Mozambique: Insurgency Spreading from Cabo Delgado
Ahlu al-Sunna militants have carried out multiple attacks in Mecula District of Niassa Province in recent days, the clearest sign yet that the insurgency is spreading from Cabo Delgado Province.
An attack on Gomba village, located near the border with Tanzania, was followed by an attack in Naulala village over the weekend. During the Naulala attack, over 100 children are said to have been abducted. A police station was attacked, and houses and a healthcare centre were also looted and set alight.
The attack was claimed by ISIS, who have claimed several attacks in Mozambique in recent weeks- indicative of the group’s continued resilience in the country.
With the help of the SADC and Rwandan forces, Mozambican security forces have dismantled over a dozen bases of Ahlu al-Sunna in Cabo Delgado Province.
Electricity has also been restored in districts including Palma, where humanitarian aid arrived for the first time in six months on September and IDPs have reportedly returned to the town in their thousands from Quitunda, located outside the Afungi gas project site.
However, while attacks have decreased in the province as a whole, sporadic attacks continue mainly in Macomia, Nangade and Mocimboa da Praia districts. Yet recent attacks in Mueda District and Mecula district in eastern Niassa Province demonstrate Ahlu al-Sunna’s mobility and will likely have an impact on the capacity of security forces, adding further to the complexity of the situation.
“The Cabo Delgado and Niassa conflict”
The Cabo Delgado conflict is now more accurately referred to as “the Cabo Delgado and Niassa conflict,” as insurgent violence spread last week into Niassa province. The attacks, which will be covered in depth in this week’s Incident Focus section, began on 25 November in Gomba, a village in the Mecula district of northeast Niassa near the border with Tanzania, less than 25 kilometers from the border crossing at Negomano. There, armed men believed to be insurgents held up a vehicle carrying salaries for employees of the Niassa Special Reserve wildlife sanctuary. The vehicle was burned and at least one member of the Mozambican police was killed (one report says that four police officers were killed).
The following day, a group of seven insurgents attacked Namunda, in northeastern Nangade district. At least one civilian was killed in the attack. No other details are available.
By 27 November, insurgents in Niassa had moved southwest along the N1204 to Naulala, another village in Mecula district. They attacked a police station in the village, exchanging gunfire with police before looting medicines from a health center and burning the homes of two village leaders. The Islamic State (IS) claimed the attack, saying that it killed two Mozambican soldiers and captured their rifles. According to a report from Mozambican national newspaper Notícias, roughly one hundred young people were kidnapped in the attack.
However, this report is not borne out by accounts from local sources or by the IS claim. After the raid, insurgents withdrew east, toward Cabo Delgado. Naulala civilians largely fled the village and were welcomed in the district capital of Mecula by the district administrator, who housed them in a local school.
Back in Cabo Delgado, a source in Macomia district reported last week that Rwandan forces had occupied the village of 5º Congresso, control of which has been frequently contested in recent weeks. If accurate, the turn to Rwandan troops to secure the village is notable because the village is well within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Standby Force Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) area of responsibility. The use of Rwandan troops to defend villages in Macomia district would be a significant vote of no confidence in SAMIM’s capacity to deter insurgent attacks.
New information also came to light last week regarding earlier incidents. On 19 November, a group of six insurgents confronted a group of fishermen in Messano, on the coast of Macomia district. The insurgents were disguised as fishermen themselves, and only drew their weapons when the fishermen approached them. The insurgents fired on the fishermen in an apparent attempt to steal their fish and fishing equipment. The fishermen fled, unharmed except for one who was shot in the arm. The injured fisherman received treatment in Pemba.
The same day, in nearby Goludo, Macomia district, insurgents fired into the air to disperse 12 fishermen and steal their catch. The fishermen in Goludo were from Nampula and, according to a local source, operating in Goludo “without the consent of the natives.”
New information also appeared regarding the 19 November insurgent attack on Chacamba, Nangade district. According to a local source, six homes were burned down in the attack, and no one was killed.
Incident Focus: Conflict in Niassa Province
The main takeaway from last week’s insurgent attacks in Niassa province is that the Mozambican government’s attempt to cordon off the conflict in the far northeast of Cabo Delgado has failed.
