Once considered a bright spot in Africa for its economic potential and the resolution of its decades-long civil war, Mozambique’s setbacks in recent years have raised concern among U.S. policymakers. The emergence of an insurgency linked to the self-proclaimed Islamic State—also known as ISIS—in the northeastern Cabo Delgado Province, an increase in dramatic climatic events, and the growing humanitarian crisis linked to both trends have garnered international attention and rallied help from Mozambique’s partners. Underpinning the growing crises are a variety of interdependent factors, such as weak governance and corruption, that are likely to worsen the situation and further undermine regional stability. Indeed, Mozambique’s ranking in the Global Fragility Index has been steadily declining since 2014. In recognition of these developments, the United States designated Mozambique as a priority country for support under the Global Fragility Act (GFA).
GFA legislation directs and funds the Department of State (DOS) to establish an interagency initiative to “stabilize conflict-affected areas and prevent violence globally.” DOS identified four countries and one region—Haiti, Libya, Mozambique, Papua New Guinea, and coastal West Africa—as recipients and is required to develop a ten-year implementation plan for each. In the case of Mozambique, the United States can take several steps to reduce conflict in the region, such as expanding climate-change resiliency programs and advocating for human rights within the security services. This decade-long approach in Mozambique is necessary to address the complex, interrelated drivers of instability there.
Sources of Instability
Mozambique’s complex security challenges are on track to become enduring threats, straining limited domestic and regional response capacities. These sources of instability include the following factors:
Limited political space is available for countervailing voices, owing to the dominance of the Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) since the country’s independence from Portugal in 1975. Even with the introduction of multiparty elections in 1994, FRELIMO continues to win majorities in the legislature and retain the presidency, leading to widespread allegations of electoral fraud and undermining the government’s domestic legitimacy. The most recent presidential and legislative elections in 2019 were marred by violence, including allegations that police participated in the assassination of an independent election observer.
Further, the implementation of constitutional reforms passed in 2018, intended to decentralize power and create space for opposition parties, has largely stalled. Those reforms, which were part of the peace agreement between FRELIMO and former rebel group Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), permit the party that wins a majority of seats in each provincial assembly to select the provincial governor. However, the reforms authorized the president to appoint a secretary of state, potentially constraining the de facto authority of an opposition governor. Since the onset of the insurgency in Cabo Delgado Province in 2017, government restrictions on press freedom and harassment of journalists reporting on the conflict have further limited media and speech that criticize the ruling party.
Corruption is endemic after FRELIMO’s decades-long control over government institutions and politics. The party’s dominance broadly limits internal accountability measures, contributing to a pervasive environment of patronage networks and corruption. Displaced people in Cabo Delgado Province have accused local leaders of corrupt practices in the distribution of food aid, while police have been accused of colluding with kidnapping rings targeting business elites.
The “hidden debt” scandal that broke in 2016, in which government officials illegally issued loan guarantees for a multibillion-dollar loan to three enterprises indirectly linked to the state, is the most high-profile example of the harm government abuse and corruption have caused. Investigations revealed that $200 million of the total loan amount was paid in bribes to government officials, while the remaining money was unaccounted for. As a result, international financial institutions restricted Mozambique’s access to concessional lending and foreign investors became more cautious about doing business in the country, while bilateral budgetary aid came to a halt. Mozambique’s economic growth dropped by half, inflation rose to 17 percent, and the country’s debt increased to 104 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP). The economic stress pushed an additional two million people below the poverty line, increasing competition for limited resources.
Climate change threatens Mozambique’s economy, food systems, and internal migration. The 2021 Global Climate Index assessed Mozambique as the African country most vulnerable to climate change, reporting that its GDP fell 12.9 percent in 2019, with $4.9 billion in losses due to cyclone activity. At the same time, Mozambique came in as the thirteenth least-prepared country worldwide [PDF] to manage the consequences of climate change.
