Uncaught Tuna: Cyclone Kenneth


Edit on 10/5/2019, 17:00 CAT: Since publishing this article, we have learned that the armed government escorts accompanying some aid distributions in Cabo Delgado are made up of armed police rather than military forces. We regret the error and have updated the text.

The full extent of the damage wrought by Cyclone Kenneth is still unknown – as I write this, the death toll stands at 41 and some 30,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged, but both numbers are expected to rise as authorities reach previously unsurveyed areas. The storm hit the conflict zone in Cabo Delgado head on, and a crucial question as the work of aiding the displaced and rebuilding begins is how the conflict will shape the recovery and, in the longer term, how the recovery may change the conflict.

After nearly a month of quiet, the conflict in Cabo Delgado has come roaring back in the wake of the cyclone. Insurgents struck in the area around Macomia town on 3 May, and again in Meluco district on the night of 5 May. The attacks are disrupting humanitarian aid efforts and forcing agencies to make difficult choices about how to reach vulnerable areas. According to an official at an international aid agency, the violence is already causing problems in planning long-distance and overnight travel to deliver aid to cyclone-affected areas in Macomia district. The post-cyclone attacks are too new for aid organisations to put together a clear profile of how the insurgency intends to interact with their efforts on the ground, which has put aid planners on edge.

Different aid providers are taking different approaches to security, with some accepting armed escorts to deliver food and other goods to areas threatened by insurgents, and others declining armed government support in order to uphold the key humanitarian principle of neutrality. Both approaches are understandable. On one hand, emergency aid is needed immediately in places where aid workers’ safety can’t be guaranteed without armed escort, which the police is available to provide. On the other, for organisations that intend to be involved in reconstruction efforts in Cabo Delgado for a long period of time, being seen to be associated with any state security force – much less one that has been credibly accused of major human rights abuses in Cabo Delgado – is a real threat to their long term effectiveness.

Relief as counterinsurgency

In one view, the arrival of Cyclone Kenneth is a major sign of worse fighting to come. Research on what political scientists call “precipitation shocks” in conflict zones broadly suggests that the kinds of heavy winds and flooding brought by Kenneth lead to longer, more intractable conflicts. A study of 273 civil conflicts from around the world found that a major storm in a conflict area is associated with a roughly 40% decrease in the likelihood that the conflict will end within the year, and that the effect is stronger in Africa and Asia than in the rest of the world. Another recent study in the Philippines, a country with a great deal of both heavy storms and civil conflict, showed that not only do conflicts last longer after precipitation shocks, but that they become more violent in the immediate aftermath of major storms.

As the humanitarian response to Kenneth evolves, the decisions aid agencies make about collaborating with Mozambican security services will likely be a major determinant of whether and how those results are replicated in Mozambique. The post-cyclone period has seen a major increase in the amount of national and international resources dedicated to governance in Cabo Delgado, even above the government’s large-scale counterinsurgency deployments before the storm. The process of extending those resources into areas of the province under partial or total insurgent control can itself be a form of counterinsurgency, an attempt to take power over resource distribution out of insurgent hands. For example, interviews with Filipino military officers in the aftermath of typhoons Bopha and Haiyan, which hit regions where the government was in conflict with communist insurgents in 2012 and 2013, suggest that the army was able to severely restrict insurgent recruitment there in the storms’ aftermath by using international resources to boost military deployments as part of relief operations and creating mechanisms for civilians to report food theft and human trafficking within refugee camps.

If the Mozambican security services can find a way to be a credible ally to disaster-struck civilians in Cabo Delgado, then Cyclone Kenneth may provide an opportunity to restore trust between Mozambican citizens and their government and perhaps to strike a blow against the insurgency in the process. Being effective aid providers, however, will require the government security services to vastly improve on their recent record in the province. Aid agency representatives have offered positive reviews of government cooperation in cyclone relief efforts so far, but the tenor of those relationships will be a major indicator to watch going forward as we track the evolution of the Cabo Delgado conflict.

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