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Insurgency in Mozambique: A drug problem

The increasingly violent Islamic insurgency in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province has seen much diplomatic activity, aimed at setting up some kind of military intervention to stabilise the situation. But we shouldn’t be holding our breath, says seasoned observers. We look at the complex problem.

Mozambique hit the headlines in March when armed Islamic extremists rampaged through the town of Palma in northern Mozambique.  The insurgents have killed hundreds of people and driven tens of thousands from their homes. Cabo Delgado is a historically neglected Muslim area in a Christian-majority country. Grotesque atrocities momentarily snatched the world’s attention away from the pandemic.

Palma is adjacent to a $20-billion liquid natural gas processing plant being built by French energy giant Total on Afungi Peninsula, on the Indian Ocean coastline. The place is full of expat workers and services and supplies infrastructure – which was targeted by the armed gangs who claim allegiance to Islamic State and call themselves al-Shabaab.

Afungi is one of Mozambique’s many gas projects, which together could have a price tag of $120 billion and are Africa’s biggest industrial projects today, says Africa Report magazine. Total’s gas project alone is the continent’s largest-ever foreign investment.

It was easy to conclude that the Islamists aimed to annex the gas fields and their cash flows – much as IS did when it seized territory in Iraq and Syria to establish its short lived Caliphate.  However the attack on Palma helps distract from the crime and corruption at the heart of the problem.

The H train

Mozambique has until recently shown great promise.  After a grueling civil war that dragged into the 1990s, the award-winning president Joaquim Chissano and his team of young technocrats like prime minister Luisa Diogo worked to turn the country around. IMF resident representative Felix Fischer told this author in 2009 that Mozambique’s post-conflict bounce-back was “Vietnam-like” in its trajectory. There were new mining and energy projects, a smelter that had brought back international capital, a useful balance of Chinese infrastructure and European budget support. Tourists flooded over the border from South Africa. The economy was creating jobs.

Drug trafficking however was already a huge problem in Mozambique – a country which, according to César Guedes of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), can barely manage its own maritime security, “let alone prevent international crime syndicates operate across its 3,600km of coastline”.  A leaked US diplomatic cable in 2010 explained: “Despite anti-corruption rhetoric, the ruling Frelimo party has not shown much serious political will to combat narcotrafficking.”   “Mohamed Bashir Suleman (‘the other MBS’), described as the largest narcotrafficker in Mozambique, and other traffickers bribe both high and low level officials.  Nacala Port in northern Mozambique has been identified as a key channel for much of the illicit cargo that comes in and out of Mozambique.

The amounts trafficked are eye watering. In 2018, London-based academic and former international correspondent in Mozambique Joseph Hanlon published a paper called ‘The Uberization of Mozambique’s heroin trade’. In it, he estimated some $600m-800m of heroin transited through Mozambique annually, with $100m used to bribe members of Frelimo.  “Mozambique is part of a complex chain which forms the East African heroin network. Heroin goes from Afghanistan to the Makran coast of Pakistan, and is taken by dhow to northern Mozambique. There, the Mozambican traffickers take it off the dhows and move it more than 3,000km by road to Johannesburg, and from there others ship it to Europe,” wrote Hanlon.

Boatloads of cash

It is not just drugs.  In 2014, a secret $850m loan for Ematum, a tuna fishing company owned – curiously – by Mozambique’s intelligence services. Other secret loans came to light, including a $525m loan to the state-owned Mozambique Asset Management company. The loans were a front for bribery and kickbacks, and have been the subject of many legal investigations. The $2bn in total loans contributed to an economic downturn and the government to default on its debt repayments.

Stephen Bailey-Smith, a senior economist at Global Evolution, which eventually bought the loans when they were repackaged, says the debt repackaging finally demystified the tuna bonds: “Investors assumed this was effectively sovereign debt. I don’t think anyone in their right mind thought they were taking a risk solely linked to a tuna fishing company. Remember, at the time, people were jumping up and down about how Mozambique would be the next big thing, one of the largest gas producers in world, and people wanted to get in early. With limited other opportunities, the bonds provided a way in.”

Welcome to Cabo Delgado

While foreign investors were piling into Mozambique’s energy sector, a small insurgency was gathering pace in the historically neglected north.  In 2012, the radical Kenyan Islamic cleric Aboud Rogo Mohammed was assassinated. Aboud Rogo funnelled cash and recruits to Al-Shabaab in Somalia and was linked to Al Qaeda in East Africa. He had cult leader status for his youthful supporters from the Ansar Muslim Youth Council, who were slowly pushed south.

Radical imams in Tanzania welcomed them. But the mysterious series of murders of police officers in Kibiti in southern Tanzania triggered a crackdown from President John Magufuli’s government in 2017, with bodies reported washing up on the beach in Dar es Salaam. “Some of the survivors, already radicalised, are believed to have moved into Mozambique,” says Dino Mahtani, International Crisis Group deputy director for Africa.

