It is October 2017 when in Mocímboa da Praia, northern part of Cabo Delgado province, police stations and central administration buildings are targeted by groups armed with machetes. Three years later the attackers occupied the town for several hours, defeating the garrison. Today, the Mozambican security forces are facing an efficient network of armed groups, waving IS (Islamic State) symbols and employing assault rifles, antitank rocket launchers (RPG) and possibly mortars. An unconfirmed report talks about the shooting down of the helicopter of a private military company (PMC Dyck Advisory Group, RSA).
The Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), the central Africa branch of IS, claimed responsibility for the last Mocímboa da Praia’s attack, but this has low credibility. The connections between the extremists and IS are still to be clarified. The identified name within this three-year long insurgency is Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah that is “Group of the Sunnah”, locally calling itself al-Shabaab (the Youth). In any case, the solid information is scarce due to the lack of leadership and the difficulty in univocally identifying the background ideology.
What seems clearer is that local issues (among which drug trafficking) drive many extremists, so that external connections may not be a main driver. In Cabo Delgado Muslims are 58%. It is plausible that different religious interpretations, which originated there and merged with ideas coming from neighbouring countries such as Tanzania and Somalia, have found proselytes especially among the youth. Cabo Delgado is a neglected province and the poorest in the country, with high rates of unemployment, low literacy and spread inequalities.
At the same time, apart from the oil fields, one of the major global projects of liquefied natural gas, involving national and multinational players (Anadarko, ENI and Beas Rovuma Energy among others), is located in Palma district, far north of the province.
All this has not represented an increase of well-being for the local population, while the construction of new plants has indeed meant a limited access to farmlands and fishing areas. Moreover, local youngsters are still largely unemployed and denounce discrimination in the distribution of jobs, in favour of southerners from the capital or from other provinces.
Over the years, the gap between the locals and the Maputo elite, in particular the ruling party FRELIMO (Mozambique Liberation Front) involved in the resources management, has widened, exacerbating the already existing tension with the Muslim population speaking Kiswahili and Mwani.
For the moment local forces, uncoordinated, badly equipped and with low training and morale, have carried a counterproductive heavy-handed repression, while PMCs like the Russian Wagner and retired legionnaires provide protection to the plants.
President Filipe Nyusi has recently called for regional help; among the possible cumbersome solutions: involving the SADC (Southern African Development Community), bilateral agreements with South Africa or (more likely) Zimbabwe. Aside this, the other typical solutions are negotiation, dialogue with the communities and tackling poverty. Political will is not visible today and time is required to craft an effective response.