Indeed, with 70 percent of the population dependent on farming, a World Food Program study of potential scenarios for Mozambique in light of climate change trends indicates the country will likely experience declining food security over the next thirty years. Rising temperatures, particularly in the south, will likely result in more drought-like conditions, while flooding to the north could devastate farmland. Compounding this problem will be the widespread displacement of populations in the hardest-hit areas, potentially bringing them into conflict with host communities. In 2022 alone, over nine hundred thousand people were affected by three cyclones that made landfall in the Nampula, Tete, and Zambezia provinces. Among those affected by Cyclone Gombe, which hit in March 2022, were over seven hundred thousand people sheltering in a displacement camp, who subsequently turned to the host community for assistance.
Economic inequality exacerbated by FRELIMO’s political dominance has generated resentment among many Mozambicans who perceive that government policies enrich elites rather than the country as a whole. Government moves to formalize the mining sector in the north, for example, displaced artisanal miners and consolidated control of these enterprises among FRELIMO elites. This grievance contributed to the insurgency in Cabo Delgado Province. Economic pressures brought on by climate change, commodity price shocks, and domestic security issues will likely reinforce these economic disparities. Kidnapping for ransom has emerged as a chronic, albeit sporadic, issue undermining the business community in southern and central Mozambique. Communities living near mining projects in Tete Province have repeatedly staged protests over displacement and lost access to rivers, while communities operating near a military base in the same province came into conflict with authorities over their rights to use the land. Host communities and displaced populations have similarly come into conflict over access to farmland as shortfalls in food aid compel more people to find alternate sources of food. These communal conflicts could worsen as violence and climatic events reduce the availability of farmable land.
A tense relationship between the state and citizens has emerged due to the combination of limited political space, corruption, and economic pressures. Anecdotal reporting indicates Cabo Delgado’s residents turn to Rwandan Defense Forces (RDF) deployed to combat the insurgency for assistance instead of the Mozambican security forces. Indeed, at times these civilians have sought RDF protection from the Mozambican military. In Sofala Province, people affected by storms have speculated the government has not released sufficient relief funds because of their affiliation with the opposition party.
Instability Coalesces in Northern Mozambique Conflict
The significance and interconnectedness of these sources of instability is most evident in the insurgency in Cabo Delgado Province, which has emerged as the country’s highest-profile security threat and caused massive displacement, economic disruption, and the introduction of jihadism into southern Africa. This conflict first erupted in October 2017, when a group of youths attacked three police stations in Mocimboa da Praia to free their detained fellows. A movement with roots in the Mweni community of coastal Cabo Delgado, al-Shabaab—as the group is locally called, though is also known as Islamic State-Mozambique—leveraged widespread discontent over economic and political marginalization to quickly expand beyond its geographic and ethnic base. The group’s limited public statements have focused on criticizing the government for corruption and using the hard work of the Muslim poor for self-enrichment. These critiques extended to local religious leaders, whom early members of al-Shabaab viewed as corrupt and allied with the FRELIMO government, benefiting financially from the government’s patronage network even as youth in the region struggled economically.
The government’s own missteps in responding to the growing violence, including human rights abuses, further facilitated the group’s development, incentivizing new recruitment and providing little resistance to the group’s evolution. Al-Shabaab’s affiliation with the Islamic State likely enhanced the group’s capacities and brought the additional prestige of being a recognized part of the broader jihadi movement. Indeed, at its peak, the group was active in ten of fifteen districts in Cabo Delgado; controlled Mocimboa da Praia, an important port town in the province; and had overrun Palma, another major town in the province that served as a base of operations for the $20 billion natural gas exploration project in the region.
The deployment of police and military forces from Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community in 2021 helped shift momentum away from the insurgents on the battlefield but did not reduce the group’s will to fight. These foreign interventions largely pushed the group out of its coastal base, giving the upper hand to the government in the Mocimboa da Praia and Palma districts. However, fighting has continued in other parts of the province. Although the insurgents lost the geographic dominance they once had, they continue to destabilize the region and prevent the free movement of goods and people. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) in July 2022 estimated over 946,000 people were displaced in Mozambique—a 21 percent increase since February 2022—due to escalated fighting in areas of Cabo Delgado that had previously not seen conflict. Indeed, much of this migration was deliberate. The insurgents actively encouraged civilians to leave combat areas, warning them in advance to evacuate and even paying to transport elderly civilians on occasion.
