Since October 2017, a group of Islamist insurgents known internationally as Ansar al-Sunna — and locally as al-Shabab, despite no apparent connection to their Somali namesakes — have brought chaos to the northern province of Cabo Delgado in Mozambique by attacking villages and propagating terror. Their actions have resulted in an estimated 500,000 internally displaced persons and 2,000 dead, although the actual numbers are unknown. There appears to be no end in sight to the violence, and some analysts suggest a potential for the conflict to spread to neighboring provinces. On January 27th, 2021, the Fund for Peace hosted a Human Rights and Business Roundtable (HRBRT) on the conflict in Cabo Delgado to discuss the situation, possible developments in 2021, the potential impacts on businesses operating in the extractive sector, and ways to address the crisis. Since much of the tension in the province is based upon, and exacerbated by, persisting economic stress, one approach to reducing the violence could include improving the livelihoods of those in Cabo Delgado, such as by ensuring that the local population benefits from extractive activities, and by providing trainings to increase employment in the province.

To better understand the situation in Cabo Delgado, it is important to examine the context within which the insurgency is taking place. The Cabo Delgado province is endowed with numerous resources, including large natural gas fields estimated to be worth $50 billion. Despite the abundance of natural resources, and extensive and ongoing resource extraction operations in Cabo Delgado, the province is one of the poorest in the country. While Mozambique’s GDP has risen by 6% annually for the past 15 years, the wealth has almost exclusively benefited the political elite. In addition, the northern and central provinces of the country are poorer than their southern counterpart. From 2002 to 2015, the poverty rate in Cabo Delgado remained relatively stable at or around 50%. For comparison, the poverty rate in the southern province of Inhambane decreased from 75% to 35% over the same period. Given the basic livelihood challenges faced by the local population, the insurgency has proven to be an attractive path for some of the unemployed youth living in the region. Furthermore, and in comparable fashion to recent and ongoing insurgencies and terrorist movements in other regions, the expansion of Cabo Delgado’s conflict is drawing fighters from increasingly further afield, pulling Mozambique deeper into the quagmire and in turn elevating Ansar-al Sunna’s profile, and therefore the group’s draw for disaffected youth.

During the HRBRT, the panelists discussed the roots of this dire situation and potential approaches to ending the insurgency. One aspect discussed was the lack of economic opportunity in Cabo Delgado. In addition to the current actions by the Mozambique government and military to stop the violence, there is a pressing need to mitigate the economic stresses that have created an environment susceptible to extremist recruitment. This could be achieved by putting mechanisms in place that will ensure that the prosperity stemming from the abundance of resources in Cabo Delgado will reach the local population, rather than solely benefiting political elites and international corporations. One such mechanism is mineral rights. A 2018 article published in the journal Sustainability outlines a correlation between decentralized mineral ownership titles and higher Human Development Index outcomes, including a reduction in conflict, as compared to state or individual titles (Flomenhoft, 2018). Globally, only a few countries grant the ownership of mineral resources exclusively to landowners. Owners can sell or lease the rights to the minerals below the surface to a mining company who may give the owner a share of the income generated from the sale of the resources. If the people of Cabo Delgado retained a portion of the rights to the natural gas, they would be able to receive royalties from the natural gas extraction, guaranteeing that they would benefit from the natural resources.

In addition to ensuring that the local population benefits from resource extraction, the government must also work to provide employment opportunities. Currently, many of those employed in the province are from the south of Mozambique. However, it could prove difficult to employ the local population: Cabo Delgado’s illiteracy rate of 67%, is the country’s highest. As a result, comparatively few locals have the skills and training necessary for the technical jobs in the region. An increased focus on economic development within the province could provide the skills and training necessary for the local population to find employment and subsequently nullify any incentives to join extremist groups. To do so, lessons can be pulled from Liberia, in which a program led by Action on Armed Violence provided agricultural and “life skills” training, counseling, and monetary inputs to men considered at “high risk” of joining militias and conducting illicit activities due to their residence in hotspots, namely areas where ex-fighters from Liberia’s previous war lived. Upon completion of the program, it was found that although the men did not entirely forsake illicit activities, the weekly hours dedicated to them decreased by 23%. Furthermore, cross-border attempts to recruit Liberian men in the 2010 post-election fighting in Côte d’Ivoire were significantly less successful in the program participant group compared to those who did not participate, indicating that the training had an impact on mercenary recruitment (Blattman & Annan, 2016). A collaboration between nonprofits and local businesses could utilize this approach to train the local population for employment in Cabo Delgado.

There is no quick fix to the insurgency in Cabo Delgado. The grievances underlying the crisis have been building for decades and are unlikely to be resolved easily, while the crisis has further underscored the consequences of a loss of trust in the government. To halt, and ultimately reverse the spread of the insurgency, the Mozambican state will need to work more closely with international community and private sector actors, CSOs, and donors to address the root causes that are giving rise to disillusionment and extremism. It will require a combination of military engagement, international humanitarian aid, political dexterity, and economic initiatives to roll back extremism in the region and begin the process of healing. By drawing upon lessons learned in other contexts such as in Liberia, multisectoral actors have at their disposal the means to develop a plan to reduce extremism and desperation within Cabo Delgado.

Blattman, C., & Annan, J. (2016). Can Employment Reduce Lawlessness and Rebellion? A Field Experiment with High-Risk Men in a Fragile State. American Political Science Review, 110(1), 1-17. doi:10.1017/S0003055415000520
Flomehoft, G. (2018). Historical and Empirical Basis for Communal Title in Minerals at the National Level: Does Ownership Matter for Human Development? Sustainability, 10(6): 1958, 1-24. doi:10.3390/su10061958


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