Conflict Alerts # 355, 31 March 2021
In the news
On 29 March, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the week-long siege over Palma, a town in Mozambique's Cabo Delgado province. On 30 March, the International Organisation for Migration said it had tracked "3,361 internally displaced persons (IDPs), 672 families, arriving by foot, bus, plane and boat from Palma" to other districts in the province. According to the IOM, more than three-quarters of those who escaped the violence were women and children. Though initial media reports suggest that dozens have died over the week, the exact number of casualties is unknown.
On 24 March, armed men took over Palma in a coordinated raid attacking from several points. Many civilians escaped by boats, and others took refuge in a hotel; however, many, including foreign nationals, remain unaccounted. The government spokesperson said, "A group of terrorists sneaked into…Palma and launched actions that resulted in the cowardly murder of dozens of defenceless people."
Issues at large
First, the continuing instability and displacement in the province. The instability in the Cabo Delgado began in 2017. Initial attacks targeted government officials and security forces. However, over time, civilians were targeted; some were beheaded. As of March 2021, the UN estimates that at least 670,000 people have been displaced and more than 2,000, including security officials, killed since 2017. On 22 March, some UN officials said if the problem is left unaddressed, then the number of IDPs would reach one million by June.
Second, the local group - al Shabaab and its links with Islamist extremists. Al Shabaab, though is a local group, it identifies itself as the Al-Sunna wa Jama'a (ASWJ) and submits allegiance to the IS. Though the IS has also claimed several attacks, it is challenging to verify the claims.
Third, the government's ineffective response. So far, the government has responded with military operations and has also signed contracts with private military companies to quell the instability. Amnesty International suggests that along with the armed group, the government and the private company have committed war crimes claiming that innocent civilians were being detained and killed by security forces.
Fourth, the socio-economic grievances in Cabo Delgado. The province has attracted foreign companies, including ExxonMobil and Total, because of its gas reserves. However, the local population, especially the youth, opine that the foreign presence has not yielded any benefits to the province compared to other provinces. Further, Cabo Delgado is underdeveloped and is characterized by high illiteracy, subsequent unemployment, lack of access to healthcare, and the like. This has fuelled the anti-government sentiment amongst the local population.
First, the latest attack is a reflection of the government's failure in intelligence as well as its response. It also shows that the government ignoring the increasing frequency and gravity of attacks against the civilians has emboldened the extremist group.
Second, the instability also is rooted in the government's failure in ensuring basic social necessities. While religion could be an element, it is not the only feature shaping the unrest. Therefore, the government and international community covering the issue should look beyond the Islamist extremism and instead focus on addressing the grievances of the people.