Since October 2017, in the Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado, more than 100 people have been killed in over 40 separate attacks. Cabo Delgado borders Tanzania and is rich in gas and minerals and vital for the future of the country’s economy. Attention was first drawn to the province after the Oct 5, 2017 attack on local police units by 40 gunmen. Many of the attacks have followed a similar pattern; hit-and-run raids during which attackers torch houses, steal supplies, and behead victims, including women and children.Thousands have been displaced since the violence began.
The upsurge in violence has been attributed to an alleged highly organized, foreign trained, and well financed group of radicalized Muslim youth. The group is known as al-Sunnah (“followers of the prophetic tradition), but locally referred to as al-Shabab (“the youth”), with no known connection to the Somali group of the same name. But what is really happening in Cabo Delgado when Mozambique has had no history of an Islamist insurgency?
Who is al-Sunnah? The new Boko Haram or Disgruntled Youth?
It is estimated that al-Sunnah has a membership of between 350 and 1,500 who are organised in tens of small cells along the coast of Cabo Delgado. The birth of al-Sunnah in dates back to 2013 or early 2014. The predominant narrative is that the group originally had the goal of enforcing sharia law in the province but became armed when it encountered resistance in local religious structures and escalated the confrontation. However, with very little supporting evidence, it is widely proclaimed a violent extremist Islamist phenomenon, with some links to foreign jihadists, though not necessarily directed by them, and training from groups in Congo, Kenya and Somalia. Also, it is claimed that the group finances its activities through illegal mining and contraband.
The Mozambican authorities also prescribe to this theory and in December prosecutors named a South African and two Tanzanians among leaders of a jihadist group. Authorities claim the group’s intent is to form an independent state. In court documents, the prosecution said the group faces charges of murder, crimes against the state and inciting civil disobedience among other offences. In October, legal proceedings began against some 200 suspected jihadists claiming all “confessed that the group intends with their armed actions to create instability and prevent the exploitation of natural gas in Palma, and later create an independent state.
However, other observers see the group’s political agenda with roots in the socio-economic plights of the province. According to Joseph Hanlon of the London School of Economics, al-Sunnah formed in 2015 when groups of street traders, joined by economic frustration and radical Islam, urged people not to pay taxes or send their children to state schools, and attacked mosques to shake up the local Muslim community. This group is described as marginalized, many originally migrated to the area, and with little economic opportunities. The new mineral and gas boom could be igniting local discontent.This coupled with smuggling and religious networks, have provided these poorly educated and marginalized youths with the fuel to oppose to what they see as a corrupt state.
What’s at stake?
The province is near to one of the world’s biggest untapped offshore gas fields and the rise in violence is threatening this booming opportunity. Companies such as Anadarko and Eni are investing some $50bn (around four times Mozambique’s annual GDP) in the region to exploit gas reserves found in 2010. Also, the British firm Gemfields, will mine what is said to be the world’s biggest ruby deposit. Last year it was reported that London-listed explorer Wentworth Resources had not been able to gain access to its onshore licences due to safety concerns since the attacks. Also, last year Anadarko apparently suspended work on its natural gas project due to the insecurity.
The government has responded with a heavy hand. On June 2, 2018 police forces killed nine members of al-Sunnah and on Aug 16 security forces killed at least four more. This is after President Filipe Nyusi vowed to be “relentless and firm in neutralizing those responsible” for the attacks, but said he had instructed his security force in Cabo Delgado not kill anyone – “If you catch these youths, don’t kill them. They are Mozambicans and have been turned into instruments. They’ve been given orders by people who don’t want the development of this country and this province.” The authorities have also closed and even destroyed mosques believed to be owned by fundamentalist groups. Mozambique’s parliament even approved a bill that would punish acts of terrorism with jail terms of up to 24 years. Human Rights Watch has accused the government of abuses as result of the crackdown. In December, Justice Minister Joaquim Verissimo claimed the security situation is now “under control” and not did describe the group as insurgents, merely calling them criminals.
Creating the Next Boko Haram?
So far, the government’s response can only be considered a shortsighted response to a much more complex issue. Without fully understanding who these youth are and their plights, they risk further marginalizing them and the broader communities in Cabo Delgado. If the country wants to benefit from the economic growth in the region it must ensure inclusiveness in its development and benefits. Reports have already emerged of exclusion in the gas job market and ruby-related land grabs. A tough security crackdown is not the solution to address the deeper roots driving the problem.As Eric Morier-Genoud of Queens University Belfast compares Cabo Delgado to north-east Nigeria during the early days of Boko Haram, heavy-handed tactics will only help transform al-Sunnah into a much more deadlier terror group.
Image: Image: LLL (link)
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