A Religious Conflict in the Midst of Social Inequality

3 mins read

In Mozambique, a struggle based on religious beliefs and economic inequality has been escalating for years. On a global scale however, the countries unrest has long been downplayed.

by Rieke Smit

The world is struggling with many crises and conflicts at the same time. Some are unfortunately underrepresented in the media, including the conflict in Cabo Delgado, northern Mozambique. Since 2017, the country has been marked by violence. This article aims to provide an overview of the conflicts’ events and its actors.

Starting in 2017, Cabo Delgado has suffered disruptive attacks by an Islamist group called Ansar al-Sunnah (translated to Supporters of the Tradition), colloquially known as al-Shabab. The origins of the group are not clear, and scholars have made various conjectures in this regard. In order to understand why the conflict has turned violent, we must first take a look at the circumstances in the region.

Poorest Province in the Country – Despite Natural Gas

The economic situation in Cabo Delgado, is known as the worst in the country. The area is considered underdeveloped, with a high illiteracy rate and high unemployment. Although large deposits of natural gas were found in the province a few years ago, the population has hardly benefitted any development progress. The area, being populated by about 2.3 million people, is also influenced by the highest share of Muslim population in the country, at over 50 percent. Overall, Muslims are the minority in the country making up 20 percent of the population.

The group Ansar al-Sunna, who is the focus of Cabo Delgado’s conflict, also pursue the Islamic faith. Not much is known about them, but it is clear that the group has not always pursued its faith violently. A familiar fact however is, that Ansar al-Sunna gradually radicalized over the years. The group began to grow by recruiting members aged 20 to 35 from the north previous to 2017. It has been reported that these were attracted to the group not only through religious promise but also through economic exasperation. Ansar al-Sunna aims to establish sharia in the whole of Mozambique and refers to themselves as Islamist. The group is estimated to 300 members, with several individuals in leader positions. The exact hierarchical structures, however, remain unknown. Former border guards seem to train the members in camps, for example in the north of Tanzania. Ansar al-Sunna mostly distinguished itself from the general public previous to 2017 by focusing primarily on life in their own community.  

From inward-looking policies to outward directed attacks

Ansar al-Sunna’s, need to change society through their faith, presumably originated in 2016, when Mozambique’s government targeted arrests towards group members. This led to the first violent clash between the two parties. Another triggering factor might have been in the group’s rejection by residential Muslim leaders and the population in the region. The first major attack by Ansar al-Sunna took place in October 2017 in the town of Moćimboa de Praia and was followed by other isolated attacks in the following months.

President Filipe Nyusi asked for help internationally, to resolve the region’s problems, when the conflict escalated in 2019. Russia was one of the countries that provided aid by supporting the government with drones and helicopters. In addition, a private Russian security company called Wagner sent 203 mercenaries into the country to repel Ansar al-Sunna. The neighboring countries Tanzania, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo supported the government with cross-border agreements to prevent the conflict from spreading beyond its borders.

Different interest in the natural gas deposit

In this constellation of players, the gas reserves in Cabo Delgado have significant importance in the conflict. A few years ago, large deposits of liquefied natural gas were discovered in the province, which attracted various international companies. While their work is endangered by the attacks of Ansar al-Sunna, the government of Mozambique has a clear interest in stopping the turmoil and keeping the investors in the country. Russian interests in the countries mineral resources can be suspected as their support of the country might be a strategic move.

Despite international support Mozambique’s government has not regained control over the territories. Additionally UNHCR reports that around 2000 people have been killed and more than 530,000 people are internally displaced as consequences of the continuing conflict. Also Amnesty International draws attention to the dramatic humanitarian conditions caused by the attacks. Although Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi admitted that the group’s growth was also due to poverty and structural problems in Cabo Delgado, the government is not acknowledging the humanitarian consequences.

Lastly, it should be mentioned that starting in 2019 the Islamic State (IS) claimed the responsibilities for attacks in connection with Ansar al-Sunna. However, the extent of this connection is still unclear. If these rumors are true, the resulting support for Ansar Al Sunna could lead to a further escalation of the conflict. The importance of the current events in Mozambique must be stressed and it is essential for society to follow new conflict developments closely. It is high time for the international community to talk about this conflict and to lift the mantle of oblivion. Even though the European Union has promised assistance and the United Nations has called for an international response to the conflict, more than words are needed from a humanitarian perspective.

Cover photo: Leandro Neumann Ciuffo

Rieke Smit is currently studying International Humanitarian Action and has a background in international journalism. When she is not searching for stories all over the world, you can find her reading a good book while listening to Indie music or having coffee with friends.

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