The worsening crisis in northern Mozambique is a case study in why governance matters. For years, the prevailing narrative about Mozambique was all about peace dividends, economic growth, and the promise of the country’s extraordinary natural resources. To be sure, there were warning signs about endemic corruption, and the growth was never inclusive. But now the headlines are dominated by the fighting in Cabo Delgado, where ISIS-linked insurgents have terrorized the population, killing over 1,500 people, displacing over 300,000, creating a food security crisis, and exposing the profound weakness of the state.
That weakness has been exacerbated by international criminal networks that have been active for many years in the country, establishing deep roots and taking advantage of a political culture that allows the powerful to evade the law. Mozambican officials famously hid secret loans from citizens and international partners, leading to a sprawling scandal that still taints officials at the highest levels. Meanwhile, from the heroin trade to ruby smuggling, crime has become entwined with the state, leaving it both less capable and less trusted.
That environment has proven fertile for violent extremists. Since 2017, attacks from insurgents, known as Ansar al-Sunna, have been growing in frequency and sophistication. The government’s response may well be making the problem worse. Human rights organizations have documented grotesque abuses committed by security services charged with protecting citizens, further alienating the population. The failures of these forces has prompted Mozambique to turn to foreign mercenaries for help; the state simply doesn't have the capacity to provide basic security within its borders.
Meanwhile, Mozambique’s neighbors and international partners are becoming increasingly uncomfortable. The Southern African Development Community, or SADC, has expressed concern but is presently more wary of involvement than of contagion. Multinational firms invested in Mozambique’s natural gas fields wish to secure their investments but find few desirable and capable partners in doing so. But the fragility of Mozambique has been evident for years. Perhaps if, a decade ago, the international community had expended more energy supporting the civil society actors who have been calling attention to these deep-rooted problems—and pressed harder to support solutions—Mozambique today might demonstrate more resilience, and the outlook would be less bleak.