The vicious insurgency that has raged in Mozambique’s gas-rich Cabo Delgado province since 2017 shows no signs of abating.
The United Nations says violence is escalating in the strategically important northern region, which is home to some of Africa’s largest liquid natural gas developments. At least 2,000 people have been killed, and the number of internally displaced people has increased from around 70,000 roughly a year ago, to close to 700,000 today. It is expected to reach 1m by June.
While the insurgency is usually characterised as Islamist, it remains unclear who the militants are, how they are supported, or what they want, according to UNHCR assistant high commissioner Gillian Triggs. An Islamist armed group called Al-Shabaab, unrelated to Al-Shabaab in Somalia, has killed civilians and burned villages and towns, according to Amnesty International.
The violence has spooked investors – in January, French energy giant Total withdrew most of its workforce from its $20bn development after a nearby attack. The company agreed to reopen on 24 March after fresh security guarantees from the government including the introduction of a 25km secure buffer zone, but suspended work again four days later after a deadly attack on the nearby town of Palma killed dozens.
In a bid to respond to violence across the region and bolster its flagging security forces, the Mozambique government is increasingly coming to rely on international private security firms. Originally enlisted to protect mining installations and offshore rigs, security companies are now assuming a more permanent role in the country’s security architecture. Hired troops are increasingly conducting frontline operations, according to the BBC, including using planes and helicopters to deliver supplies to government forces, hunt militants from the air and attack them with guns and bombs.
Yet in a report that also implicated militants and government forces in atrocities, Amnesty says that a private firm has committed violations against the region’s civilian population. Citing 53 witnesses, Amnesty alleged that operatives from a South African private military company indiscriminately fired at civilians and dropped hand grenades into crowds of people. At the beginning of March the firm told Reuters news agency it was investigating the allegations.
Addressing the underlying causes
While securing the region against insurgents is vital for Mozambique’s energy future, a reliance on unaccountable external forces with limited local knowledge risks fuelling support for an insurgency with complex local roots.
While Islamism appears to be part of the insurgency’s toxic mix, violent groups also feed off “Mozambique’s north-south regional divide, perceptions of the capture of the state and its resources, and a sense of socioeconomic exclusion, particularly among the youth” writes Idah Pswarayi-Riddihough, World Bank country director for Mozambique. The region has historically ranked among the lowest in the country for access to education, water, sanitation and electricity, fuelling local resentment and providing fertile soil for militants.
Unless these underlying issues are addressed, and the state finds a way to equitably distribute the revenues expected to emerge from Cabo Delgado’s giant gas fields, enlisting private security firms will only ever be a salve over an open wound.
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