable. Mozambique cannot counter it, let alone reverse its ascent, without substantial international help. Its international partners might have to force Mozambique to save itself.

Mozambique’s plight matters for regional and international security. The Islamic State already has established a toehold in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in the form of the Islamic State Central African Province (Iscap), of which ASWJ is nominally a part. It might readily assume enormous proportions in the DRC and beyond given the chaotic and fragile state of much of central and east Africa.

However, there is no reason to believe SA itself somehow is immune, and that there is not a potential domestic security threat to SA citizens who may have joined the fight in Mozambique or have contacts with Islamic State.

The southwest Indian Ocean is part of increasingly contested space in which major military powers — China, France, India, and Russia — are asserting themselves. Russian mercenaries recently served in Mozambique, and the country has been raising its profile in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean while also reportedly meddling in Madagascar. India has secured basing rights in Mauritius and the Seychelles.

President Emmanuel Macron’s visit underlines the region’s growing importance in France’s newly assertive Indo-Pacific policy

Much of the Mozambique Channel is French, centred on scattered islands that include Mayotte, a constituent part of France’s national territory. The country is naturally concerned about protecting maritime security and its territories.

France, through oil and gas major Total, is becoming a leading energy producer from Namibia to Mozambique through SA. President Emmanuel Macron’s visit underlines the region’s growing importance in France’s newly assertive Indo-Pacific policy, which is activated through increased military activity and close security co-operation with a new “Paris-Delhi-Canberra axis”.

Mozambique’s security forces are out of their depth and inadequate — with no intelligence-gathering capability and a deserved reputation for human rights abuses. They require sustained security assistance from outside actors, on a larger scale than the training currently provided by Portuguese and US special forces.

Last week’s much delayed agreement to deploy a Southern African Development Community (Sadc) standby force is the first step towards regional security co-operation. But the larger problem is political: the unwillingness of the governing elites to acknowledge the scale of the crisis — nearly 3,000 killed and more than 800,000 refugees — turn their attention to an appropriate security response and attend to the root causes of the conflict. An important lesson of past conflict zones is that absent political will, security assistance efforts tend to be in vain, or worsen the problem.

Optimal solution

Mozambique’s international partners have two choices: an optimal solution, and one that is far less satisfying and potentially dangerous for the country’s long-term future. In both cases they would have to use their leverage in a co-ordinated combination of bilateral and multilateral efforts to force Mozambique’s leaders to take seriously the danger to their countries and the need to effect reforms. While it would seem from afar that a sense of self-preservation should suffice, often elites in conflict states are loath to do anything that might diminish their own position. After all, they tend to be isolated from the miseries their people face.

The optimal solution would be a slow and largely by-the-book approach to rebuilding the security forces while rolling out whole-of-government measures — in co-ordination with aid organisations — designed to remedy various socioeconomic ills, foster development in Mozambique and otherwise defuse the conflicts that feed the insurgency.

The second would be a more focused security-centred approach intended initially to carve out around Palma the kind of security Total would require to resume work.

Embolden elite

This second approach has a few practical advantages. Clearing and holding a perimeter militarily speaking may be a more attainable objective for security forces that are as broken as Mozambique’s. It would be a useful first step in the application of a classic “oil stain” approach to counterinsurgency, wherein one first secures a zone, then develops it and then builds outward. The resumption of natural gas production would breathe some air into Mozambique’s fiscal lungs and thereby make possible development and reform projects.

The danger is that the revenue flow might serve to worsen the crisis. Just enough natural gas riches is likely to embolden the governing elite. Absent meaningful reforms, increased fiscal resources from Cabo Delgado may only intensify elite predation and abuses, as such programmes would be implemented through state channels that are corrupt, ineffective and part of a state presence that is tainted in the eyes of the local population.

The price of inaction is difficult to estimate given the lack of insight into ASJW’s objectives or the nature of its connection with Islamic State, which as far as anyone knows goes no further than the latter’s publication of ASJW attack videos on its web media.

The available evidence indicates that ASJW consists mostly of locals engaged in a local fight. But given ASJW’s meteoric rise and qualitative edge over Mozambique’s security forces, it is reasonable to assume the group’s affiliation with the Islamic State will rapidly shift from nominal to material.

Having lost its “caliphate”, the Islamic State’s modus operandi now focuses on incorporating and expanding successful Islamic insurgencies elsewhere in the world. If this is allowed to occur in Mozambique, violence will spread much further than Cabo Delgado.

De Baissac is CEO of risk and resilience advisory firm Eunomix. This is the first article in a four-part series. The series has been produced by a team of expert associates from Eunomix, with deep experience in Mozambique, resource economics and fragility, supported by extensive data analysis and consultation.


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