Deployments of Mozambican troops and foreign intervenors have been undertaken on the assumption that keeping the insurgency confined to western Palma district, eastern Nangade district, Mocimboa da Praia district, and eastern Muidumbe district would allow for the return of many displaced civilians to conflict-affected areas and would eventually constrict the insurgency so much that it would have to surrender.
Recent insurgent attacks in northern Mueda district and now in Niassa province show that insurgents have slipped the cordon and are operating freely in areas that have, until now, been untouched by insurgent violence.
Local sources in Nangade district were raising the alarm about the state of the cordon in their area of Cabo Delgado even before the Niassa attacks. Nangade is defended largely by Tanzanian troops deployed as part of SAMIM, and, after a series of attacks in the district, locals began to lose confidence in the Tanzanian forces. Their perceived lack of response to insurgent actions, especially their slow reaction to the 19 November attack on Chacamba, just 13 kilometers away from their base in Nangade town, has caused frustration. According to one, “sometimes [Tanzanian soldiers] even seem complicit” in insurgent attacks. The distrust does not apply to SAMIM as a whole -- the small contingent of Basotho soldiers also deployed in the district is held in comparatively high regard. Nangade civilians had expressed concern before the Niassa attacks that Tanzanian forces would not prevent insurgents from moving through Nangade district to points west.
This appears to be at least part of what has happened in recent weeks, as areas of northern Mueda and Mecula districts have been targeted in what mostly amount to resource gathering raids. Yet both earlier research and current source reports suggest that insurgents are moving both westerly into Niassa province from Nangade district and in the opposite direction, being recruited from Niassa and traveling to fight in Mueda and Nangade. A March 2021 report by researchers at the Instituto de Estudos Sociais e Econômicos (IESE), a prominent Mozambican think tank, described early insurgent recruiting efforts in Niassa focused on Mecula town and the provincial capital of Lichinga. Attempts to infiltrate local mosques were blocked by local religious authorities, so insurgents reportedly set up their own mosques for recruiting. Recruiting efforts drew on similar themes to recruitment in Cabo Delgado itself, with insurgents emphasizing political and ethnic cleavages and promising employment in the mining sector to young people in Niassa. The researchers highlighted the Niassa districts closest to the Tanzanian border -- Lago, Sanga, and Mecula -- as particular hotbeds of recruitment.
The connection to border districts is perhaps unsurprising, as Tanzanian authorities have highlighted the same length of border as an area of concern. Just north of Niassa’s Mecula district lies the Tanzanian town of Masuguru where, in 2018, Tanzanian police offered a two-week amnesty to Mozambican armed youth during which they could turn themselves in to authorities. No one appears to have taken them up on the offer, but it speaks to the level of interest Tanzanian authorities had in an area that, at the time, was far from any active fighting in Cabo Delgado.
Similarly, in August 2020, when Tanzania began military deployments to border areas to root out insurgent infiltration, the deployment areas included the entire length of the borders with Cabo Delgado and Niassa. Last week, Tanzania’s Defense Forces Chief Venance Mabeyo described the difficulty those deployed soldiers have faced in a speech, saying that “[insurgents] are amongst us. Unless people reveal them to us, it is very hard for us to identify them, and fight them.” The lack of trust and cooperation between civilians and defense forces along the border means that the area remains a worry for government forces.
Insurgent recruiting in Niassa now appears to be having a tactical effect on the insurgent approach to the conflict. According to a local source, the insurgents who attacked Nambungali, Mueda district on 16 November were from nearby Niassa. Local recruits leading attacks makes sense, as they are more likely to know the terrain and to be able to engage local networks for intelligence gathering and resupply.
As Niassa recruits gain combat experience, their local grievances and goals may begin to shape insurgent operations to a much greater extent than they have to this point. With insurgent progress in coastal Cabo Delgado largely stalled for the moment, an ascendant western wing of the insurgency could shift the balance of power in the group.
Displaced civilians who have returned to their home districts continue to have hugely divergent experiences depending on the district to which they have returned. An investigation by the news agency Lusa found that returnees to Macomia district are frustrated by the ongoing violence in the district and have little faith that they will be secure from insurgent attack in the near future. Many of the people Lusa spoke to were older men who had sent their families back to overcrowded camps for displaced people and exploitative host community situations because of the level of ongoing danger in Macomia.
