A growing Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique entered its fourth year this week, with experts saying there is no end in sight for a conflict that has killed and displaced thousands of people.
Since the first attack in 2017 by al-Shabab in the province of Cabo Delgado, militants have taken control of territory in the northern province, including a strategic port, and burned down dozens of villages. Al-Shabab is considered the Mozambique affiliate of Islamic State.
The United Nations says the violence has forced over 300,000 people to flee their homes, seeking refuge in safer parts of Cabo Delgado and neighboring provinces. More than 2,000 people have been killed since the beginning of the conflict.
Over the past three years, there have been at least 600 attacks across the restive province, according to the conflict monitoring group Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED).
Experts say the insurgents have become more sophisticated and dangerous in their attacks in Cabo Delgado, which is rich with gas resources.
“The insurgents are quickly overtaking the government’s capability to counter the offensive,” said Jasmine Opperman, an Africa analyst at ACLED.
She told VOA that government security forces are “in a defensive mode. They spread thinly, and the insurgents have too much leeway in terms of time and pace with which they move, and in terms of attacking at free will.”
“I don’t see an insurgency nearing an end,” Opperman said, adding, “I foresee a further complexity where we are going to see armed clashes between civilians and insurgents.”
“This armed group is responsible for untold suffering in Cabo Delgado,” said Deprose Muchena, Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa.
“They have reduced people’s homes to ashes through coordinated arson attacks, killed and beheaded civilians, looted food and property, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes,” she added in a statement Wednesday.
Salvador Forquilha, director of the Institute of Economic and Social Studies in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique, said the ongoing conflict in Cabo Delgado shows that the government underestimated the scale of the threat since the beginning.
“The government didn’t realize that Mozambique was actually facing a huge threat in terms of security that had consequences in the region,” he told VOA in a phone interview.
Forquilha said the Mozambican government has kept on blaming “foreign conspiracy” for causing instability in Cabo Delgado, without “actually looking at domestic factors which were feeding the insurgency.”
During a speech on Sunday, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi said his country “is being attacked by outside forces who are targeting the defenseless public and our social institutions.”
“When we look at what has been happening in Cabo Delgado, we see that what is underway is a strategy by the terrorists to amplify fear, to make life worthless and to violate human rights,” he added.
In April 2019, IS declared its so-called Central African Province, known as ISCAP. Attacks attributed to its Central African Province affiliate have been limited to Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Experts believe it is important for Mozambican authorities to view the insurgency not as something from abroad.
“We can see people coming from Tanzania trying to establish some kind of radical groups through local mosques in Cabo Delgado, Nampula and Niassa [provinces]," Forquilha said. "But at the very beginning, there was a strong internal dimension linked to the insurgents in the sense that most of the people joining the group were actually recruited locally, not from abroad.”
Since the beginning of the conflict, Mozambican armed forces have had difficulties providing adequate security in Cabo Delgado. The current situation in the region requires move effective strategies by the government to curb the insurgency, experts said.
“I don’t see a clear strategy to tackle the insurgency,” said Fatima Mimbire, a Mozambique-based researcher. “The government has resorted to Russian mercenaries, and now we have South African mercenaries, but the situation tends to escalate.”
“I don’t understand why the insurgents are always ahead [of the government] in action. And how do they get information about the positions of the armed forces?” she told VOA. "It seems there are structural issues within the army that require investigating.”
Militant attacks in Cabo Delgado grew by 300% in the first four months of 2020, compared to the same period last year, according to Amnesty International.
In March, the militants attacked an army outpost in the district of Mocimboa da Praia, taking control of its armory. In August, they captured the entire town and its strategic port, which is still under their control.
Opperman said the security forces’ failure to recapture territory taken over by the insurgents “motivates them and makes them more brazen in their attacks.”
The militants “are controlling and directing how government forces respond and run around, and because of that, they are exploiting all available opportunities to attack,” she said.
Torture by security forces
While Islamist militants have been responsible for much of the violence in Cabo Delgado, Amnesty International also blamed Mozambican authorities for carrying out unlawful actions in the region.
The rights watchdog said “there have been undisputed reports of torture and other crimes under international law committed by security forces in Cabo Delgado.
In recent weeks, Amnesty International said it has verified footage of government prison guards torturing and dismembering alleged armed group fighters.
“There is evidence the security forces have also committed crimes under international law and human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, torture and extrajudicial killings,” said Amnesty International’s Muchena.
Impact on health services
Local health experts say the three-year conflict has also destroyed the already weak health infrastructure in Cabo Delgado.
“Out of the 17 districts in the province, 11 have been attacked by insurgents,” said Dr. Jorge Matine of the Citizen Observatory for Transparency and Good Governance in the Health Sector, in Mozambique.
“The population has fled, health centers have been vandalized, and there is no clear information about reconstruction,” Matine told VOA. “But we know that there are problems with accommodation and food [for the internally displaced people]. The province has a profile of diseases such as cholera and other diseases caused by poor hygiene. With the beginning of the rainy season, Cabo Delgado will suffer more.”