By our special correspondent
At the end of 2019 as he campaigned for re-election, President Filipe Nyusi told a rally in his home province of Cabo Delgado that he would “personally end the war”, with an off-shoot of al-Shabaab who, in the past year alone, killed more than 300 civilians.
“We can talk peace, but only if they show themselves,” he said. “But for now they are masked and we can’t see their faces.”He then asked whether anyone in the audience could identify the fighters.”
“No,” came back the roar.
The president may have been honest in his pledge for talks. But some in the crowd had to be lying. Guerrillas armed with guns and machetes slip over the Ruvuma River that marks the border with Tanzania, burn villages, kill locals, then vanish into the community where, it seems, they are fed and escorted back across the border.
The army has responded by arresting hundreds of civilians. Journalists who chase the story are either evicted from the area or accused of “espionage”, and human-rights groups including Amnesty International say state troops have engaged in the torture and murder of those they suspect may be aiding the rebels.
President Nyusi pledged to negotiate with al Shabaab when he can “see their faces”.
But this is Africa, and nothing is simple.
Northern Mozambique is Muslim, converted by Arab slavers who raided the coast from 900AD. The south is Catholic, after almost 500 years of rule by Portugal.
At independence in 1975, the Frelimo party that still dominates the country nationalised all property including mosques and churches. Worship was discouraged, sometimes violently, in line with the Marxist doctrine of founding president Samora Machel.
In the early years of Frelimo rule, churches and mosques were abandoned
With all opposition banned, Christians and Muslims alike turned to Renamo, an armed insurgency fighting for democracy. Renamo is now the official opposition and Frelimo has never won back support of the faithful.
During the civil war (one of several) that ended in 1994, Renamo held most of the rural areas, from the northern border with Tanzania to the outskirts of Maputo in the south. And they reopened the places of worship.
Renamo had been a split within Frelimo and the schism dated to well before independence, with party moderates fearing that Machel and his hardline Marxism would wreck the country.
In power, he rounded up anyone who whispered discontent and sent them for “re-education”. It was escapees — from what were nothing short of concentration camps — who founded Renamo.
With most liberation movements, there was a chain of events before the first shot is fired: oppression, abuse, escape, planning, formation, training and, finally, the fight back.
In South Africa, for example, many soldiers from Nelson Mandela’s armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the People) had spent time in jail or been harassed by the authorities before fleeing to neighbouring states where they joined the guerrillas.
By contrast, al Shabaab appeared to come without warning. At dawn on 5 October 2017, a police station in the village of Mocímboa da Praia a few miles south of the border with Tanzania, was attacked leaving 17 people dead, most of them Muslim. Then the menace was gone. And in just two years it has grown in strength to where the north is now at war with Maputo.
If that first strike was unexpected, it was not without precedent. History is ripe with surprise:
- 7 December, 1941. Japanese bombers hit Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. US forces have no plan to defend the base.
- 6 June 1944. Allied troops storm ashore at Normandy, taking the Nazis off guard.
- In October 1952, Mau Mau fighters in Kenya begin killing white farmers and, more especially, black chiefs aligned with colonial rule. The movement had been written off as a criminal gang, and reports by black police patrols dating back at least two years — of something more sinister in the making — had been ignored in Nairobi
- 25 September, 1964. Led by Samora Machel leads the first Frelimo soldiers across the Rovuma River from their training camp in Tanzania and attack a Portuguese base in northern Mozambique.
- 30 January 1968. Viet Cong fighters take US forces by surprise on the Tet public holiday in South Vietnam. It was psychologically damaging for Washington, and newsman Walter Cronkite who reported live from the battle will later cite it as “the day the war was lost”.
- On 21 December, 1972, guerrillas from the majority Shona tribe fire a Russian-made rocket through the wall of a farm-house in north-eastern Rhodesia marking the start of an eight-year civil war that would put Robert Mugabe in power.
- Two years later, the world wakes to find Turkish troops have invaded northern Cyprus where they remain on the divided island almost half-a-century later.
- 4 July 1976. Israeli special forces rescue passengers from a plane hijacked to Entebbe. Ugandan president, Idi Amin, and the Palestinian hijackers had no idea of the plan.
