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 beheadings, sexual and gender-based violence, sexual slavery, abductions, recruitment of child soldiers and destruction of civilian infrastructure. More than 6,300 people have been killed and nearly 1 million displaced since October 2017. Both Al-Shabaab and government security forces have perpetrated 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 July 2021 regional forces, including troops from Rwanda and members of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), began deploying to Cabo Delgado to assist the Mozambican government in confronting the group. Although the forces have aided the government in regaining control of many cities, insurgent activity has continued, particularly in southern parts of Cabo Delgado.
In early June 2022 insurgents launched an offensive against the Ancuabe, Chiure and Mecufi districts. Since then, attacks in Ancuabe and Chiure have displaced over 83,000 people, mainly women and children. Sporadic raids, characterized by killings of civilians – including beheadings – and burning of buildings, are ongoing and violence has spilled over into Nampula province, displacing 12,000 people in September alone.
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. Despite ongoing violence, the government has been encouraging internally displaced persons (IDPs) to return.
Although the regional offensive initially reduced insurgent activities, populations now face a heightened risk of atrocities amidst renewed attacks. Despite ongoing insecurity, displaced civilians are increasingly returning to their areas of origin in Cabo Delgado.
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 in Mozambique to recruit fighters.
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, RENAMO. Government armed forces also perpetrated war crimes.
The government of Mozambique is struggling to uphold its responsibility to protect and requires continued assistance.
In June 2021 SADC approved the deployment of a standby force to assist Mozambique for an initial period of three months. SADC subsequently extended the mission and in September 2022 revised the operation, shifting away from a force with rapid deployment capabilities to a multidimensional operation with greater focus on peacebuilding and strengthening governance.
In July 2021, following a request by the Mozambican government, Rwanda deployed 1,000 troops and police to Cabo Delgado. According to the government of Rwanda, the deployment was “grounded in Rwanda’s commitment to the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and the 2015 Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians.”
Mozambique’s security forces and their regional partners should ensure the protection of civilians and IDPs in Cabo Delgado and Nampula, including through increasing patrols in areas vulnerable to attack. All government and regional forces must ensure military operations against Al-Shabaab are carried out with strict adherence to international law and utilize tactics that mitigate civilian harm. Neighboring states must respect international refugee law and provide protection to populations fleeing atrocities.
It is essential to provide psycho-social 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.
Authorities should prosecute high-level Al-Shabaab members. The government should more effectively address the local and political roots of the insurgency.