Ongoing attacks by armed extremists from “Al-Shabaab” leave populations in Mozambique at risk of further atrocity crimes.
Since October 2017 an armed extremist group, known locally as “Al-Shabaab,” has engaged in a violent insurgency in Cabo Delgado, a northern province of Mozambique. Al-Shabaab, which is loosely affiliated with the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, has perpetrated indiscriminate attacks against civilians, including extrajudicial executions, beheadings, sexual and gender-based violence, sexual slavery, abductions, recruitment of child soldiers and destruction of civilian infrastructure. More than 6,500 people have been killed and nearly 1 million displaced since October 2017. Mozambican government forces, which have been attempting to combat the group for years, have also been implicated in extrajudicial executions and other violations of International Humanitarian Law that may amount to war crimes. Fighting between Al-Shabaab and security forces has primarily taken place near Mocímboa da Praia, Palma and other port towns where several major offshore liquified natural gas projects are under development.
In June 2021 the Southern African Development Community (SADC) approved the deployment of a standby force to assist Mozambique in confronting the group. In July 2021, following a request by the Mozambican government, Rwanda also deployed 1,000 troops and police to Cabo Delgado province. Although regional forces have aided the Mozambican government in regaining control of many cities, insurgent activity has continued, particularly in southern parts of Cabo Delgado. In September 2022 SADC revised its operation, shifting toward a multidimensional operation with greater focus on peacebuilding and strengthening governance.
In early June 2022 insurgents launched an offensive against the Ancuabe, Chiure and Mecufi districts in Cabo Delgado. Since then, recurrent attacks in Ancuabe and Chiure have displaced over 83,000 people, mainly women and children. Sporadic raids, characterized by killing civilians and burning buildings, are ongoing in Cabo Delgado, and violence has also spilled over into Nampula province, displacing 12,000 people in September alone. Until the end of 2022 insurgent activity centered on Macomia and Muidumbe districts.
Insecurity in northern Mozambique continues to prevent humanitarian aid from reaching vulnerable populations. At least 1.5 million people in northern Mozambique need life-saving humanitarian assistance and protection.
Mozambique has a history of atrocities stemming from its 1977-1992 civil war, during which approximately 1 million people died. War crimes and crimes against humanity were perpetrated by the armed rebel group, Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO). The armed forces of the ruling Front for Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) also perpetrated war crimes. A peace agreement was signed in 1992, but low-level conflict resumed between the two groups from 2013 and 2018.
In January 2023 a video circulating on social media appeared to show soldiers from the SADC Mission in Mozambique regional force throwing dead bodies onto a pile of burning rubble in Cabo Delgado. The incident is believed to have occurred in November 2022 and may constitute a war crime.
While insurgent activity has decreased since the start of January, sporadic attacks have continued to occur in Cabo Delgado’s Mueda, Montepuez and Meluco districts. Over 300,000 people have returned to their homes after being displaced by the violence. Despite this, large areas of Nangade, Muidumbe, and Macomia districts remain ungovernable and are at risk of attack.
In January Mozambique began its term on the UN Security Council for the period of 2023-2024.
Since 2020 Al-Shabaab has sporadically intensified its attacks in waves of violence. Although the regional military offensive initially reduced insurgent activity, populations faced a heightened risk of atrocities amid renewed attacks in 2022. The recent decrease in insurgent activity coincides with the rainy season, which lasts from November to April. Displaced civilians remain at risk as they increasingly return to their areas of origin in Cabo Delgado despite ongoing insecurity.
The discovery of liquified natural gas off the coast of Mozambique brought hope for a boost to the country’s economy but was accompanied by increased allegations of government corruption and economic impropriety. Al-Shabaab has exploited local grievances and popular discontent over corruption and poverty to recruit fighters.
Mozambique’s security forces and their regional partners should ensure the protection of civilians and internally displaced persons in Cabo Delgado and Nampula, including through increasing patrols in areas vulnerable to attack. All military operations against Al-Shabaab must be carried out with strict adherence to international law and utilize tactics that mitigate civilian harm. Authorities should prosecute high-level Al-Shabaab members. Mozambican authorities and the SADC should investigate the circumstances of the incident of soldiers burning bodies.
It is essential to provide psychosocial support to civilians who were abducted or subjected to sexual violence and to engage in demobilization, disengagement and reintegration efforts for children recruited into conflict. The government should more effectively address the local and political roots of the insurgency.
Neighboring states must respect international refugee law and provide protection to populations fleeing atrocities.
Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies
The Graduate Center, CUNY
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