How should the EU respond to Mozambique’s civil war?


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Joseph Hanlon
Joseph Hanlon

Visiting Senior Fellow in International Development at the London School of Economics and Editor of Mozambique News Reports and Clippings

The civil war in Cabo Delgado, in Mozambique’s northeast, escalated rapidly last year with 1,728 people killed and 520,000 people displaced – virtually clearing the population from seven war-affected districts. Mozambique’s government has appealed for military help from Europe and has hired the services of a private military contractor, Dyke Advisory Group (DAG).

As a representative of the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Policy, Josep Borrell, the Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augusto Santos Silva, went to Mozambique. On 3 March, Santos Silva said he wants the EU to provide military training.

But is military support the right intervention from the EU? Amnesty International, in a devastating and detailed report published on 2 March, “documents violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes, by all sides of the conflict”. It says insurgents “commit heinous acts of violence”, government forces “have conducted extrajudicial executions”, and the DAG have attacked civilians from helicopters, apparently including dropping Syria-style homemade barrel bombs.

The government portrays this war as Islamic State (IS) terrorism, which it wants to defeat militarily. IS is the current global enemy, and Mozambique hopes that alone will lead to unquestioning external military support. But Amnesty stresses that the insurgents are “primarily a home-grown armed group fighting over local issues, an insurgency sparked by the long-term under-investment in the Muslim-majority province by the central government. The group uses jihadist ideology as an organizing tool. […] The armed group remains largely a local organization, with local concerns, that has pledged loyalty to an outside umbrella group.” That view is supported by most local researchers.

The gas and minerals brought wealth to a tiny elite, with fancy cars and houses, but few local jobs; thus, poverty increased

Cabo Delgado is 1,700 km from the capital city of Maputo and became the forgotten province with increasing poverty and inequality, poor health and education, and no jobs. But after 2005 it also became the richest, following the discovery of rubies and one of the largest gas fields in Africa, with investments projected at more than $50bn. The two gas developers moving toward production in the next three years are European: Total (France) and ENI (Italy).

The level of poverty is extreme. Farmers use only basic hand tools, mainly a hoe. It is hard, backbreaking work that does not produce enough food. After independence in 1975, the new government put stress on education. As in many other countries, there are now people with primary schooling and basic literacy, who consider themselves more educated than their peasant parents, but who cannot find jobs. The gas and minerals brought wealth to a tiny elite, with fancy cars and houses, but few local jobs; thus, poverty increased. Indeed, thousands of people have been pushed off the land by mining and gas companies.

The coastal zone is populated mainly by the Mwani and is Muslim, with centuries-old links to Zanzibar and the Swahili coast. The higher inland area is mainly populated by the Makonde. They were together in the liberation war, and the liberation movement Frelimo became the government which remains in power. But the Makonde have taken key posts and power in Cabo Delgado. The giant ruby mine is part-owned by a Frelimo oligarch who was a Makonde leader in the liberation war and is now a member of Frelimo’s ruling Political Commission.

After 2010, militant Islamic preachers gained followers by saying that Frelimo was stealing the wealth of the province and that Sharia law would lead to a fair distribution of wealth. They formed an insurgency with local leadership and launched the first attack in the port town of Mocimboa da Praia in 2017. Only a year later did they make links with the IS.

But Mozambique will not be helped by EU assistance to escalate the war

But as Amnesty stresses, this is “primarily a home-grown armed group fighting over local issues”, mainly the way the elite has captured the resources and left local people poorer and with less land. The European gas companies have done too little in the way of local training and job creation. On 1 January, the insurgents literally reached the gates of the Total construction camp on the Afungi Peninsula. Total pulled out most of its workers – and said the government was responsible for protecting the site. This led to the government appealing for EU military help.

But Mozambique will not be helped by EU assistance to escalate the war. The local grievances are real. The only way forward is for the EU to put pressure on its own mining and gas companies, and on Frelimo, to share the resource wealth and ultimately reduce the poverty of Cabo Delgado. Too many young men feel their only choice is to go to war. The EU should use all its power to promote an economic alternative to young people, and not arm and train them to escalate the war.

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