If the state doesn't want the insurgency to turn into a prolonged game of whac-a-mole, it will need to address Cabo Delgado's socio-economic shortcomings.

The sound of gunfire in the resource-rich Mozambique has now died out. 

Mozambique's army has declared that the Islamic State-affiliated Ansar al Sunna insurgency group, locally known as Al Shabab, that killed dozens and displaced thousands in Palma, has been defeated. This group is not related to Somalia's infamous Al Shabaab.

“We have completed the clearing [of the town]. It was the only sensitive area that we needed to clear [...] It is completely safe,” army spokesman Chongo Vidigal said in comments broadcast by state TV channel TVMlate on Sunday.

But for how long? Its namesake, an Islamic State-affiliated group, which means 'the youth' in Arabic, has been wreaking havoc in Somalia for more than a decade. Is this the fate that awaits Mozambique’s 30 million people?

Founded in 2015 as a non-violent Islamist organisation, it gained local’s approval for its social work with marginalised communities and disenfranchised youth in Mozambique's northern Cabo Delgado province.

Located close to the border with Tanzania, Cabo Delgado is a historically neglected Muslim area in a Christian-majority country that has largely gone unnoticed by the rest of the world in spite of its high rates of illiteracy, unemployment and extreme weather and poverty that have already been exacting a heavy toll on the people of Cabo Delgado. Now add to this the devastating socio-economic impacts of the pandemic as well as the food insecurity it has caused.

The discovery of a huge natural gas deposit in 2010, with the potential to transform both the province and country’s economy, raised hopes of jobs, development and a better life for locals. French energy giant Total has invested $20 billion in extracting liquefied natural gas (LNG) in the province. 

But mismanagement by Frelimo — the ruling party that has misruled Mozambique since its independence from Portugal in 1975 — soon wiped out much of those hopes, sowing the seeds for this insurgency with dire consequences for the people of Cabo Delgado and the entire southern Africa region.

Unsurprisingly, six years after its creation, extremists within and outside Mozambique are using locals’ socio-economic grievances for their own gains. If that wasn't enough, marginalised and disenfranchised youth now form the backbone of its insurgency, causing jitters internationally and regionally.

In 2019, it pledged its allegiance to ISIS (Daesh), stating its ambitions to turn the oil-rich region into a caliphate. It’s now calling for Sharia law across Mozambique. Could this spread to other provinces in Mozambique? Or, spill over Mozambique's borders into, let say, neighbouring Tanzania where the group’s religious leader, Abu Yasir Hassan, is from?

The group switched to violence in 2017; carrying out its first attack in October—a surprise, pre-dawn attack on three police stations in Mocimboa da Praia, a Cabo Delgado district, along the south coast of Africa. 

No one was held accountable for these attacks. A strategically important port for Total and ExxonMobil’s liquefied natural gas projects, Mocimboa da Praia was captured last year by the group. It remains under their control.

Since then the group has orchestrated a series of increasingly large-scale and sophisticated attacks, causing death, destruction and displacement.

In one of their worst attacks, the group reportedely beheaded 50 villagers in a football field. According to the UN, by December 2020, more than 500,000 people (nearly a quarter of Cabo Delgado’s population) had fled into the province’s inland districts and neighbouring Nampula and Niassa provinces because of violence, abandoning their crops and livelihoods.

To showcase their growing capacity and ambition – or, perhaps, it was simply to humiliate and expose how weak the central government thousand miles away in the capital Maputo is – on March 24, an estimated 100 or so fighters armed with AK-47s and rocket propelled grenades seized control of Palma. This district in Cabo Delgado province lies on the Indian Ocean coast and the seizure led to a street battle that lasted several days and left several killed.  

Yet, over two weeks later, the exact number of dead and wounded or the immediate economic damage on Palma remains unknown. Internet and mobile phone networks, too, remain disrupted. Hundreds of people remain missing. Reports circulated that beheaded bodies were seen in the streets.

With a poorly equipped military, Mozambique desperately needs military support to combat the insurgency – and, so far, the former colonial power Portugal plans to send 60 military trainers to Cabo Delgado. So too is the US, among other countries, who have designated this insurgents as a foreign terrorist organisation and plan to deploy special forces to train Mozambique’s marines.

But a military solution, which has been the government’s main focus, is not the answer. It will neither protect civilians from the cat-and-mouse Al Shabab insurgency nor enable the local population’s safe return to prevent famine. Indeed, much of the insurgency in Cabo Delgado is about local socio-economic issues.

To prevent future Al Shabab attacks, the government must address the fundamental issues facing the people in Cabo Delgado – or this insurgency as well as the humanitarian crises that accompanies it, risks spiralling further out of control. Sadly, as things stand, the ecosystem that enabled the insurgency to emerge and flourish in Mozambique has not changed. 

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