The presence of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant- (ISIL-) affiliated violent extremists in the northern provinces of Mozambique has raised the threat levels for the lives of people in Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries.
Although the government of Mozambique only formally acknowledged the presence of ISIL-affiliated violent extremists in April, after deadly attacks occurred in the town of Mocimboa da Praia, Islamist militant group Ansar al-Sunnah has been operating for much longer and its attacks can be traced as far back as 2017.
The Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) and the Africa Institute of South Africa (AISA) say the attacks are becoming more frequent, while the death toll is rising.
In a seminar hosted by the HSRC, FES and AISA on August 17 to contextualise the emergence of violent extremism in Mozambique and its implications for peace and security in Southern Africa, the organisations pointed out that more than 1 000 people have died during violent terrorist attacks and 250 000 people have been displaced owing to land grabs in the country
HSRC executive head Cheryl Hendricks said that what started in 2017 was first perceived as rebellion from Muslim youth in the Cabo Delgado province, but that the conflict has since dragged on, despite efforts from national security forces to contain insurgent forces.
FES Mozambique resident representative Tina Andrade said there was a public debate going on in Mozambique and in the SADC region on whether these violent extremist attacks were rooted in historical religious tensions or socioeconomic hardships that government had failed to adequately address.
Chatham House African programme leader Dr Alex Vines said Mozambique had lingering colonial legacies which added to tensions in the country.
This type of conflict has, however, been mostly confined to the far north area of Mozambique.
Mozambique was a Portuguese colony, overseas province and later a member State of Portugal, but gained independence in 1975. The country is, however, still suffering from the effects of a 16-year civil war that ended in 1992.
Vines explained that colonial Mozambique had developed as two separate countries across the Zambezi river, reinforcing different historical trajectories. Zambezi was not just a river, but also a physical and cultural barrier in the country, he noted, adding that the atmosphere in the country was more of an Eastern African one, instead of a Southern African one.
Vines believes geographical, cultural, religious and socioeconomic divides have all given rise to various protests in the country.
Civil society organisation Centro de Estudos Estratégicos e Internacionais member Énio Chingotuane commented that most members of the violent extremist groups in Mozambique originate from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and some from Somalia, and therefore there was in fact an East African root to Mozambique’s problems.
He stated that there was room for government to be more active in solving development inequality but the government was instead trying to securitise the issue at regional level, rather than targeting specific local intervention.
Chingotuane noted that Mozambique had some key drivers that helped enable expansion of violent extremist ideas, including porous borders, enormous development backlogs, economic exclusion of marginalised groups, limited government resources and insufficient law enforcement capacity.
“Mozambique is asking for help from SADC to assist in its military effort against these attacks, but can military brigades solve the root issues of uprise in the country? If the military acts in a way that extimulates violent extremisms, then the problem will only increase.”
Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project analyst Jasmine Opperman confirmed that there was some form of radicalisation taking place among the youth in Mozambique, which she said should not be automatically linked to Islam.
She noted that the extremism was also linked to Cabo Delgado specifically and suggested that it needed to be managed at a local level.
However, Opperman said there had indeed been some level of foreign influence, with existing tensions in the province providing a gateway for foreign forces.
Opperman believes the insurgents have highlighted the weak points in government’s security forces and exposed the limitations of the country’s containment measures.
She further stated that, in her view, the Mozambican government was unwilling to admit to deep-rooted policy failure on its part and would rather blame the rise of violent extremist groups on external factors.
“Unless the government starts addressing local dissatisfaction in the short to medium term, we will see violence institutionalised and becoming part of Southern Africa, with regional implications. There is transnational interest, but local factors are by far more pressing.”
University of the Witwatersrand School of Governance associate Professor Anthoni van Nieuwkerk supported Opperman’s view, saying that there was only an 18% presence of Islam in Mozambique. He noted that this was, therefore, a limited factor in terms of accounting for the spread of violent extremism in Africa.
He does believe that terrorism has increased, but said the drivers of these attacks were poverty and exclusion from development.
“A narrative is emerging that violent extremism is taking off rapidly in Cabo Delgado, and is considered as the latest security threat in the region. It is true that the State is very fragile, ridden with crime and corruption, but there is little evidence that it is more than pockets of violent extremism. There is no indication of these attacks spreading through Southern Africa.”
Van Nieuwkerk suggested that a baseline study be done to map violent extremism in Southern Africa from which a counter-terrorist strategy for the region could be developed.
The SADC Treaty stipulates that member States are enjoined to cooperate in areas of peace, development and economics.
Additionally, the SADC Counter Regional Strategy of 2015 lays down the blocks for regional undertaking in the case of terrorism, along the lines of the United Nations’ counter terrorism strategy.
The SADC Protocol on Politics, Defence and Security further provides a legal framework for collective security, enforcement of peace and defence against internal and external threats; however, Institute for Security Studies researcher Ringisai Chikohomero said SADC should not help Mozambique evade its responsibilities on a local level by providing assistance from a regional level.