The internationalisation of the Cabo Delgado crisis

By: Dan Sanaren

The situation in Mozambique is complex. The intersection between historical tensions between political actors, underdevelopment, and large gas reserves created an unprecedented crisis in Cabo Delgado. Yet, July 2021, featured a turning point in the crisis in the Cabo Delgado region. The situation first escalated from a religiously and socially motivated rebellion in 2017 to what has for a long time been considered as a “private war, with multiple Private Military Companies (PMCs) being contracted by the government to fight the insurgents. However, with regional and international stakes in the conflict, multiple foreign interventions in Mozambique took place. The spill over of the local conflict to neighbouring regions, the intensification of violence, coupled with a severe humanitarian crisis and threats to international projects has forced regional organizations and Mozambique’s international partners to intervene. Multiple questions remain regarding international involvement in Cabo Delgado, on their legal values, on their efficiency and the impact they might have on the conflict, as the situation does not seem closer to resolution. 

The Cabo Delgado Crisis and intensifying violence.

In October 2017, after a series of unpopular economic policies that involved the expulsion of artisanal miners from concession deals and ethnic favouritism by President Nyusi, a group of armed men attacked police stations in Mocimboa da Praia. The group, involved in the local “Al-Shabab” – “The Boys” sect – not to be confused with the homonymous movement in Somalia – increasingly grew in membership and in power. While the rebellion was instigated by uncoordinated militant groups, motivated by the social and economic hardships of the Northernmost region of Mozambique, the situation evolved to a small-scale civil war. In the past 4 years the insurgents grew stronger and developed towards a better coordinated structure, able to carry out sophisticated military operations.

The main insurgent group, the Al-Shabab (also referred to as IS-CAP – Islamic State’s Central Africa Province), an Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate, has been expanding its presence throughout Northern Mozambique since its first activities in 2017. Recruitment of foreign fighters, abductions, use of child soldiers, beheadings and a number of violent attacks characterise the group’s modus operandi and are the reason behind its success until now. The attacks of Mocimboa da Praia (August 2020) and Palma (March 2021) were a demonstration of the movement’s force, and they contributed to the internationalisation of the crisis. The two cities are important hubs with the presence of companies such as Total and Exxon. Both host an important foreign population involved in economic activities of those companies. The offensive in Palma resulted in at least 87 civilian deaths, including a high number of foreigners, and at least 40,000 internal displacements. Both cities are now under control of the Mozambican government, as Mocimboa da Praia was successfully retaken by Rwandese and Mozambican forces. Yet, Al-Shabab’s expansionism is affirmed locally, and regionally with Al-Shabab´s involvement in IS-CAP, which unites Somali, Congolese, and Mozambican ISIS-aligned groups. Counter to the notion of a local insurrection, the UN Security Council “observed sophisticated military tactics deployed by ISCAP to cross the Ruvuma River into the southern United Republic of Tanzania, where it attacked Kitaya village in the Mtwara region”, alongside other attacks in the border region.

According to ACLED, as of November 2021 at least 235 acts of political violence were undertaken by Islamist movements in Cabo Delgado since January 1, 2021, with use of firearms, edge weapons such as machetes and Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Overall, more than 3000 people lost their lives, 689 in 2019 and 1,510 in 2020. Due to those threats, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated that roughly 732,000 have been displaced since 2017, making Cabo Delgado the epicentre of an important humanitarian crisis. 

The economic implications of the crisis

With 86% of the population under the poverty threshold in 2008 (against 54.7% nationally the same year), Cabo Delgado is one of the destitute provinces of Mozambique. Yet, until recently, the Northern province was considered one of the most promising for development in the country. In the late 2000s, large deposits of gas and oil were discovered, which attracted foreign companies. Total and Exxon were the leading investors, and, as of 2010, Cabo Delgado was found to hold Africa’s largest reserve of Liquid Natural Gas (LNG): Rovuma LNG Project (led by ExxonMobil, ENI and CNP), Mozambique LNG Project (led by Total) and Coral FLNG Project (led by ENI and ExxonMobil), with a combined worth of $54.7 billion. All of those projects were and are threatened by the conflict, which forced Total to halt its gas extraction in April 2021, shortly after the Palma attack. Exxon’s partner, Galp, also announced a suspension of activities which will remain until Mozambique is able to ensure security in the region. Perspectives of peace through economic development and gas production remain slim in Cabo Delgado. Gas production would allow Mozambique to provide access to electricity nationally and make the country highly competitive on a global scale where LNG is presented as a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. 

