Winning Cabo Delgado

The uptick in insurgent attacks this year in Cabo Delgado Province, after months of relatively lower levels of insurgent activity, underscores the long road Mozambique still faces in restoring security and stability to this area of the country. Despite progress in reversing insurgent gains with the intervention of foreign forces in July 2021, insurgent attacks in January were three times higher than in December, a trend that has continued through subsequent months according to Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) data. At the same time, media reports indicate the Mozambican security forces, even with the presence of foreign allies, have struggled to counter this new wave of violence, at times contributing to insecurity themselves as they employ heavy-handed tactics toward civilians. Indeed, UN aid agencies report nearly 100,000 civilians had been displaced as residents flee in advance of attacks on villages and communities in Chiure, Macomia, Mecúfi, and Mocímboa da Praia districts.

The recent increase in violence showcases the limits to a military-centric approach to this conflict and raises questions about what constitutes victory in Cabo Delgado. The decline in insurgent activity between July 2021 and December 2023, accompanied by the return of displaced to areas that had previously served as insurgent strongholds and the beginning of reconstruction efforts in these same areas, lent itself to the beginning of victory narratives as government officials sought to reassure foreign investors that the worst of the violence had passed. Even now, amid an increase in insurgent activity, Mozambican leaders have indicated the group is not resurgent and the reports of the threat they pose are overstated. However, any eventual declaration of victory in Cabo Delgado will likely fall short of a true win without greater attention to the historic, socioeconomic, and political drivers of this conflict—issues that have likely grown and worsened in a conflict that has been running for over six years. While conclusion of the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) in July 2024 will likely increase attention to shoring up the military response to the insurgency, the urgency of revisiting the drivers of the conflict and focusing resources on reducing the appeal of the group will be equally important to the long-term trajectory of this conflict.

Resurgent Violence Indicative of Long Road toward Stability

The intervention of SAMIM and Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) in July 2021, following an unprecedented insurgent attack on Palma town, a key location in the liquified natural gas (LNG) project, marked a turning point in the conflict. Rwandan forces, in collaboration with their Mozambican counterparts, quickly launched a series of operations that drove insurgents out of their stronghold in Mocímboa da Praia and several key bases in the district, while SAMIM forces added additional pressure on insurgent forces in nearby areas. This drive reduced insurgent access to the maritime space, and as a UN study noted in February 2023, created operational disruptions for the group. These counterinsurgency operations heavily impacted the group’s personnel as well; while estimates of the group’s size have varied widely, the general consensus is that the group suffered significant losses through combat deaths and desertions during this period, leaving behind a cadre of hardened fighters. According to Mozambican officials, among those losses were as many as 30 leaders between July 2021 and August 2023, including operational commander Bonomade Machude Omar.

Increased military pressure on the group, however, was insufficient to weaken the group’s incentive to carry on the fight, even in a more pressurized environment. The group leveraged its local knowledge, gaps in the Rwandan, SAMIM, and the Forcas Armadas de Mocambique (FADM) areas of responsibility, and access to logistics networks to launch operations, albeit at a lower scale than before the intervention. The group split into smaller, more mobile units and made their way into southern districts of the province that had not previous experienced significant fighting. These geographic areas provided the insurgents with better access to supplies and potential recruits given the continuation of economic activity and presence of displaced persons potentially more vulnerable to recruitment. The presence of international mining ventures provided the group with targets that, while less high profile than the LNG project in Palma, nonetheless allowed the group to showcase its intent in disrupting state economic activities in the province. Furthermore, the group adjusted its strategy toward civilians, attempting to adopt in some areas a more conciliatory approach. For example, last year the group offered reassurances to returning populations in Mocímboa da Praia of their safety, purchased goods at inflated prices, and left notes after an attack on a village offering to compensate Muslims for losses they suffered as a result.

Insurgent activity since December 2023 points to the fruition of groundwork the group had been laying since 2021 and the struggle the government has had to extend governance in the area. Indeed, the insurgents during this period have demonstrated—even amid ongoing attacks against civilian targets—some nascent efforts at governance. For example, the group in February imposed a roadblock and began collecting “taxes” from passing motorists. In notes left in the area in English and Portuguese, the insurgents informed the public that Muslims should view the tax as a form of support to Islam, while non-Muslims would be severely punished if they failed to pay. Other reports indicate that fighters manning these roadblocks have used them as opportunities to promote their narratives about the conflict, telling passing motorists that the war is not intended to harm the population, but rather to protect resources that are currently only benefiting “infidels.” The group’s renewed attacks on harder targets, such as its occupation in January of Mucojo town and its more recent open presence in Quirimbas Islands and Quissanga, point to an increase in capacity and confidence in its ability to counter government security forces.