The IOM estimates about 70 percent of the displaced have found accommodation with host communities—an act that local and international media initially praised for its generosity—but that situation has devolved into tension over scarce resources and humanitarian aid benefits. Over one million people in Mozambique depend on humanitarian assistance, according to United Nations data, but persistent funding shortfalls have translated into limited food and medical assistance. Climate change has compounded the humanitarian and economic harm of this violence in northern Mozambique. This region experienced the worst cyclone in Mozambique’s history in 2019, destroying 80 percent of homes in a single district and adding hundreds of thousands to the number of those already displaced by violence.
The economic cost of such massive displacements and rampant infrastructure destruction will likely take years to recover. The Confederation of Economic Associations of Mozambique (CTA) reported in April 2021 that more than 1,000 businesses shut their doors and 198,000 jobs had been lost since the conflict started in Cabo Delgado. Following TotalEnergies’s 2021 decision to pause liquefied natural gas (LNG) exploration activity, the CTA further estimated in May 2021 that the halt to the project had caused $148 million in losses to local businesses involved in supply chains related to LNG exploration. Mozambican government officials have estimated it will cost at least $300 million to rebuild destroyed and damaged infrastructure, a priority for the government.
The trajectory of the conflict in Cabo Delgado will likely depend on how the government defines the root causes of the conflict and how it develops and implements an appropriate response, along with the insurgents’ capacity to continue destabilizing the region. FRELIMO elites have claimed that this conflict is predominately fomented abroad by individuals seeking to disrupt LNG development. As a result, the government has focused largely on eliminating fighters and their capacity to fight, rather than addressing the domestic drivers of the conflict. The government’s focus on clearing and stabilizing areas along the coast while conflict continues in the interior risks reinforcing the narrative that the state favors its economic interests over the general good of Cabo Delgado’s citizens.
Indeed, grievances against the state will most likely worsen as issues of political and economic marginalization grow. Reports of corruption in the distribution of limited aid supplies and ongoing issues with the security services’ human rights abuses will reinforce the insurgents’ message about a corrupt and indifferent FRELIMO government. The reactivation of ex-FRELIMO fighters from the independence era to serve as local militias in support of government operations has the potential of reinforcing perceptions of corruption as these groups receive additional pay and access to resources as a result of their service.
The insurgency’s capacity to act as a destabilizing force in the region will likely depend on their relationship with the locals and their ability to manage a changing battlefield environment. If al-Shabaab continues to exploit socioeconomic marginalization, it will likely rally new recruits and sympathizers. The insurgents adapted to the expanded military presence in Cabo Delgado by breaking into smaller groups and spreading out the battlefield space, even running attacks into RDF areas, suggesting the group is seeking to prolong its fight.
Implications for the United States
As a longtime partner and the largest bilateral aid donor to Mozambique, the evolution of these sources of instability has the potential to undermine U. S. interests in the region.
- Humanitarian Assistance. Insecurity in Cabo Delgado and climatic events throughout the country have led to massive displacement, making 13 percent of the population dependent on humanitarian aid as of April 2022. The World Food Program, a central implementing partner for the United States, has made repeated appeals for assistance in meeting this demand, a call that will become more acute and require more U.S. resources as displacement grows.
- Commercial Interests. U.S. investment in Mozambican gas projects could make the United States the largest private investor in the country. The U.S. International Development Finance Corporation in 2020 approved investments of roughly $1.8 billion in these projects, while the Export Import Bank in 2021 approved a $4.7 billion loan. In addition, demand for U.S. exports in connection with gas exploration will likely increase as development gets underway.
