In the past half year, northern Mozambique has seen a stark rise in Islamist terrorism. Critics say the government is playing down the issue in order not to scare off foreign investors.
The most recent attacks were brutal and unexpected. At the beginning of June, a group attacked several villages and spread panic in the middle of the night in the oil and gas-rich Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique. Eyewitnesses reported that the attackers burned down houses and massacred residents. "The total amount of houses burned down is 164. In one of the towns the attackers butchered residents with machetes. 20 people died in total," Zenaida Machado of Human Rights Watch told DW in an interview. She recently visited the affected areas in the predominantly Muslim region.
Attacks of this kind have occurred repeatedly in the province over the past months. They started in October 2017, when armed attackers entrenched themselves for three days in the city Mocimboa da Praia. A humanitarian crisis is now looming in the area, Machado says.
The attacks seem to be carried out by the same group. It calls itself "Al Shabab", like the radical Islamist terror organization in Somalia. Due to the name, many people assume the group is made up of Islamists from abroad, especially from neighboring Tanzania. Some analysts also believe there are ties to al-Shabab in Somalia, but there is no evidence for this.
Little experience with jihadist groups
Mozambique has intensified checks on the border with Tanzania. But a complete check on all traffic crossing the border river Romuva is not possible.
Following the recent attacks, 40 predominantly young men were detained as they were attempting to travel to Cabo Delgado. According to police reports, the traders were planning to join a jihadist group. However, human rights groups say there is no evidence for such claims.
For a long time, radical Islamist activities were unknown in Mozambique. Especially in the coastal areas of Cabo Delgado, members of African ethnic groups such as as the Makonde and the Makuwa have been living together peacefully with Arab, Indian and European immigrants.
The investment factor
The Mozambican government also seems to have been caught off guard by the recent wave of violence. In the far-off capital Maputo, the main concern is for the many large-scale projects that have been launched in past years with the help of foreign investors. Large oil and gas deposits, as well as tourism, are supposed to rebalance the budget of the highly indebted country.
Big energy producers such as the US company Anadarko or the Italian ENI have invested billions. European, Brazilian, Indian, Japanese, Chinese and Australian companies followed suit and have now announced further investments. This past week, for instance, Anadarko signed an agreement with the Mozambican government on the yearly export of 2,6 million tons of Mozambican liquid gas.
'Not jihadists, but foreign troublemakers'
"No foreign investor invests in a region where there is warfare," the Mozambican Minister of Industry and Commerce, Ragendra de Sousa, said in a DW interview. However, that is not the situation in the north, he added. “When groups of criminals attack villages with machetes, that is not guerilla warfare, but unrest brought into the country by foreign troublemakers."
Minister of Industry and Commerce, Ragendra de Sousa, is concerned about the effect on foreign investment
According to Sousa, while Mozambican security forces are doing all they can to stay on top of the situation, Cabo Delgado’s sheer size and geographical position make it a difficult region to control.
The silent president
The Mozambican president Filipe Nyusi, who visited Cabo Delgado last week, avoided the topic of the attacks altogether. Even when directly questioned by journalists, he opted to remain silent. This brought criticism that silence cannot be a long term solution.
Martin Ewi, an analyst for the South African Institute for Security Studies (ISS), told DW the root of the issue lies in Cabo Delgado’s population feeling disadvantaged and abandoned by their government. He does not believe that the armed attackers are coming from other countries. “The people feel pushed to the edge. The poverty is immense and the politicians are very rich. Many Muslims want to take their region in their own hands," he said.
Since the incidents, numerous Western countries have issued security warnings for tourists and business people in northern Mozambique. The German foreign ministry has also advised against any non-essential travel in the province of Cabo Delgado, especially in the districts Palma, Mocimboa, and Macomia, where the most severe attacks took place.
The people suffering the most, however, are Mozambique’s civilian population. Eduardo de Almeida, who works as a trader in Pemba, the capital of the province, told DW: “Traders, who obtain their goods from neighboring provinces such as Nampula, are very afraid of the jihadists. They can no longer travel freely through the country and thir business is deteriorating as a result.”
Joao Carlos, Chrispin Mwakideu and Benita van Eyssen contributed to this report.