The Mozambican government recently declared an alliance with the Islamic Council of Mozambique (Conselho Islâmico de Moçambique, or CISLAMO) in order to end the insurgency in Cabo Delgado. In a program funded in part by the United States, the government and CISLAMO will work together to counter violent extremist recruiting efforts in northern Mozambique. This alliance, however, might not work as well as the government hopes.
CISLAMO is not an uninterested party to the conflict in Cabo Delgado. Rather, it is one of the institutions the insurgency seems to stand against. The initial conflict that resulted in the assault of Mocimboa da Praia prisons on 5 October, 2017, for instance, grew from a disagreement between members of the Islamic Council and local youth. Yet despite being involved in the conflict, the Islamic Council is often portrayed in the media as neutral experts on religious aspects of the conflict.
The insurgents have not yet been interviewed, and therefore we do not know their identities, religious views, and reasons for turning to violence. However, if speculation from the Islamic Council and others that the insurgents belong to the dissident Muslim movement Ahl al-Sunna is true, the enmity between this movement and the Council started long before 2017 and could seriously hinder CISLAMO’s credibility in countering radicalization in Cabo Delgado.
The Islamic Council was launched in 1981 by Frelimo, with Abubacar Ismael ‘Mangira,’ an Indian from the southern Inhambane region, as its first national head. ‘Mangira’ graduated in 1964 from the Islamic University of Medina and was known as a ‘Wahhabi’, an adherent of a conservative strain in Islam that had long quarrelled with less doctrinaire practice of Sufi Islam, among others. Most Muslims in northern Mozambique are Sufis, and ‘Mangira’ consistently tried to undermine their position in Mozambique. Despite the fact that northern Sufi Muslims, including women, took active part in the anti-colonial struggle and liberation war, ‘Mangira’ consistently portrayed them as collaborators with the colonial regime while positioning himself as an independence fighter.
In the 1980s and early 1990s, young black Muslims, including many from the north, received scholarships to study in Islamic universities abroad with the support of the Council. When they returned to Mozambique, however, most of them became frustrated with the lack of employment and other opportunities. Soon, the Islamic Council itself became the target of their ire due to their perception that the Council’s leadership was accumulating wealth through business dealings with Frelimo and by syphoning funds donated by international Islamic NGOs instead of addressing the situation of ordinary Muslims, in particular in the north of the country. The fact that the Council leadership was largely comprised of Indian mixed-race people from the south created a perception of racial prejudice against Africans and northerners, and this fed into the graduates’ anxieties and dissatisfaction with the Council even further. In 1998, they founded a grassroots movement in northern Mozambique called Ahl al-Sunna or Ansar al-Sunna.
If the youth involved in the Cabo Delgado conflicts are the members of Ahl al-Sunna, their ideological and religious outlook is no different from that of the Council. Both Ahl al-Sunna and CISLAMO could be described as fundamentalists, upholding the primacy of the shari’a–Islamic legal norms–and envisioning the ‘purification’ of Islam in Mozambique from what they consider to be bid’a (Arabic for “abominable practices”), including Sufism, healing and possession rites, and amulet writing, among others. However, Ahl al-Sunna differs from the Council in terms of political orientation. CISLAMO supports the Mozambican state and ruling party, but Ahl al-Sunna abhors the closeness of the Council to Frelimo. Ahl al-Sunna members either support Renamo or they are completely disengaged from political parties, focusing instead on building schools and mosques and generating services locally. The racial and ethnic base of their leadership also significantly diverges from CISLAMO’s. Where Ahl al-Sunna members are mostly black African northerners living within centuries-old Muslim religious communities, the highest leadership of the Council is in Maputo and is mostly Indian or mixed-race. It is possible that Ahl al-Sunna became more radical in the 2000s, while the Council’s position moved towards greater accommodation to the Frelimo government.
The relationship between the Council and the Ahl al-Sunna might have been aggravated recently by the introduction of the extractive industry in northern Mozambique, accompanied by a generalized loss of land and livelihoods, and considerable worsening of the economic and social conditions of the population. As northerners see it, most of the economic benefits from the new industry went to Frelimo and to southern Mozambicans. The Frelimo government has also been accused of corruption in resettling local people. If the insurgents are indeed members of the Ahl al-Sunna movement, the conflicts seem to have emerged out of a local Mozambican intra-Islamic and inter-generational fight between two factions sharing the same religious outlook but with a different political orientation, rather than due to the influence of an outside radical jihadi force with the purpose of imposing shari’a or an Islamic state. If this is the case, the Council appears to be one of the causes of the Cabo Delgado insurgents’ discontent, and it is therefore unlikely that the insurgents would engage with it to end the violence and rebellion.
Liazzat J. K. Bonate is a Mozambican scholar who has taught at the Eduardo Mondlane University, Seoul National University, and currently works at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad and Tobago. She specialises in the history of Africa and Islam in Africa and has done most of her research on Muslim societies of northern Mozambique.
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