The three young men looked exhausted, their jeans and t-shirts grimy and baggy from constant wear. The youngest of them was barefoot and seemed a bit embarrassed by it.
After almost a week of walking and sleeping rough, they had arrived only the day before in Nacaca, a displacement camp in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province. They had left their families behind in nearby towns, and pushed on to find somewhere safe, as far from the gunmen who had attacked their village as they could get.
A jihadist conflict has roiled the northern districts of Cabo Delgado for almost five years. It grew in intensity as the militants, known locally as al-Shabab, inflicted a string of humiliating defeats on an under-equipped army, and drew closer to so-called Islamic State in the region.
An amalgam of grievances has led to war. They include the neglect of the region by successive governments, seen as corrupt and self-serving; the exclusion of local communities from the benefits of its rich resources; and the power of religion to mobilise supporters.
Al-Shabab’s advance has been marked by the execution of civilians – often by decapitation – and the abduction of young men and sexual enslavement of women. But the arrival in June last year of troops from Rwanda, and then a month later a coalition of southern African countries known as SAMIM, stopped and scattered the insurgents. The war seemed on the way to being won.
Chris Huby/Le Pictorium
A camp for displaced people in Pemba, Cabo Delgado's regional capital. It shelters arrivals from Palma, a town fuerher north attacked by insurgents in 2021. Credit: Chris Huby/Le Pictorium/Cover Images
That’s not the case anymore. Small units of al-Shabab, often no more than a few dozen, are re-terrorising communities. They have also crossed into the thickly forested neighbouring province of Niassa – predominantly Muslim like Cabo Delgado – which is stretching the modest number of foreign forces.
The three men freshly arrived in Nacaca – Assane Magaire, Ali Molume, and Sacur Ussene – didn’t expect the attack on their village of Primeiro de Maio, in eastern Meluco district. They knew the insurgents were in the area, but there was an army post fairly close by, and access to the lakeside village is difficult unless you know the right paths.
They were farming when the raid started. By the time they got back to the village, houses were burning. Molume sprinted to his compound and found his blind grandmother, alive but surrounded by the headless corpses of neighbours – including his uncle.
It took six days for the survivors to reach safety, trudging down a road they weren’t sure was free of al-Shabab. In the town of Nanjua, the men used the last of their money to take a bus to Nacaca, a formal government-run reception centre sheltering roughly 3,000 displaced people.
That day, the barefoot Ussene sold his flip-flops for the equivalent of 50 cents to buy airtime so, with a borrowed phone, they could stay in touch with their families.
“Right now, all I want is to be with my family so we can cry together over what has happened,” Magaire told The New Humanitarian. But he didn’t know when they might be able to reunite: “We don’t have the money to go there, or to bring them here.”
A huge displacement crisis
The conflict has depopulated northern Cabo Delgado – equivalent in size to Rwanda – with at least 730,000 people (roughly a third of the province’s overall population) fleeing to safer southern districts, like Montepuez.
More than 70 percent of these displaced have chosen to move in with family and friends rather than the formal government-run camps, despite the shelter and small plots of land on offer.
The displaced are settling in a region that was poor to begin with. The chances of these former farmers and fishermen finding work are slim. Adding to the hardships, for the past six months a cash-strapped World Food Programme has only been able to deliver half rations to both the camps and the registered displaced living in the communities.
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Borges Nhamirre, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies, worries that al-Shabab is far from finished. He senses they may be lying low during the current rainy season, possibly recruiting in next-door Nampula province – demographically similar to Cabo Delgado and Niassa – and could emerge stronger when the “fighting season” starts at the beginning of April.
“Factually, the situation on the ground has improved a lot, but we don’t know the near future,” Nhamirre told The New Humanitarian. There are also concerns that some al-Shabab fighters may have been receiving training on IEDs from IS in Somalia, allowing them to improve on their current crude devices.
The regional military intervention has generally been celebrated by Mozambicans, but the foreign troop contribution is relatively small. There are roughly 2,500 battle-hardened Rwandan soldiers, focused on the Afungi peninsula, home to the French multinational company Total’s multibillion-dollar liquefied natural gas (LNG) project.
