Jacob Fessler, a Masters in International Affairs, has a background in international relations and is currently working as a security consultant in Tunis, Tunisia. He has experience in Latin America, the Middle East-North Africa region, and Sub-Saharan Africa. He is on Twitter @jdfess6.
Civil War, Decolonization, and State Capacity in Mozambique: Rescuing Cabo Delgado from the International “ISIS” Obsession
In late March 2021, after the French multinational oil company, Total, announced that they would begin work on a large gas field in northern Mozambique, Palma, a city in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, came under attack from Al-Shabab, the local Islamic State (ISIS) branch, not to be confused with the Al-Qaeda group of the same name in Somalia. The offensive left bodies strewn in the streets and survivors recounted harrowing stories of violence committed against civilians and beheadings by the victorious insurgent group. Since then, Mozambique, supported by regional and international partners, has recaptured Palma and pushed back against this four-year-old insurgency, aiming to regain lost territory and restart investment in the region’s natural resources.
Both the Palma attack being prompted by the start of a natural gas project and the regional cooperation aimed at rolling back Al-Shabab point to the deep historical and socio-political background of this ostensibly recent conflict. The location and nature of the Cabo Delgado insurgency and counter-insurgency is indicative of Mozambique’s pre- and post-independence history, including its nature as a colony, its independence and civil wars, regional involvement in the same, and the country’s political dynamics in general. The violence in Cabo Delgado provides an opportunity to examine how insurgencies often reveal decades-old social and political cleavages that are not understandable through a simple ideological lens.
The insurgency in the north of Mozambique, which began in 2017, has grown in intensity over the last year. Al-Shabab was recently designated a terrorist organization under the name “ISIS-Mozambique” by the U.S. Department of State, which drew attention to links with a broader network of East African Islamist groups and a leadership structure that is at least partially based in neighboring Tanzania. The conflict has claimed over 3,000 lives and displaced almost another million to date, and the Mozambican government has proven unable to control the group.
Yet the true extent of any Islamic State connection is debatable and viewing the conflict as yet another battle in the global fight against ISIS is unhelpful. Seeing the violence in Cabo Delgado as simply an extremist insurgency misses the region’s and country’s deep historical and present issues of conflict and disconnectedness that are driving this insurgency.
Mozambican State Capacity in the Center and the Periphery
Until the late nineteenth century, Portuguese colonial control in Mozambique was limited beyond the cities it had long controlled along the coast like Lourenço Marques (modern-day Maputo). While a brutal campaign of subjugation eventually asserted Portuguese dominance more strongly, Portuguese authority in its colonial possessions lagged its Great Power European neighbors like Great Britain or France in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. This discrepancy between center and periphery that was emblematic of Portuguese Mozambique continues to color the country today and is a useful tool through which to view the insurgency in Cabo Delgado now.
Cabo Delgado is the birthplace of the Mozambican “national liberation” movement, where forces from the Soviet-aligned Frente de Liberação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) crossed into the then-Portuguese colony Mozambique from Tanzania in 1964 to attack colonial outposts and start that country’s war for independence. Mozambique was granted independence in 1975, but the civil war continued for seventeen more years, killing and starving over a million people. While peace accords were signed in 1992, what emerged from this devastating conflict was a state largely incapable of projecting power beyond its center and into the periphery.
This lack of state presence beyond the center has been highlighted in the last two decades by foreign multinational investment into the region’s vast hydrocarbon reserves and other natural resources. These resources have made Cabo Delgado, one of the country’s most physically and psychologically distant and impoverished provinces, an increasingly important economic center for Mozambique. While political elites have long held a privileged position and interests in the area’s economic activities, both legal and illegal, the state has proven incapable and unwilling to spread those benefits to the local populace. Money from these projects is siphoned off directly to FRELIMO elites in southern Mozambique, where actual development and infrastructure projects take place.
What emerges is a population that is both historically and presently disconnected from the state and state institutions, living in a nearly ungoverned space, lacking in development and infrastructure, resentful of state abandonment, and, unsurprisingly, susceptible to violent extremism. These citizens, caught between the machinations of multinational corporations and a corrupt political elite are now leading an anti-government insurgency. Already disenfranchised and now on the outside looking in on the economic boom based on exploitation of natural resources in their region, it is not surprising that violence has erupted, regardless of its ideological trappings.
