A poorly understood insurgency is spreading in Cabo Delgado, a province in northern Mozambique. So far the conflict has killed more than 1,000 people, aid workers estimate, and forced at least 100,000 to flee their homes. Recent weeks have seen some of the boldest attacks yet. Young men with guns and Islamist slogans are not merely burning villages and beheading people. They have also started to capture towns, albeit temporarily, slaughtering government forces and then retreating to the bush.
On March 23rd they briefly overran Mocimboa da Praia, a transport hub near what may be Africa’s largest-ever gas project. The huge reserves off the coast of Cabo Delgado have attracted pledges of investment worth tens of billions of dollars from multinational firms. Gas gives Mozambique the hope of a more prosperous future—but also a prize worth fighting over. Already insecurity, as well as covid-19 and low oil prices, are slowing exploration. If Mozambique wants to realize its dream of becoming “Africa’s Qatar”, it must pacify Cabo Delgado.
The government’s counter-insurgency tactics are inept, too. It has so far relied on ill-trained conscripts, thuggish police, and Russian mercenaries. It has rounded up young men on the flimsiest evidence and beaten or summarily shot them, according to Human Rights Watch, an NGO. Such brutality alienates the population. It has locked up journalists who report on the conflict and threatened aid workers who air grievances. This constricts the flow of accurate information. A better approach would involve properly paid and trained troops, who speak local languages and respect human rights, as well as schemes that deal with the province’s poverty and inequality.
Neighbors, especially South Africa, the biggest regional power, and Tanzania, which borders Cabo Delgado, should press the Mozambican government to behave better. They should also share intelligence with it. Right now they are preoccupied with COVID-19, but the insurgency will probably outlast the pandemic. A summit about Islamist violence scheduled for May should go ahead, albeit virtually. Western countries should tell Mozambique to let aid agencies and journalists do their jobs.