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Uncaught Tuna: Against the insurgency, against the state

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Welcome to a new weekly column by Zitamar contributing editor and security analyst Sam Ratner, examining the Cabo Delgado conflict, the future of the Renamo-Frelimo peace, and the human security challenges Mozambique faces day to day.

Interactive map of attack locations


Larger attack markers indicate greater number of victims. Mouse over the markers for details of of the attacks.
Click here for a timeline of the attacks.

Typically, conflicts between governments and rural insurgencies are contests to control civilians. Both sides use promises, persuasion, threats, and punishments to command civilian loyalty, and typically civilians choose to give their loyalty to one side or the other. After all, one thing both sides are offering is protection, a commodity in short supply in a conflict zone.

In Cabo Delgado, however, it seems that many civilians are choosing “none of the above”. On the insurgent side, the past two weeks have produced yet more evidence that most Cabo Delgado civilians are more interested in resisting insurgents than collaborating with them. To start, over a year into the conflict insurgents are still launching attacks to gather basic supplies like food and medicine. The 2 December attack on three young men transporting nuts to Machava, Nangade district is a perfect example of this phenomenon: if the insurgents were able to exert control over civilians in Nangade, they would likely have been able to persuade the men to hand over some or all of the nuts peacefully. Instead, at the end of the attack the three men lay dead.

Civilians have also begun striking back against insurgents on their own. Gruesome photos circulated on social media last week of limbs hanging from trees in Nangade district, the work of a group of civilian vigilantes who, along with some government soldiers, hunted down and killed three alleged insurgents in the district. The vigilantes dismembered one of their victims, leaving his limbs tied to a tree as a sign of their successful hunt. Though soldiers took part in the vigilante mob, reports make clear that it was civilians who called the shots, as they did again a week later when vigilantes captured alleged insurgent Mustafa Suale Machinga in Nangade district.

Civilian leadership in these two apparent anti-insurgent successes underscore the fact that, while insurgents are not succeeding in bringing civilians under their thrall, government forces aren’t faring much better. We got a clear indication of falling civilian faith in the government in October, when Frelimo could only muster 56.64% of the vote in municipal elections in Mocimboa da Praia, despite a substantial military presence in the town. By comparison, Frelimo took 70.29% of the Mocimboa vote in national elections in 2014.

A Human Rights Watch report out this month explains just how bad relations between civilians and government soldiers have become. Eyewitnesses describe soldiers entering villages after insurgent attacks, arresting civilians remaining in the villages en masse, and holding them without charge for over a week. Some of those arrested in this way were killed by government security forces in extrajudicial executions, the report alleges. Other civilians say they were waylaid and beaten by soldiers while simply going about their business.

These arrests, beatings, and killings, in addition to being illegal, neither lead to or reflect effective collaboration between civilians and the state. Despite large-scale efforts to pressure civilians into providing information about insurgents, state intelligence gathering efforts have been largely unsuccessful. The military has only stopped two insurgent attacks in progress since the conflict began (including one this week). Worse, we know from insurgencies throughout history that arbitrary violence against civilians is likely to produce less civilian cooperation with the state, not more.

During Mozambique’s 16-year civil war, anti-rebel militias in the north of the country “formed as a grassroots initiative and were more autonomous … in some cases even substituting for the state army,” according to scholar Corinna Jentzsch. If vigilantism increases without civilian-military relations improving, effective vigilante organisations may end up as the major political winners in this conflict.

When civilians are given an option between insurgents and the state and choose “none of the above”, they are really choosing to pursue greater organisation and autonomy among themselves. The Mozambican government, which seeks to maintain close control over Cabo Delgado, may not like the long term consequences of that choice.

Here’s what happened in the last week in Cabo Delgado:

  • 11 December: Three people were killed and 15 houses burned on Tuesday morning in the village of Nalyandele, Palma district. (MediaFax)
  • 11 December: Another report indicates that the armed forces managed to foil an attack on a place called Rock near Ulumbi, Palma district. (MediaFax)
  • 11 December: Insurgents killed a farmer in his field in Malamba, Palma district. (AIM)
  • 12 December: The last two of more than 100 people detained for involvement in the Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamâ insurgency were questioned by the Cabo Delgado district court in Pemba yesterday. O País reports that the first of Wednesday’s defendants, a former policeman, protested his innocence and also claimed he had been tortured while in detention–allegations corroborated by a recent Human Rights Watch report. The second, a Tanzanian, also denied involvement in the insurgency, saying he had travelled to Mozambique from Zanzibar to fish. The court will hear from other witnesses this week.
  • 12 December: Insurgents attacked the village of Miando, Palma district, burning over 100 houses after wounding a moto taxi driver in the arm during an attempt to stop traffic earlier in the day. Hundreds who fled the attack arrived in Palma town. (Carta de Mocambique)
  • 13 December: Government forces captured eight alleged insurgents in Palma district, but locals interviewed in the press say that the men are civilians who were simply hunting. (AIM)
  • 14 December: Insurgents killed three fishermen in Nfindi, on the border between Mocimboa da Praia and Palma districts. (Carta de Mocambique)

Zitamar is launching a consultancy arm in the New Year, offering bespoke reports, due diligence and other services and analysis on security, energy, business and political challenges in Mozambique. Please contact consultancy@zitamar.com for more details.

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