Regional Politics and Colonial Legacy
Mozambique’s position in decades of geopolitics in the region is also clear when viewing the Al-Shabab insurgency and responses to it. Mozambique’s independence and civil wars were far from domestic affairs, centering the country in the shifting Southeast African (and indeed, international) power and racial politics of the mid- to late-twentieth century. Eventually, South Africa (under the apartheid regime), Tanzania, Malawi, and Rhodesia/Zimbabwe would all become embroiled to some extent, seemingly emphasizing the Mozambican state’s lack of capacity.
Given this history, it is unsurprising that when violence erupted in 2017 in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique was reticent to look to its neighbors or other international actors for help, despite the country’s weak security forces. Yet as it became clearer that the weak Mozambican state could not combat Al-Shabab alone, and with outside pressure and attention growing, the country has turned to regional and international help to fight the insurgency. Initially, Mozambique relied on private mercenaries like those from a South African security company, Dyck Advisory Group, but without success. In June 2021, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional intergovernmental organization, announced that they would deploy forces into Cabo Delgado to quell the insurgency. Around the same time, Mozambique and Rwanda signed a military agreement that led to the deployment of Rwandan troops into Cabo Delgado, culminating in the August 2021 recapture of Palma. Thus, concerned about their own security and the area’s stability, conflict in Mozambique is again expanding into a regional affair with significant political jockeying amongst actors, reflecting the country’s very recent past.
The Al-Shabab insurgency is not only echoing the involvement of Mozambique’s neighbors in the 1970s-1990s, but an even more consequential international actor: Portugal. Unlike other European nations, the Estado Novo in Portugal under Antonio Salazar rejected outright and fought bitterly against the independence movements in its colonies around the world. The small, poor Portuguese state spent vast sums of human and material resources fighting insurgent movements in Africa. The military coup in Portugal itself in 1974, shortly after Salazar’s death, the so-called Carnation Revolution, led to the Portuguese abandoning the war. It was only this domestic collapse that led to the retreat of the Portuguese and the independence of Mozambique, rather than outright victory on the part of the revolutionaries.
Despite this history, as the insurgency in Cabo Delgado intensifies, Portugal has become increasingly involved, both independently and as a member state of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU), in providing security assistance to Mozambique. In fact, throughout 2021 Portugal has been a particularly vocal advocate of increased military assistance to its former colony, and in May 2021 the two countries signed a new military cooperation agreement extending through 2026.
Most major news outlets have treated the fact that Portugal is the former colonial ruler of Mozambique as a mere detail, but such involvement is significant. That Mozambique, which suffered decades of violence during and after its independence movements, and Portugal, whose own democratic transition is intricately linked to the collapse of its Empire, are cooperating on security issues is symbolically powerful. While the Al-Shabab insurgency may have only started in 2017, it is carrying historical baggage stretching half-a-millennium to the time of Portuguese arrival in Mozambique.
Viewing the insurgency in Cabo Delgado as yet another front in the global fight against ISIS misses the broader connections to Mozambique’s and southeast Africa’s unique history and politics. There are broad historical, structural, and geopolitical factors at play both in the impetus behind the insurgency and the responses to it. The history of and capacities of the Mozambican state, stretching into the pre-independence era, are clear in the reasons behind the outburst of violence in a resource rich but poor province, which is physically and psychologically distant from Maputo. At the same time, the domestic and international response to the insurgency, involving Mozambique’s neighbors and its former colonial ruler, echo a not-so-distant past of the country’s struggle for independence and devastating civil war.
Thus, Mozambique provides a useful example for the necessity of seeing insurgencies not only through the prism of the ideologies in which they are wrapped, but as part of broader spatial, geopolitical, and historical forces. This should be at the forefront of responses to the Al-Shabab insurgency, both by Mozambique and the international community, emphasizing not only the necessity of militarily defeating a dangerous insurgency and combatting extremist ideologies, but also looking more broadly to the history of the region and addressing the root causes of such unrest. “Defeating” an insurgency militarily will not erase the centuries of socio-political causes driving the conflict.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.