22 January 2021


Full Report: Mozambique


  • Mozambique-Tanzania security pact will be unable to halt tempo of Islamist militant attacks in Cabo Delgado
  • Militants will be unable to directly threaten LNG facilities, but will target poorly defended towns and villages in effort to stoke anti-government sentiment
  • Government’s unwillingness to accept regional military support suggests militant attacks will extend into Niassa and Nampula provinces in longer term



President Filipe Nyusi said on 11 January that he had reached an agreement with Tanzanian President John Magufuli to set up a joint defence and security committee to tackle the Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province. It comes amid a series of attacks by militants, including one on 1 January on villagers in Quitunda, less than a kilometre from major liquified natural gas (LNG) projects in the Afungi peninsula. Separately, Nyusi appointed Eugenio Mussa, a former defence minister, as chief of staff of the army on 14 January, replacing Lázaro Menete. No reason was given for the move, but it puts a close ally of the president in charge of counter-insurgency operations in Cabo Delgado.


Long neglected by the central authorities in Maputo, Cabo Delgado has been subject to an Islamist insurgency by local al-Sunnah wa Jamaah (ASWJ) militants since 2017. Over the course of the last year, ASWJ has increased the scope of its attacks and extended its presence, capturing the port town Mocimboa da Praia in August and launching a cross-border attack on the Tanzanian town of Kitaya in October. While the group claims ties to Islamic State (IS), IS central does not direct the group’s operations and instead any links to the global jihadist movement are largely informal. ASWJ has successfully extended its capabilities, however, by exploiting local economic grievances and perceptions that foreign investment in the province’s natural gas deposits has brought little benefit to locals. The group has also extorted payments from those living in areas under its control, and engages in the smuggling of heroin, timber and rubies.

Mozambique: Security pact with Tanzania will be unable to halt tempo of Islamist militant attacks in Cabo Delgado


The prospect of security cooperation between Nyusi and Magufuli marks a significant change in attitude towards the insurgency in Cabo Delgado since both have previously blamed the other for failing to contain ASWJ, which has killed over 2,000 people and displaced another 570,000 since 2017. The change was likely brought about by the attack on Kitaya, but given Nyusi continues to insist that insecurity in Cabo Delgado is an internal matter, Tanzanian support will likely be limited to intelligence sharing rather than cross-border military action. Nyusi likely also fears that accepting external military support will undermine his authority and reduce the Mozambican army’s leadership of counter-insurgency efforts, which would further sour Nyusi’s already tense relations with senior army officials. Indeed, South Africa, Zimbabwe and Malawi have all indicated that they would be willing to provide security support, but Pretoria says Nyusi has been unwilling to engage properly on the issue. Instead, the Mozambican president continues to rely on his country’s demoralised and poorly paid military alongside private contractors. However, the appointment of Mussa suggests Nyusi is at least now seeking to gain greater oversight of military operations in Cabo Delgado.


Improved intelligence sharing with Tanzania will provide some benefit, but without external military intervention Mozambican troops will be unable to significantly weaken ASWJ. Instead, Islamist militants in Cabo Delgado will maintain the increased tempo of their attacks over the course of this year. The militants’ limited capabilities mean they will be unable to directly threaten offshore LNG facilities, and instead attacks will focus on poorly defended towns and villages in an effort to highlight the government’s inability to provide adequate security and stoke anti-government sentiment. Meanwhile, military support from the regional bloc, the Southern African Development Community, is unlikely in the next few months, and its inability to reach a common position on the insurgency suggests any regional military force would likely be poorly coordinated. At the same time, the government’s unwillingness to address socioeconomic grievances in Cabo Delgado, its prioritisation of the security of LNG assets over that of local communities, and IS’s enthusiastic promotion of ASWJ’s attacks, suggest militant attacks will extend into neighbouring Niassa and Nampula provinces in the longer term.

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