Cabo Delgado is a coastal region, with access to commercially strategic and environmentally important marine zones. The Northern Mozambique Channel is a strategic hotspot for international trade and an economic asset for Mozambique. Therefore, the further exploitation of the maritime environment by islamist militants creates an additional threat which affects regional trade. It hosts 30% of global tanker traffic, the aforementioned gas reserves and a large biodiversity with coral reefs and fishing grounds. Access to the Channel allows militants to exploit the coast and maritime spaces. Besides illegal fishing, Al-Shabab has been able to carry out attacks on islands and become involved in global drug flows. Notably Mozambique became an important heroin trade hub. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries, particularly South Africa, are wary of islamist maritime presence, as the latter are engaged in pirate activities. Yet, maritime security of the Channel is porous. Mozambique lacks naval capacity, and so do other states that have access to the Channel. The South African Navy is by far the strongest naval force present in the Channel as the passage is of paramount importance for South African trade. Accordingly, South Africa recently announced the extension of Operation Copper, an anti-piracy mission that has been safeguarding the Channel since 2011. Without proper naval capacities and reliant on foreign presence in its waters, however, Mozambique is left vulnerable to militant’s appropriation and exploitation of the sea.

Towards an international response 

The shift from PMCs towards a multi-actor international engagement signifies a response to the rising fear of Al-Shabab’s diffusion across the territory. With the government’s incapacity to tackle the crisis, regional assistance is provided in the Cabo Delgado region, notably with the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) and the Rwandan forces

On July 15, 2021, the SAMIM was deployed after an Extraordinary Summit was called on 23 June 2021 in Maputo. Mozambique, a member of the Southern African Development Community, is bound by regional treaties which ensure a legal basis for a multilateral intervention. The 1992 SADC Treaty established a security framework which, along with subsequent treaties, provides a strong legal foothold for the SAMIM. The previously described deterioration of security in Cabo Delgado also provides a moral reason for the Regional Economic Community (REC) of the African Union (AU) to intervene, as the protection of civilians and promotion of peace are inscribed in regional and continental treaties. In this regard, 8 AU / SADC countries joined the SAMIM, namely Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia. Their troops are deployed alongside an approximated 2,000 Rwandan soldiers

The Rwandan intervention is of particular political nature: while SAMIM has a well established legal framework, the legal basis for the Rwandan interventions have been questioned. However, Rwanda officially justifies the intervention on the grounds of applying Responsibility to Protect (R2P) provisions which allow for commitment to humanitarian intervention with the use of force. This is merely a political justification which Rwanda employed to receive validation from the rest of the international community in an effort to establish itself as a critical strategic force in Africa. Rwanda does have a particularly successful track-record of peacekeeping and its commitment to an extensive intervention effort in Cabo Delgado is therefore not surprising. Yet, it appears that Rwanda was also strongly encouraged by Emmanuel Macron to intervene during his visit in Kigali, as the interests of Total, a French company, are at stake are in Mozambique.

A number of training and support missions are also taking place in Mozambique: EU countries such as Portugal, France and Spain are training around 2,000 Mozambican special forces, while the USA announced a second Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) in August 2021 to combat the growing instability in the region.

The Mozambican scenario is beginning to resemble other regional cases of overlapping interventions. It can be seen particularly similar to the security situation in Mali where a secession crisis in 2012 developed in a lasting and enduring jihadist effort. Previous crises in Africa and the Middle-East should serve as an example to Mozambique and its partners – the conflict is unlikely to stop with only military interventions and repression of violent manifestations. While foreign interventions are proving to be quite successful, Mozambique’s partners are in need of better coordination. This is evident in the conflicting relations between SADC and Rwandan troops. Mozambique’s regional and international partners also need to help President Nyusi to address the root causes of the conflict. The interventions, as well as actions carried out by Mozambique’s forces must regain the trust of the population. This entails a renewed respect of human rights, by Mozambican, SADC and Rwandese forces, as well as programmes of deradicalization and reintegration of captured militants. It is evident that a military intervention is necessary, yet it should be accompanied by dialogue and amnesty policies to would encourage demobilisation, as well as the establishment of civilian security forces to enforce the state’s governance. Local grievances and socio-economic drivers of conflict should be considered and should be properly addressed by ambitious development programmes. In that sense, Mozambique’s North Integrated Development Agency (ADIN), supported by international organizations, may be an ethnically and politically inclusive project which would guarantee economic improvements for the whole northern population. 


The situation in Cabo Delgado represents an escalating regional threat. The incidents in the past two years demonstrate the need for foreign interventions to support the Mozambican government. Those interventions, while sometimes controversial and uncoordinated amongst themselves, have proven to be vital in stemming the insurgency. Rwanda and SADC have been in that sense efficient, carrying out a series of successful campaigns against islamist militants. However, Mozambique needs to develop its own security capacity, as foreign military interventions can not be carried out efficiently indefinitely, and cannot supplement Mozambican governance. Mozambique also should support in establishing an operational intelligence and counter-terrorist capacity to further limit al-Shabab’s manoeuvres.

As the crisis is highly related to historical socio-economic issues, Mozambique should work to address root-causes of the conflict. To do so, it is important for the Government and President Nyusi to support development projects in Cabo Delgado and properly address the humanitarian situation by giving more freedom to NGOs providing assistance on the matter. By presenting a more ethnically inclusive governance, promoting demobilisation and development, Mozambique remains in a position to avoid the continuation of a costly and already too deadly conflict.

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