- Regional Instability. Although U.S. citizens have not been targeted in insurgent attacks or kidnapping operations, the disruption to stability and commerce resulting from these security trends has secondary effects on U.S. interests. The relationship between the insurgents and the Islamic State increases the risk of al-Shabaab developing more sophisticated attack capabilities and strategies. The violence and purposeful destruction of infrastructure in the group’s areas of operation undermine U.S. investment in health and education.
Challenges and Approaches
Managing Mozambique’s intersecting security risks requires a comprehensive strategy that goes beyond responding to immediate crises, instead addressing the underlying drivers of insecurity nationwide. The GFA proposes to support a lasting strategy, honing in on those issues that require sustained funding and focus. However, the United States faces two potential pitfalls in implementation.
Perhaps the most significant challenge is defining FRELIMO’s role in the consultation and implementation process. Multiple U.S. and Mozambican experts have voiced concern over the prospect of FRELIMO co-opting GFA funding and programs, a sensitivity that will likely become more acute as the FRELIMO party congress and national elections approach. Indeed, the media often portrays infrastructure projects, for example, as a FRELIMO initiative rather than the national government as a whole. This concern over excessive FRELIMO influence in GFA implementation extends to the selection of local partners given the widespread perception that FRELIMO’s reach extends well into civil society.
Closely related to managing FRELIMO’s role will be ensuring popular buy-in for GFA programs. Some local observers claim that civil society has already been excluded from the GFA process. This line of criticism argues that Mozambique’s inclusion as a GFA priority country was done without prior consultation with civil society organizations and likely resulted from a bilateral arrangement between Washington and Maputo. Critics further posit that Mozambique’s inclusion was simply part of the broader U.S. effort against the Islamic State, and that absent the relationship between the Islamic State and al-Shabaab in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique would most likely have been excluded from the GFA.
In light of these potential pitfalls, the process by which this policy is developed is as important as the substance. An effective approach to implementing the GFA should include the following steps.
Initiate well-publicized consultations with highly regarded civil society groups and leaders. To protect the credibility of the initiative, GFA implementers need to quickly dispel the notion that GFA is another tool for FRELIMO to build its wealth and power. Conversations with civil society throughout the country and the inclusion of marginalized and displaced communities in these conversations would likely help underscore the purpose of the GFA as a means of mitigating against future instability in service of all Mozambican people.
Enlist and coordinate with bilateral and multilateral partners. International attention to Cabo Delgado Province specifically has drawn an array of public and private sector actors to Mozambique, but Maputo has not set up an effective coordinating body to manage this increased involvement. Policymakers should work to minimize the risk of duplicating the efforts of other partners and find new opportunities to collaborate to maximize the influence of the GFA’s relatively modest budget.
Leverage preexisting relationships with local actors. As programmatic decisions are made in consultation with the communities that will benefit from GFA programs, policymakers should take advantage of preexisting relationships with local, national, and regional actors to quickly identify partners capable of managing increased funding and programmatic responsibilities to successfully implement these programs.
Take advantage of U.S. government area experts. U.S. governmental personnel with linguistic and area expertise who can build personal relationships with both the donor community and Mozambican authorities will help sustain momentum and focus on these issues. A vital component will be the ability to bridge the gap between Mozambique’s regions, elevating the urgency of developing security situations that are likely not yet priorities to Maputo elites. Indeed, the deep cultural, historical, and linguistic divide between southern and northern Mozambique plays an important role in how the conflict in northern Mozambique is managed domestically. Mozambique’s predominately southern security services are at times perceived by Cabo Delgado’s civilians as foreigners, given their lack of local language ability and understanding of the region. Conversely, Rwandan soldiers reportedly have developed a healthy rapport with locals in Cabo Delgado, in part because they can better communicate with them than their Mozambican counterparts.
