For decades Cabo Delgado, in the northern corner of Mozambique, has been the country’s El Dorado, promising billions in natural gas and gemstones but delivering its population only violence and displacement. 50,000 people have fled their homes since March and Mozambique’s neighbours are currently debating sending in regional forces to help defeat militants who seized a strategic port in the town of Mocímboa da Praia last month. Those who have fled Cabo Delgado in the past six months take the total number of people displaced in the region to more than 200,000 (10% of its population) since 2017, when Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamaa launched an insurgency. More than 1,000 people have been killed in the past three years.
Inocência Mapisse, a specialist in oil, gas and mining based in the capital, Maputo, said the Cabo Delgado reserves could transform Mozambique’s agriculture-based economy, but that the government was still not investing in the region or its people.
“If we look at the budget for Cabo Delgado province in the last 10 years, it’s the same in terms of the percentage of the [national] budget. It does not change,” she said. She described it as an El Dorado, promising transformative riches that cannot be accessed because of the fighting over them.
The chaos is caused by Isis-linked militant group Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamaa, known locally as al-Shabaab (though it has no links with the better-known Somalia-based Islamist militant group of the same name).
Cabo Delgado has spent decades underdeveloped. Even past decade’s dual discoveries of $50bn (£38bn) worth of natural gas and rubies that sell for hundreds of millions of dollars brought only misery for local people. More than a fifth of people do not have enough food. Many are forced to seek shelter with relatives and stretch shared resources. Prices for fuel and staple foods such as rice and maize have increased. The fighting this year has seen many humanitarian groups withdraw from the region. Agencies say they can only access some of the worst areas by air, river or sea, and that rural areas have been all but abandoned because of Covid-19.
Over the past 10 years, local people say the government has forcibly removed whole communities from state-owned land after granting ruby, mining and gas exploration concessions to private companies. Human rights campaigner David Matsinhe said that in the absence of government services, people have lost access to the land they relied on for food, shelter and income, due to the expansion of mining and gas extraction, while being deemed unqualified for jobs in these new industries.
“They are not only unemployed, they are also unemployable. They are complaining, they have protested against their expulsion [from the land],” he said. “They are saying … it’s only outsiders who come here to benefit and we’re sitting here watching them.” These grievances had fuelled the conflict more than any influence from international terror groups, Matsinhe said. “When they speak about the radical preacher coming to radicalise young people, they are forgetting that the government has done for the radical preacher about 80% of the job. He just comes to harvest,” he said.
Last year, the British company Gemfields, owner of the luxury jewellery brand Fabergé, agreed a £5.8m settlement over alleged human rights abuses by security personnel with Mozambicans living in Montepuez, Cabo Delgado’s second-largest city,
Amnesty International last week demanded an investigation into videos appearing to show soldiers torturing and beheading detainees.
Jasmine Opperman, Africa analyst at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED), said, “The insurgency is reliant on youth dissatisfaction and discontent with the government. The SADC cannot and must not think that a military intervention, in isolation from a … project to deal with the root causes, will solve the problem.