The SAMIM force was supposed to number around 3,000. It planned to include helicopter gunships, armoured vehicles, and a naval element – to interdict al-Shabab dhows. But the initial deployment has only been around 1,000-strong, led by lightly-armed special forces, covering a vast territory.
Fuelled by poverty and corruption
Mozambique’s insurgency began in October 2017 when gunmen briefly held the town of Mocímboa da Praia, stole weapons, and fled into the bush. Its origins, though, are older. It grew out of anger over state corruption and opposition to establishment Islam – seen as in the pocket of the ruling FRELIMO party
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Radical preachers extolled hardline sharia. They rejected public services, including schools, secluded women, and – alongside a flurry of mosque building – found support among jihadist networks further up the East African coast, especially in Tanzania and Kenya.
The movement fed on resentment over the region’s poverty. Cabo Delgado is a resource treasure trove, but local communities – especially the minority Muslim Mwani and Makua – have largely been excluded from economic opportunities, symbolised by Total’s $20 billion LNG project.
It’s at the heart of the government’s future development plans, but has cost coastal fishing communities their homes. The promised economic benefits – the project has been halted due to the insecurity – were snapped up by better-educated workers from outside the region, and are perceived to be enriching Maputo’s historically southern-based political elite.
“A big part of the money could stay in Maputo, part of the asymmetry we, in this region, have struggled with.”
“You must be able to speak English [the language of international business] before anyone hires you in Cabo Delgado,” said Abudo Gafuro, who heads a local NGO. “The insurgents have used that idea of corruption and marginalisation to lure people. They say: ‘Locals will benefit from sharia, and the resources that belong to us’.”
There can be no military solution to the “poverty, resource competition, ethnicity, religion – all those elements that have come together to create the chaos in Cabo Delgado,” Human Rights Watch senior researcher Zenaida Machado told The New Humanitarian.
But President Filipe Nyusi has struggled to publicly accept that there are legitimate grievances at the heart of the insurgency, preferring instead to blame externally driven terrorism.
Still, the government has created the Integrated Development Agency for the North (ADIN) and is looking for $764 million from partners to fund a huge reconstruction and resilience-building programme in Cabo Delgado, Niassa, and Nampula.
Read more: Ethnic resentment
But the rebuilding plan might not be the touted panacea. “We are living in a country with big economic and ethnic disparities,” said Salvador Forquilha, senior researcher at the Maputo-based Institute for Social and Economic Studies. “ADIN won’t solve the problem – it will reproduce the same centralising logic.”
For Frederico João, who heads the local NGO forum in Pemba, that means top-down projects developed in Maputo by technocrats, for whom the neglected north is almost another country. “A big part of the money could stay in Maputo, part of the asymmetry we, in this region, have struggled with,” he explained.
Routes to peace
Nyusi has talked loosely about an amnesty to lure fighters out of the bush, but no such scheme exists, nor are any deradicalisation initiatives in place. Instead, al-Shabab prisoners are held in a maximum-security prison built on a low hill in Mieze, about 20 kilometres from the provincial capital, Pemba.
They are mostly legally detained, part of a formal judicial process. But the dozens of displaced persons The New Humanitarian spoke to said they would welcome some kind of political agreement – even if it meant pardons for crimes committed – if it would end the gruelling conflict.
“In the [independence] war between FRELIMO and the Portuguese, some of our children fought on the side of the Portuguese, but then there was peace,” said Augusto Jamal, who fled an attack on his village in Qassanga district on 2020 and now lives with nine adults and seven children in a three-room house on the outskirts of Pemba, donated by a family friend.
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“Then there was FRELIMO and RENAMO [a 16-year civil war], and some of our children fought for RENAMO. So why shouldn’t we do the same for the insurgents?,” he reasoned.
Then, in tacit acknowledgement of a level of local initial support for the gunmen, he added: “What are we to do, some of them are our children?”
A jihadist insurgency, though, is different. The fight is not to win orthodox political power, but to create a transnational Islamist caliphate. While some in the militant group may be open to discuss resource-sharing, hardline jihadist elements are likely to predominate as the war progresses .
Jamal, like other displaced people The New Humanitarian spoke to, said he won’t go home until the fighting stops – however difficult his circumstances become.
“They must send the military [to my village] and then tell us that the war is over before we can go back,” he said. “Otherwise, it’s better to stay here – at least you’ll be alive.”