Cyclone Idai and the Nascent Insurgency Movement in Mozambique

By Fahmiya Ismail

Cyclone Idai devastated the coast of Mozambique last month, leading to thousands of civilian casualties, tens of thousands of local residents displaced, and the loss of infrastructure due to flooding. The United Nations described the storm as “one of the worst weather-related disasters ever to hit the southern hemisphere.” With the current flood zone estimated to cover over 3,000 square kilometers (1,200 square miles), the brunt of the storm was felt in the northern port city of Beira in Mozambique’s Sofala province. 

Before Idai’s devastation, Mozambique was already in the bottom ten countries on the Human Development Index (180 out of 189 in 2017), with poorer conditions in the country’s less developed north. In addition to exacerbating poverty, this recent natural disaster also has the potential to accelerate a low-level insurgency movement in Mozambique’s northern regions. In the last 17 months, northern Mozambique, specifically the provinces of Cabo Delgado, Niassa and Nampula, has experienced an outbreak of attacks, including gruesome incidents targeting civilians. Assailants have looted homes and destroyed key infrastructure. A host of grievances in the north, including limited economic opportunities, service provision, and political space, contribute to an ecosystem conducive to armed group violence.

Despite Idai’s destruction and its potential for boosting armed violence, the cyclone also presents the government with an opportunity to address grievances and bolster resilience through reconstruction.

Map of northern Mozambique. Source: Navanti

Map of northern Mozambique. Source: Navanti

Drivers of insurgency in Mozambique

Societal factors: Following independence from Portuguese colonial rule in 1975, Mozambique became an African battleground of the Cold War, and witnessed a civil war between the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) party and its rival, the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), which lasted until peace accords were signed in 1992. Although the next few decades saw a cessation of conflict and economic growth, tensions between the two parties grew into a new low-level insurgency in 2013, and have continued to threaten the fragile peace in Mozambique as a whole.

With a population of over 30 million people, Mozambique is a majority Christian nation with a Muslim minority constituting 20% of the overall population, concentrated primarily in the northern coastal areas. Over time, the southern area, which includes the capital Maputo, has traditionally seen more development while the north has experienced chronic underdevelopment. Differences between the north and south are further exacerbated by continued tensions between historical adversaries, FRELIMO and RENAMO. For example, the FRELIMO party has catered to the predominantly Christian population and is accused of suppressing Islamic traditions in the northern provinces. Opposition party RENAMO moved its headquarters to the northern city of Nampula in 2009.

Port in Maputo, the Capital of Mozambique. Site: Wikipedia

Port in Maputo, the Capital of Mozambique. Site: Wikipedia

Economic factors: Residents of northern Mozambique are experiencing unprecedented rates of poverty relative to the nation. According to a study released in Maputo, the provinces of Cabo Delgado, Nampula and Niassa saw poverty rates increase during the 2014/2015 Household Budget Survey: the number of people living under the poverty line in Nampula rose from 51.4 % to 57.1%, in Cabo Delgado from 39% to 44.8%, and in Niassa it doubled from 33% to 60.6%. The Mozambican Ministry of Economy and Finance explained these figures by pointing to an early 2015 flood that left these three provinces with no electricity for several months. 

As in early 2015, heavy rainfalls from Idai caused disruptions to power, telecommunications, and transportation in northern Mozambique. If the aftermath of Cyclone Idai mirrors the government’s disaster response in the north following the 2015 flooding, we can expect to see a further increase in the number of people living in poverty. The combination of social exclusion and economic disparities, compounded by the destruction stemming from Idai, risks further alienating residents from the national government.  This mirrors a pattern seen elsewhere, in which political, economic, social, and cultural grievances are further triggered by crisis conditions to create a window of opportunity for narratives delegitimizing the government, promoting an alternative authority, or endorsing violence.

Terrain: In the formation of an insurgency group, one of the main factors is favorable terrain. A growing guerrilla movement relies on suitable terrain to mobilize and train recruits, house militants and resources — such as weapons, rations, ammunitions, etc., — plan and launch clandestine operations, as well as rest and regroup. 

In northern Mozambique, the provinces of Cabo Delgado, Niassa and Nampula have several natural and man-made physical structures that are conducive for a group in search of a base of operations. Within these provinces lies an expansive game park and conservation area, forests filled with natural resources — including hardwoods, gem- and mineral-rich geological seams, multiple coves, and beaches along a porous border.

Coast of Lake Malawi on the Mozambican side. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Coast of Lake Malawi on the Mozambican side. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Religious figures fill governance void 

Over the past several years, religious leaders have taken a more active role in governance as the central government’s presence in the region remains limited. Northern Mozambique has experienced growing migration from neighboring Tanzania, including Islamic preachers who were influenced by radical clerics in East Africa, such as Kenyan-born Sheikh Aboud Rogo killed in 2012. These religious clerics have established mosques that preach anti-government ideology, denounce Western education and call for moving away from the existing moderate form of Islam. By 2015, they had capitalized on the long-standing feelings of resentment and marginalization to build up military cells. 

Starting in October 2018, a nascent insurgent movement launched a series of deadly attacks on both state structures and civilians through the northern provinces. These events triggered a large-scale military operation from the federal government, which further exacerbated feelings of marginalization due to the perception that the government was targeting the Muslim population on the whole. State security forces arrested hundreds of locals, closed or destroyed mosques throughout the province, and sporadic clashes between this group and the government forces resulted in civilian casualties.

An opportunity for the government to act

Following the devastation of Cyclone Idai, Mozambique is at a critical moment with the central government’s relationship with its restive northern provinces. Prior to Idai’s landfall, many northern residents suffered from high rates of poverty and unemployment, felt neglected by the government, and were without access to functioning basic services. While nascent, the growing insurgency in the north feeds off of these factors to draw legitimacy and support. But the insurgent movement’s lack of a developed ideology or articulated mandate, coupled with the localized nature of its attacks, demonstrate that this is an emerging movement searching for a foothold within Mozambique. While Idai exacerbated many of the factors contributing to the insurgency, it also presented the government with an opportunity to rebuild the fractious relationship between itself and the northern provinces.

The rebuilding process creates an opening for the government to work with residents to identify pressing needs, coordinate with local leaders to formulate plans for community development, and employ the local population to improve infrastructure and increase job opportunities. In order to prevent an escalation of violence, and preclude the emergence of a full-fledged jihadist movement in Mozambique, the government can no longer afford to ignore the people living in these areas.