The Islamist radicals were joined by artisanal miners kicked out of the Monte Puez ruby mine in northern Mozambique. “Locals say the region has been turned into a ‘militarised zone’ where state forces and a South African-owned security company have allegedly beaten villagers and killed illegal miners,” reports Estacio Valoi and Gesbeen Mohammad.

Gemfields, which owns the mine and also makes Fabergé eggs, said in a statement: “Local and religious leaders inform us with great concern about how artisanal miners and traders have changed the social fabric of their communities, through marrying under-age girls, and bringing alcohol and drugs into the community.”

Insurgent eruption

In early 2017, an insurgency known locally as Al-Shabaab, inspired by but unrelated to the Somali insurgents, briefly seized the port town of Mocambique de Praia in Cabo Delgado. It was the first time they would do so, but not the last.  This slow Islamist insurgent migration south coincided with a tightening of maritime security efforts in Kenya and Tanzania, says the UNODC’s Guedes. Those efforts squeezed drug traffickers south down the coast. Guedes says: “Mozambique, even though it was further south, still made sense to the syndicates.”

As with all successful trading, it is useful to have goods travelling in both directions; the grim trade of heroin met with Asian demand for illicit Mozambican produce.  The drugs syndicates were joined by gem and timber smugglers, wildlife traffickers and human traffickers – including those selling human body parts. “Some of the decapitated bodies in the streets seen after the Palma attack had also had their fronts opened up,” says Mozambican researcher Tomás Queface from the University of Sussex.

To what extent do the insurgents and syndicates overlap? The UNODC’s Guedes points to a boat seized off the Mozambican coast coming from Asia with both drugs to be smuggled and arms for the militants.  “Now that Al-Shabaab controls large segments of the Cabo Delgado coast line, there are fears that they are already beginning to take a slice of illicit coastal smuggling, including taxing drug cargoes that transit through waters and land they control,” says Crisis Group’s Mahtani, who argues the links are more opportunistic. “They won’t be involved in making the international trade of narcotics happen, but if drugs are still flowing into Cabo Delgado, then it stands to reason they might take a cut of the trade, either by transit fees or taxes, or from facilitating transport and landing of cargoes.”

For certain, criminals have the run of the province, and they pay off the authorities or attack them if they get in the way. Collusion goes to the highest levels of military intelligence, argue some analysts. One diplomatic source tells The Africa Report: “The military are all neck-deep in drugs, and they don’t want people to see that.”  Mozambican researcher Queface says there are fears that the insurgents have penetrated the military: “The militants always seem to know where they army is going to attack.” President Nyusi appointed a more capable general to the region in January but he contracted Covid-19 soon after and died.

As the Mozambique government has not been able to end the insurgency, some international partners are calling for an international intervention force. Some analysts says the government doesn’t want the intervention of foreign forces in Cabo Delgado because “then all eyes will fall on the scale of illicit trafficking that goes on in the province and a lot of other things could come to light”, says Liesl Louw-Vaudran of the Institute for Security Studies.  There were also question marks over the length of time – several months – that the insurgency was able to hold on to Mocambique de Praia. “We don’t know what they are hiding,” says Queface.

Even former president Guebuza has told journalists that the government was not sending the best soldiers and commanders to the north. Journalists, academics and aid workers are mostly barred from the area. A UK journalist, Tom Bowker, was deported for reporting on the insurgency.  Some local people are also being driven off the land. The diplomatic source adds: “And then when the land has been evacuated, people approach concession holders saying ‘do you want to sell?’, with interested buyers coming to the table to flip properties into their own hands and put the squeeze on those who don’t have the protection.”

Things can get worse

As all eyes are on the heroin traffic to the north, in the south concerns are growing that Brazil’s fearsome cocaine cartels are getting a foot in the door.  The Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC) is Brazil’s most powerful and internationally connected syndicate. The arrest of PCC operative Gilberto Aparecido Dos Santos, alias “Fuminho,” in Maputo in April 2020 raises flags for the UNODC’s Guedes. Brazilian media report Fuminho as having already made several smuggling deals across multiple African countries.

Despite the arrest, cocaine busts continue. In January 2021, five men were arrested by police on cocaine smuggling charges. “The group was caught while ‘threatening’ the alleged receiver of the drugs, a Nigerian who allegedly received eight kilograms of cocaine from Brazil, worth an estimated 18m meticais ($286,600), and destined for South Africa,” reports Omardine Omar.

“It is not what Mozambique needs right now”, says the UNODC’s Guedes, who suspects the Mozambique activity was an attempt to look for new cocaine routes into Asia. “When you look at other countries who have both heroin and cocaine smuggled through them [such as Guinea Bissau] … it is total destabilisation of the state.”