Not a True Victory

The recent uptick in violence showcases the limits of a counterinsurgency strategy heavily focused on a military approach and undercuts the nascent victory narratives that emerged last year as government officials touted shifts in insurgent operational tempo and its reduced presence in key coastal areas as evidence the insurgency was waning and the government’s strategy was working. Even now, as attacks and displacement are once again on the rise, Mozambican officials have continued with this narrative, describing recent attacks as the work of small groups and bristling at the travel warnings European countries have issued in response to the violence.

Even absent the recent uptick in violence, claims of progress against the insurgents and a return to normalcy belie the deeper issues that sustain the risk of violence and that point to a long road ahead toward attaining a minimum level of stability in a region long characterized by weak governance and neglect. If the current pace and scale of insurgent attacks wanes, government officials and their allies will likely use the opportunity to once more craft narratives focused on security progress as evidence the conflict is nearing its end. For example, SADC has justified the withdrawal of its troops by July 2024 by noting an improved security environment, while Rwandan forces may seize the opportunity to pivot resources toward other areas of more immediate national security concern, such as eastern Congo.

Even in a scenario where key actors achieve a consensus that the conflict is on the decline and the insurgents’ defeat is at hand, three key factors would likely drive a continuation of insecurity in Cabo Delgado:

  1. Defining “Victory”: Victory narratives that appear narrowly focused on insurgent activity in those areas most directly relevant to the LNG development would likely reinforce insurgent messaging around the Frente de Libertacao de Mocambique (FRELIMO) government’s focus on accruing personal wealth at the expense of the general public. Indeed, local researchers have noted the role LNG development activities had in heightening pre-existing grievances toward the state as locals assessed jobs were being given to outsiders, a term that included fellow Mozambicans who came from outside the northern region. Declarations of a return to normalcy or narratives that diminish the insurgent violence risk deepening the division between the state and the general population in this region if the public interprets such statements as indicative of a prioritization of stability in one narrow region rather than the province as a whole.
  2. Unresolved Grievances: The underlying drivers of this conflict remain unchanged, but the degree to which they are present has worsened in the intervening years. While the state made progress in restoring some services to areas that had been under insurgent control, ongoing reports of security services’ abuses of civilians and allegations of corruption in the distribution of limited humanitarian aid supplies likely weakened any good will that progress may have garnered. Grievances tied to political alienation have the potential to worsen if the public is prevented from voting in the presidential election currently scheduled for October 2024.
  3. Emergence of Multiple Armed Actors: The use of local militias to supplement the regular Mozambican security services has created a new set of armed actors in the province that stand to pose an additional security risk. These forces have on occasion clashed with Mozambican security services and have reportedly meted out their own justice against civilians. For example, people identifying themselves as Naparamas, an armed militia that served during the Mozambican civil war, attacked health workers in five districts in January, claiming they were spreading cholera.

Changing Trajectory of the Conflict

Moving Cabo Delgado Province to a place of greater stability and security for all will require a more comprehensive approach than the state has employed to date. Indeed, a 2013 RAND study of insurgencies since World War II noted that countries that employed a military-first strategy tended to fare worse than those that used a strategy that employed a mixture of tactics designed to not only reduce the insurgent presence, but undermine the factors that sustained the group. Furthermore, the quality of a country’s security services, government commitment to resolving the conflict, and their ability to quickly respond to changes in battlefield dynamics emerged as important factors in creating a trajectory favorable to the government. Indeed, a key reason why the road to stability in Cabo Delgado Province will likely to be a long one is the long-term nature of the types of changes the government needs to make to gain an upper hand in the region.

Reducing Insurgent Access to Support Networks: Despite its links with the Islamic State, the insurgency is largely dependent on local sources for recruits, supplies, and intelligence, providing the government with a smaller space in which to undercut the group’s access to the materials it needs to operate. A strategy that cultivates positive relations with civilians and that provides alternatives to potential recruits would likely go a long toward chipping away at some of the group’s traditional sources of support, particularly in a scenario where civilian loyalty is truly in play.

Greater Accountability for Security Forces: Demonstrating to the people of Cabo Delgado that the Mozambican security services are there to serve and protect them will be an essential step toward undermining support networks and building a state presence in the region. Rapport with civilians has been a hallmark of the Rwandan deployment to Cabo Delgado and a factor in the deployment’s success. Indeed, Rwandan forces’ ability to communicate effectively with locals and reports of respectful interactions with them are often juxtaposed with continuing reports of Mozambican forces’ heavy-handed approach to civilians. The insurgents have also leveraged public distrust of security services in their effort to sway their support. For example, upon entering Mucojo in January, insurgents assured civilians they would not harm them, noting their fight was with the Mozambican security forces.

Demobilization Opportunities: President Filipe Nyusi’s statements last year encouraging fighters to demobilize and reintegrate with society was an important signal to members who had potentially been forcibly recruited or had become disillusioned with the group, but absent clear government policies toward demobilized fighters and a reintegration process for them, likely did not serve its purpose. Formalizing a demobilization process and documenting its success to encourage other fighters to join will be a key step toward weakening the capacity of this group and its legitimacy.

Emilia Columbo is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Africa Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.