The GFA provides U.S. policymakers with a unique opportunity to develop and sustain a lasting approach to the sources of instability in Mozambique and to mitigate the damage these issues are already doing to the country. Addressing some issues, particularly as they relate to the grievances fueling the conflict in northern Mozambique, will require a fundamental shift in the mindset of Mozambican elites, who have resisted accepting the domestic nature of this conflict. Indeed, in June 2022 the Council of Ministers approved the Program for Resilience and Integrated Development in the North, the government’s official development strategy for the Cabo Delgado, Nampula, and Niassa provinces. However, the document minimizes the role of economic inequality and political marginalization in fueling the conflict in that region, focusing instead on increasing state capacity to provide services and reassert its authority. Policymakers therefore—in partnership with other donors and local actors—should consider programs that contain provisions to directly empower local populations and build resiliency against enduring challenges.
Promote demobilization programs. Maputo needs to design and implement an effective demobilization and reintegration program in northern Mozambique to provide fighters with a more profitable alternative to staying with the armed group, much as it has done with RENAMO. Although the implementation of RENAMO’s demobilization process has faced challenges in meeting the financial requirements laid out in the peace agreement, it could nonetheless serve as a basis for developing a similar program in the north. Mozambican media has occasionally reported on insurgents seeking to leave al-Shabaab, but absent a means to demobilize and reintegrate, their departure from the group could be short-lived. As the militia presence in Cabo Delgado grows, preparing for their eventual demobilization will also be important to ensuring lasting stability. The designation of this armed group as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department in 2021 will restrict the ability of the United States to fund such a program, but policymakers could nonetheless advocate for its creation and collaborate with other partners in design and implementation.
Double down on climate change−mitigation programs. The Mozambican government has developed proposals to mitigate the effects of climate change but has been slow to move forward on them, reportedly due to funding constraints. Working with local actors to identify needs and programs to help build resiliency could help offset the government’s own slow and uneven implementation of these programs. Indeed, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has already launched programs in Beira Province to support climate-smart agriculture, for example. Furthermore, the government’s interest in this issue could encourage greater diplomatic efforts at pushing for better implementation of government-led programs.
Push for human rights development within the security services. Although the GFA is intended to support non-kinetic approaches to conflict, programs supporting the development of human rights practices and a military justice system will be important to rebuilding public confidence in the Mozambican military and police. Years of human rights abuses by the security services in Cabo Delgado Province while combating the insurgency, combined with reports of complicity between the police and organized crime, have broken what little trust existed between the public and the security services. Indeed, anecdotal reporting indicates that Rwandan military forces have intervened in instances where Mozambican military personnel have been abusing civilians and that locals often turn to the RDF for support in disputes with local security personnel. Close coordination between U.S. and other military trainers to ensure a coherent message about military-civilian relations is included in training modules and could help encourage junior officers to change how they approach and interact with civilians.
Promote psychological recovery and community-building. Providing psychological support to communities that have witnessed or directly experienced violence in northern Mozambique will be an essential component to any strategy aimed at reducing the risk of future violence in this region. Addressing the traumas and psychological needs of children will be especially important in ensuring their reintegration into society and preventing these traumas from creating the basis for future community violence. Over half of Mozambique’s displaced population are children, thousands of whom are unaccompanied, leaving them especially vulnerable to recruitment into armed and criminal groups. The rampant loss of educational opportunities—and the attendant reduction in employment opportunities—risks reinforcing the dynamics currently at play in these conflict areas. Academic, religious, and other nongovernmental organizations are already working in this space, providing a community through which GFA implementors could offer financial support to ongoing programs or find gaps in these efforts that new programs could fill.
Mitigating the risk of increased instability in Mozambique will be essential to managing expanding demands for humanitarian aid, fostering U.S. commercial interests, and protecting regional stability. Indeed, preventing a further decline in insecurity would create space for the United States to shift the nature of its relationship with Mozambique from that of primary aid donor to economic partner. However, successful implementation of the GFA will require sustained funding and the careful navigation of elite interests and public expectations. The GFA’s ten-year outlook positions it not only to help with Mozambique’s immediate security challenges, but also to lay the foundation for a more comprehensive approach to the country’s enduring drivers of insecurity. Policies targeting demobilization, climate change, human rights, and the psychological recovery of civilians traumatized by years of conflict could significantly reduce the threat of instability in Mozambique.
This paper was made possible by the generous support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.