Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 75, 23 April 2020

Mozambique: Islamist militancy intensifies as 52 villagers killed for refusing to join rank-in-file
Meghna Muralidharan

In the news

On 21 April, it was reported (Reuters) that about 52 villagers were killed in Mozambique's troubled northernmost province by Islamist insurgents after they refused to be enrolled in their ranks. The actual killings, however, took place on 7 April and came to light only this week. The killings occurred in Xitaxi village in Muidumbe district in the province of Cabo Delgado which is also the site for multibillion-dollar gas projects by some of the leading oil companies.

Issues at large

In the last few months, a large number of militant attacks have taken place in Mozambique. Refusal to be part of this militant group is the primary reason for this killing. Hundreds of people have been killed, and thousands have been displaced in the last two years in the country. The activities of the insurgent group have increased over the past two years, and in many of the provinces, this group has captured important buildings and marked their territory by hoisting a white flag. However, the government officials have refused to accept such claims despite regular attacks in the country. 

Economic grievances which have soared in recent months following tropical cyclones have forced many young local populations towards terrorism and criminal activities. A large number of radical militant groups have been active in Cabo Delgado in recent years. Of the many active groups, Ahlu Sunnah Wa-jama is responsible for dozens of terror attacks that have been taking place in northern Mozambique. The group is said to be closely linked to the Islamic State; however, like Al Shabab and Boko Haram, the objectives of the militant group is still not clear. The latest attack by these groups, wherein they have relied on speed boats and barricaded main roads, makes this group a rebel force. The capability of this militant group to attack urban centres is no more a surprise. 

The failure of the Mozambique armed force to combat the militant group led to the intervention of troops from the Russian private military company Wagner. The force is deployed since 2019 in Mozambique but suffered several defeats and deaths at the hands of the fighters. Wagner is still deployed in Mozambique, still in the process of reassessing the strength of its opponents. 

In perspective

First, the killing and beheading of the civilian population is a sign of the insurgent groups proving themselves as a parallel entity in Mozambique, an option resorted by most of the non-state actors. Lack of a robust public face has provided a space for this militant group to create their presence in Mozambique.  

Second, as the countries might not be able to focus due to the lockdown, this will create a perfect momentum for the militant groups to grow in Cabo Delgado. High chances of military setback are to be expected in the coming days. However, the Mozambican government can still counter and prevail if it works towards reforming its military and enhances its relationship with the neighbouring countries. Better pathways combined with advanced technology should be adopted. Despite the reformation that Mozambique will undergo, there is a high possibility of a drawn-out struggle for which Mozambique and its partners need to be prepared.

Meghna Muralidharan is currently pursuing her M Phil from Centre for African Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Her area of research is India’s engagement with Africa from an energy security point of view, terrorism in Africa and diaspora politics.

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