Simone Haysom

Networks of powerful, politically connected criminal actors have created an enabling environment for an Islamic insurgency in northern Mozambique that is terrorizing local communities and threatening the country’s stability.

Long before the violence began, the locals had been pleading with Maputo to pay attention to their plight. In the sleepy fishing village of Mocímboa da Praia, in the north of Cabo Delgado Province, they said an Islamist group had established itself in the area. They were taking control of the mosques, or establishing their own, they said, and preaching an anti-state ideology and a strict version of Islam at odds with local values.

Muslim and Christian community members alike expressed their concern. They said they believed the group was violent – though, at that point, they conceded, unarmed. Because of their extremist ideology, rather than any obvious signs of their affiliation, the locals call them ‘al-Shabaab’. The government, which controls Mozambique’s largest media company, tried to impose a news blackout on the group’s activities.

The violence in Mocímboa da Praia has escalated rapidly and alarmingly since it broke out in October 2017. The group, which calls itself Ansar al-Sunna, has launched a series of deadly attacks on state structures and civilians. The government has reacted with swift and aggressive operations – interventions that have failed to restore peace to the area.

People who live in these northernmost areas of Mozambique are afraid. Civilians have been targeted by Al-Sunna; hundreds of local men have been arrested by state authorities; whole villages have been displaced by the violence. People are concerned about their future. What if the violence escalates even further? What if Al-Sunna, with its emphasis on violent anti-authoritarianism and an opposition to women’s rights – which are not tenets of local Islamic practices – were to take root in this part of Mozambique? What if this group were to begin attacking oil and gas installations, wiping out revenue that is critically needed by the impoverished and indebted state? And what if these attacks became the pretext for harsh state repression of opposition figures or dissenters?

The Global Initiative’s research in the region has turned up several reasons to be worried about a descent into further instability, violence and repression – research that wasn’t even focused on the Mocímboa da Praia crisis. Instead, we were investigating the integration of criminal economies East and southern Africa. This research looked at the phenomenon of how heroin originating in South Asia has become increasingly transported along a network of routes linking East and southern Africa, from where it is mostly shipped onwards to markets in Europe.

‘Mostly’ is the operative word. Not all of the heroin trafficked along this route finds its way to Europe. A significant share remains in the region, where it is sold in local domestic markets. As a result, Zanzibar and Mombasa have for a long time had high levels of heroin dependency. But, now, a small-scale heroin trade has started to penetrate even remote villages all along the Kenyan and Tanzanian coast, and consignments find their way to inland urban centres – usually in the form of pellets that are mixed with marijuana and smoked.

But the largest market for heroin – and the one that, from anecdotal reports, is growing the fastest, is South Africa, where it has taken root in the poorest communities, even eclipsing ‘tik’ (the local name for crystal meth) in some Cape townships, a critical vector for nationwide drug use.

What does this have to do with an alleged Islamist insurgency in Mocímboa da Praia?

The town and the beaches, coves and other coastal towns south of Mocímboa da Praia have become key landing sites for heroin shipments. These are consolidated and containerized at the deep-water port of Nacala. Mocímboa, we are told, is also a key export point for ivory and other illegal wildlife products derived from animals poached all over the region, because it is such a permeable entry point. Unconfirmed reports also allege that arms are delivered there too.

Aside from any ideological and sociological factors driving the group, Al-Sunna has capitalized on the ease with which illegal activities can be conducted on this stretch of the East African coast. Underlining this point, we have also been told that the group is using camps and routes that have long been used by organized-crime syndicates in Cabo Delgado to evade authorities.

Capitalizing on corruption 

But there is another, less visible, layer that explains why the situation in Mocímboa has deteriorated to the extent it has. The town is not a permeable entry point solely because it is remote and Mozambique is a poor country, lacking the resources for effective security infrastructure. And the major shipments of illicit goods that pass freely through the port of Nacala are not a function of petty bribery.

There are powerful criminal networks operating here with political protection, who have an interest in keeping Mocímboa da Praia under-regulated and controlling the operations of Nacala port. They are able to do this through their ownership of key infrastructure at the port and in the town, and by being able to control the appointment of pliable key officials.

The GI does not believe, as the Lowvelder alleged last week, that ISIS is controlling the drug route. In fact, the reality is sensational enough without involving ‘big brand’ terrorist groups. The real story is that, for over two decades, drug trafficking – and a host of other illicit activities, including wildlife poaching, and smuggling timber and gems – has been allowed to flourish in the north of Mozambique, under full view of the authorities and local inhabitants.

Certain groups have seen to it that the border and ports are permeable to all kinds of contraband. Businessmen, local and foreign, have grown enormously wealthy on the back of this illicit economy, while the local communities have remained, for the most part, desperately poor (though the kingpins have built a few glitzy hotels in a nod to local investment). Investments in licit business – such as oil and gas refineries and rubies – have also been mired in allegations of corruption and abuses by private security forces.

To make matters worse, there is growing political contestation and rivalry in the north of Mozambique – of which the 2017 assassination of the mayor of Nampula is but one, albeit high-profile, symptom. After decades of political domination, the ruling party’s hold on the north is becoming more tenuous and cracks are beginning to show in the arrangements that kept the north stable. The deals that traffickers have struck with old-guard officials no longer look so reliable.

The result is that the market is opening up for other groups to control smuggling routes, and to capitalize on the disaffection of local young men. Al-Sunna has made some inroads in the latter, and may, eventually, muscle in on the former. The people on the sharp end of this are the communities of Mocímboa da Praia and other towns in the region. The ruling elite’s interests in the north mean the government is poorly placed to respond effectively or humanely. The villagers don’t need failed narratives applied to their situation, like the war on terror, or the war on drugs. But they do need us to pay attention.