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Understanding the rise and expansion of Al-Shabaab in Mozambique

Almost half a century since the Portuguese were ejected from Mozambique, economic stratification remains intact, and extremist ideologies have replaced independence as the rallying cry for unrest

Since 2017, northern Mozambique has been a hotbed of crises engineered by an terrorist group known as Al-Shabaab. The initial obfuscation and mischaracterisation of the group by the Mozambican government paved the way for Al-Shabaab’s expansion and sophistication. The government’s initial reluctance to enlist the help of the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC) defence forces compounded the troubles of terrorised local citizens. The baffling disinclination on the part of the Mozambican government was a consequence of counterproductive nationalism which must give way to Pan-African approaches to the African continent’s many challenges.

When Al-Shabaab started its terror campaigns in Mocimboa da Praia, a coastal and strategic city in Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado, the government of Mozambique dismissed the disturbances as isolated acts of criminality. However, the advent of the attacks was stunning, with three police stations coming under assault. Having made great strides in a short space of time, by 2018 the group was sufficiently emboldened to overtly declare that it would impose Sharia law in its captured fiefdoms. In 2020, Al-Shabaab took ephemeral control of Mocimboa da Praia. In the same period, insurgency forced French oil company Total to halt its work on developing Africa’s second-largest natural gas field in north-east Mozambique. On 26 April 2021, Total declared ‘force majeure’ on the project, stating that it would only return when the situation is resolved. By mid-2022, thousands of citizens had lost their lives and more than 850,000 were displaced. The government of Mozambique had failed to stem the rise of insurgency, which makes the country’s initial refusal of SADC’s help more puzzling.

Instead, the government turned to private security groups such as Wagner from Russia and Dyck Advisory Group based in South Africa. At the time, their involvement raised questions about trust in national and regional actors. These groups were woefully inadequate, and Wagner lost some of its members. It was forced to retreat from its areas of operation but was reportedly still in Mozambique, in the city of Nacala. The casualties and retreat were blamed on inadequate intelligence, training, preparation, or knowledge of the terrain.

From this backdrop, one would expect that the SADC, which was logically supposed to be the first to be employed to fight the insurgency, would now be called upon to rescue a fraught situation. It was manifestly clear that the private security groups had failed, and the Mozambican army, with paltry resources and inadequate training, was simply not up to navigating the terrain, which could be a challenge to any security force.

A transnational, pan-African response

When on 15 July 2021 the Mozambican government finally acceded to the presence of the SADC, 2000 troops from eight SADC nations were deployed to Cabo Delgado.  Called the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM), this deployment was a consequence of SADC’s Extraordinary SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government held in Maputo on 23 June 2021. It is noteworthy that, before SAMIM commenced its operations, Rwanda had sent its 1000 troops to Mozambique at the behest of the Mozambican government. The SAMIM-Rwanda tandem seemed to have produced some positive results even though insurgent assaults still occurred. There are lessons to be drawn from the positive developments on the security front since then.

The most obvious is that governments have to correctly diagnose acts of terror. Secondly, acts of terrorism are almost invariably transnational in nature and hence require transnational approaches. The case of Mozambique shows that apart from the SADC, there are possibilities for broader Pan-African solutions to national challenges.

Rwanda’s involvement is laudable; however, the heavy financial burden of its involvement could prove challenging in the long run at a time when Mozambique is not ready to face the current security threats on its own. Hence, Mozambique and the SADC should look to explore synergies between Regional Economic Communities so as to share the finances of the military operations undertaken in the southern African country. In this specific case, the geographic configuration of the terrain means that the SADC and the East African Community (EAC), of which Rwanda is a member, will ineluctably be drawn into the fight against insurgent violence in Mozambique. Cabo Delgado province, the hotbed of the insurgency, borders Tanzania, a member of the EAC. In fact, it has been reported that after the SAMIM-Rwanda partnership, some insurgents fled to Tanzania, sparking fears that they might call on insurgent groups operating in East Africa for support. These realities are sufficiently compelling grounds for governments to work together and blunt the insular instincts in African states that Mozambique’s initial reluctance seemed to embody.

Most importantly, there is a need to address the governance issue. The resource-rich regions of Mozambique in the north take umbrage at what they observe as Maputo and Frelimo elites benefiting from resources from the North while citizens of these regions remain shunted to economic fringes. This form of grievance had driven Mozambique’s fight against Portuguese colonialism. At that time, the rallying cry was independence; almost half a century since the Portuguese were ejected, economic stratification remains intact, and extremist ideologies have replaced independence as the rallying cry for unrest.

The war on terror might win the support of France (because of Total’s interests) and America (because of its proclaimed global war against terrorism). But African institutions should not shield the Mozambican government from scrutiny on issues that have perpetuated colonial-era marginalisation of impoverished regions and demographics. History shows that this would only bring fleeting truces, with prospects for further instability remaining intact. The onus, at the African level, rests with regional groups and the African Union to provide security guarantees while urging Maputo towards eliminating the widespread corruption that has been responsible for the country’s continuing instability.



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