- 11 September, 2001. A little-known terror group called al Qaeda use commercial planes to destroy the World Trade Center in New York. An enquiry that Osama bin Laden and others had worked on the hit for almost a decade. Some of the hijackers had even gone to flying school in the US as part of the plan.
Invariably, leaders on the receiving end are either unaware of the threat or write it off as irrelevant, with no threat to their hold on power. intelligence is almost always on the ground, often filed by junior staff whose reports are dismissed.
Such was the case with Frelimo.
The demographics for militia in Africa vary, but the dominant theme is young, male, unemployed. And the rise of Islamic extremism in Mozambique has a catalogue of grievance.
Under colonial rule, Catholicism was all-but a state religion and in Machel’s time, faith was enough to have believers sent to the gulags. Since then, poverty and neglect have led a new generation to search for meaning, just as al Shabaab was pushing its way south from Somalia, down the coast through Kenya and Tanzania.
Even in the US, the Orange People of Baghwan Shree Rasjneesh drew thousands of disciples in the 1980s. In 1977, the “People’s Temple” sect were so infatuated with their leader, the Rev. Jim Jones, they travelled with him to Guyana in South America where 909 men, women and children committed suicide along with the preacher.
The motivation of adherents varied, but in research that followed, survivors said the cults had drawn on those who felt lost, ignored or worthless. Little wonder al-Shabaab has found Mozambique so fertile.
During the election, Nyusi referred to the terrorists as “faceless” and “hidden”, an admission that his government had little to go on despite mass arrest of villagers and reports of torture by police and soldiers.
But there are things we know:
- The extremists are local, with a few from Tanzania and a handful of instructors who fled Islamic State in Iraq.
- Disenchanted members of the armed forces are among them.
- They have a deep knowledge of the area and its people.
- The movement funds itself from the sale of drugs, fake goods and to a lesser extent ivory. Counterfeit bottles of Johnny Walker and Jack Daniels are among their inventory.
- Their aim is political and based around the rich gas deposits of northern Mozambique. Historically, money from resources has filled pockets in the capital and done little for locals anywhere in the country. The rebels have pledged to change this.
- Some analysts paint it as yet another split in Frelimo, hiving off the Party’s northern command into an autonomous Islamic zone.
- Gas firms will need to make peace with the rebels, even if that means paying protection money. But their contracts will be controlled by government who have the power to evict investors seen as helping the enemy.
It is hard to see how President Nyusi can honour his election pledge to negotiate an end to the war.
If, as reports suggest, some of his army are two-timing with al-Shabaab, then demons are in the house, and no one can be trusted.
The army stands accused of torture and beatings in the north. But some are said to have links with the rebels.
Illicit goods have long been a problem, and for centuries the corridor for gold, diamonds, ivory and drugs ran from Beira, across the Indian Ocean to Portuguese Goa, 3000 miles away on the coast of India.
Now, donors to the ruling party are accused of running the same goods along with fake booze and tobacco … and being left alone by police.
We also know that cartels have zones of operation, from Al Capone and his mafia in 1920s Chicago to the drug lords who terrorise Mexico and Guatemala. They mark off their patch and wipe out competition. Yet both the Islamists and ruling-party donors appear to be doing well, begging the question: does al-Shabaab Inc have links to Frelimo?
Fake Johnny Walker on sale. Counterfeit good fund both Frelimo and al Shabaab
Maputo lives on rumour, typical in a country where government controls so much of the media.
Ask around and you’ll hear that former president Armando Guebuza who tried to change the constitution and give himself a third term in 2014 (the party refused) has a hand in the trouble, destabilizing his successor. Filipe Nyusi is from Cabo Delgado, and problems in the region are especially damaging to his status in the party.
Or that Nyusi himself, fearful of a coup, is in no hurry to end a conflict that keeps his army 1600 miles north of the capital.
There is no evidence for these theories, but they would not find breath if the state could explain how and why the threat has emerged.
Does Nyusi have the answers? Perhaps. Certainly there are those in Frelimo who know the back-story, and how it developed, long before that first attack in October 2017.
And there are party funders living off crime who may be in cahoots with their fellow smugglers from al-Shabaab.
Gas is expected to lift the economy, but while the north remains a war zone, investors will be jumpy.
The war against Portugal lasted 13 years. Renamo has run an on-and-off conflict since 1977.
If history is anything to go by, this latest outbreak of violence will not end soon.