Conflict in Cabo Delgado: From the frying pan into the fire?

By Piers Pigou & Jasmine Opperman
for Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung Southern Africa Office


A brutal insurgence has been ongoing in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado since 2017. The conflict started as a series of attacks by radical Islamic groups. It has now evolved into a full scale civil war. More than 2,600 people have died.

The escalation of the conflict in the natural gas-rich province of Cabo Delgado has gone largely unnoticed by the global political public, but not by political actors. The European Union, the United States and the SADC are exerting increasing pressure to be involved. So far, Mozambique has refused foreign troops on its territory claiming the need to perverse its territorial sovereignty. While the government is positive about offers of military training and equipment, it has so far categorically rejected any direct interference.

The SADC security Troika has met three times fearing the escalation of this conflict into neighbouring countries and also concerned about the humanitarian crisis as well as the human rights abuses which are being committed mainly by the insurgents. The regional block has proposed to send to Mozambique a 3000-strong army made of different military branches to support Mozambique. However, Mozambique has been insisting that it would prefer its own troops to be trained instead of foreign troops.

In the early 2010s, enormous gas deposits were discovered off the Mozambican coast. Since 2017, coinciding with the beginning of the terrorist attacks, their exploitation has been prepared by consortia. The major oil companies Total (France), ENI (Italy) and ExxonMobile (USA) are also involved. For the necessary liquefaction of the gas for transportation, a special zone has been established on the Afungi Peninsula in Cabo Delgado.

The locals call the terrorist organization Al-Shabaab. The US State Department call it Islamic State-Mozambique (or ISIS-Mozambique) but the group calls itself Ansar Al-sunna. According to the US state department the group is led by someone called Abu Yasir Hassan. And a number of different narratives have been advanced about the cause of the insurgence. At first analysts and the government of Mozambique blamed the conflict on mere bandits who wanted to create chaos locally in order to mine without government control. Later on the narrative changed to a group of foreigners conspiring against Mozambique’s development. Finally, the government of Mozambique acknowledged to be facing terrorist attacks organised by the terrorist organisation, the Islamic State. Others continue to blame the conflict on drug trafficking in the coastal northern Mozambique and on the fragility of its borders with the Republic of Tanzania. However, like any conflict of a similar nature, behind this conflict a combination of factures including historical social, political, religious and economic marginalisation can be found.

In order to understand the dynamics around this brutal conflict, in 2020, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung office in Johannesburg commissioned a study by two analysts who have been following the conflict since its very beginning and the outcome is the report that we present here with the title: “Conflict in Cabo Delgado: From the frying pan into the fire?”. The report provides an overview of the Islamist insurgency that has been unfolding in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado since October 2017. It is intended to promote discussion about the challenges and options in play to address immediate security concerns, as well as longer term development and human security challenges. The insurgency is at a crucial juncture and presents an accelerating security and humanitarian challenge, whilst the government desperately tries to work out a response strategy that has the backing of political and security actors.

Please follow the “Read More” link below to access the report.