One man sent his two adult children back to Nacala, in Nampula province, to work as security guards in exchange for sleeping under an old car in a yard because he was so concerned about their safety in Macomia. Everyone interviewed agreed that there is more violence in Macomia than is reported or acknowledged by the government, and none expressed optimism that the situation will turn around soon.
There is more optimism in Muidumbe district, where electricity service finally returned last week. Muidumbe was the last district to receive power after the Mozambican national electricity company began repairs on infrastructure destroyed by insurgents in Mocimboa da Praia district. The national electrical grid now once again extends throughout Cabo Delgado.
In Palma district, schools are set to reopen at the end of January 2022. Over 300 students are already registered for classes in Palma town, and more are expected before the term begins. The reopening of schools in Palma district -- or at least the eastern part of the district -- reflects the major security gains made in the area around the liquified natural gas projects. There has clearly been a concerted effort on the government’s part to return to normalcy in the area.
Indeed, local reports indicate that the government made support payments to senior citizens in the district in November, a level of normality not available in other conflict-affected areas. Food prices have also come down as a result of government-protected overland trade convoys between Palma and Mueda. Rice, which was selling in late October for 120 meticais per kilogram, is now down to a much more affordable 60 meticais ($0.94) per kilogram.
Rwandan troops, whose extended deployment in Palma has allowed for the security gains made there to be maintained, have continued their humanitarian efforts in the district. It is a measure of how far the district has come that last week, rather than distributing aid or offering medical care to sick civilians, Rwandan soldiers led locals in an effort to clean trash from the streets of Palma town.
Despite these steps forward, however, there are increasing reports of unrest in Palma district between displaced people and host communities. A report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs found that local healthcare providers are discriminating against displaced people and that competition over access to food aid is increasing. The report said that “both communities felt relations were negative and seem to be deteriorating” and cited reports of displaced people destroying host community cashew seedlings in what appears to be a dispute over land.
That tension between host communities and displaced people, particularly over control of agricultural production, poses a major concern going forward for humanitarian efforts in Cabo Delgado. Land competition has been a concern for a long time, but efforts to encourage agriculture in host communities by displaced people as a way to confront Cabo Delgado’s food insecurity crisis are likely to make that competition more intense. The government of Norway last week announced a $1 million program to support agriculture by displaced communities in Chiure and Metuge districts. The program will surely help increase food production in those areas, but runs the risk of increasing tensions between displaced people and host communities.
The extra attention shown by the government to conditions in Palma district does not extend to displaced communities in Mpeme, Mueda district. Displaced people there report that there is no clean drinking water in the village, and that they must walk a significant distance to acquire water.
The Mozambican government began implementing its plan to reorganize security services to protect districts where the government has recently regained control from further insurgent attack. Speaking in Nampula, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi announced last week the deployment of 13 new police companies to district capitals across the north and central provinces of the country. They have been tasked with protecting against incursions by insurgents and other security threats.
In the conflict zone, the companies will be deployed in Mocimboa da Praia, Palma, Nangade, Namacade (the capital of Muidumbe district), Quissanga, and Mecula. The companies, Nyusi said, play an important role in the government’s effort to “consolidate security and create an appropriate environment for the return of displaced people to safe areas.” If the government’s security gains are to outlive the Rwandan and SAMIM deployments, then building up local security capacity in conflict-affected areas is crucial. However, these police companies, which are set up to operate without a set barracks, will also have substantial opportunities to exploit civilian populations as police forces have been known to do in the past.
On the international front, SADC held a meeting to discuss SAMIM’s progress in Pretoria on 25 November. In the meeting, there seemed to be widespread consensus that SAMIM’s mandate would be extended after January, but concern was also expressed that SADC has no clear plan for exiting Cabo Delgado at a future date. With South Africa reportedly about to expand its troop contribution in the form of the 2 South African Infantry Battalion, the plan for extracting the growing force in Cabo Delgado is sure to remain a major topic of discussion among SADC leaders.
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SOURCE: Cabo Ligado