Mozambique Extremist Violence Summit

That matters for the region, which is perhaps why South Africa’s President Ramaphosa finally managed to get a Southern African Development Community meeting in Maputo on 8 April and commitment to send a ‘technical mission’ to Cabo Delgado.  A former top official in Zimbabwe told us the Maputo meeting was torn between Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s pushing for his country to lead an intervention force to Mozambique and Ramaphosa’s plan, which has won the day, for now. Nyusi was wavering between the two options but still prefers to use forces from outside the region, such as trainers from Portugal and the United States.

What comes next?

Mozambique’s many gas projects, which together could have a price tag of $120bn, are Africa’s biggest industrial projects today. French company Total’s $20bn gas project alone would be the continent’s largest-ever foreign investment.  They are also huge investments for the energy companies and banks involved. They’re unlikely to back away, even if the window for fossil fuels is closing as rich countries invest in the green-energy transition.

There is also a rush to sew up the remaining large liquefied natural gas contracts – the huge China-Iran deal, for example, should shrink global gas appetite.  And as Louw-Vaudran of the Institute for Security Studies points out: “South Africa is on the hook”. The state owned Industrial Development Corporation is invested in Total’s Mozambique project. Also, South Africa’s largest bank Standard Bank signed a deal to sink $485m into the project.

A planned industrial hub will likely not happen. “I saw powerpoint presentations from Standard Bank saying 5,000 expats would be permanently based in Palma. They would need all the services, creating opportunities for small and medium-sized enterprises to go. And they did go, and these were the guys that were targeted,” says Louw-Vaudran.

The Palma attack is a turning point for the insurgency: not just in its methods of attack, but in its victory, says security analyst Jasmine Opperman. The rebels stole between 40-80 vehicles during the raid, busted into bank vaults and picked up telecoms equipment. They have money, wheels and communications, and perhaps now greater ambition. Queface expects larger towns like Nangade to be hit.  “There are 19 cells, and at minimum 2,500 fighters,” says Opperman, who says their ranks have swollen massively in the past year.

Intervention should focus on drugs

Some analysts argue that the international community needs to get involved. For Crisis Group’s Mahtani, this should start with “the stamping out of the drug trade in the Indian Ocean”, which would weaken the corrupting flow of narcotic cash into the political economies of East and Southern Africa.

Guedes says that Europe needs to wake up to its role here: “Not many people realise that Schengen [ the European visa free travel zone] starts just a few hundred kilometres from Palma. Mayotte is France.” Given the French islands that dominate the Mozambique channel, and Operation Atalanta, the EU’s naval force offshore Somalia, Europe is well placed to extend naval forces into the area.  Similarly, the US Joint Task Force in Bahrain could play an interdicting role.

Beyond that, there are fears that other kinds of international interventions could lead to calamity. There is a French military base in Mayotte. “The worst case would be if the French sent in the Légion Étrangère,” says Louw-Vaudran.  For Mahtani, there is a security stalemate in the north that requires intervention, but not at the risk of hurting Mozambique sovereignty.

Does President Nyusi have a plan to keep Palma safe? Can the government retake Mocambique de Praia? That would be a start, but does it have the resources to do it on its own? That is where Mozambique could perhaps give some ground, suggests Mahtani.  “Don’t rush into a heavy scorched-earth counter-insurgency across the province. Start by recapturing the ports and have a politically driven plan to peel off some of the local insurgents urging them to surrender, giving promises of development to appeal to sons of the soil who have joined the insurgency,” suggests Mahtani, who sees a military solution like that pursued in Afghanistan as something to avoid.

Although conditions have been deteriorating fast over the past six months, most regional analysts say that a decisive response now could stop that trend. “It’s not too late to act,” says UNODC’s Guedes.  The raid on Palma marks a watershed moment.  “This is the first time that foreign nationals have been targeted,” says Bulama Bukarti, a sub-Saharan terror analyst with the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. Bukarti also highlighted the relative sophistication of the assault, with tactics to target banks and warehouses – for money and food – derived from other Islamist groups in Africa.

“This is outpacing other insurgencies in Africa; it took Boko Haram in Nigeria six years to get to where this group has got to in three,” Bukarti added. “The situation is getting more and more desperate, and it needs something like a regional intervention from African nations with western logistical support.”

The situation in Mozambique is complex. Amnesty also accuses Mozambique security forces of engaging in violent reprisals, including summary executions, when they have restored control after previous raids, making any future security partnerships potentially fraught.

Alex Vines, who heads the Africa programme at Chatham House, said “it looks like the Mozambique government has accepted it can’t handle the crisis through private security contractors, although it doesn’t yet accept the need for a fully fledged intervention”.  But the concern is that any emerging western support may struggle to keep pace with the worsening security situation.  “At the moment, the direction that things are going is really badly,” said Brian Castner, a crisis specialist with Amnesty. “The rainy season which has prevented attacks has just ended and now we are into what is called the fighting season, which lasts until the fall.”


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