OPINION: Mozambique’s government is in a difficult position as it tries to confront an escalating Islamist-extremist insurgency in gas-rich Cabo Delgado, an armed insurrection in the country’s central region and a growing number of Covid-19 cases.

These issues and how the Maputo-based authorities address them influence perceptions about a country where vital inward investment could surge past $50 billion in the coming few years on the back of a liquefied natural gas boom.

It is clear President Filipe Nyusi and his ruling Frelimo party do not have the resources to handle these challenges effectively — particularly the insurgency — let alone at the same time.

Development needed, not war

So, in addition to asking for outside help, perhaps Nyusi should also learn from recent history and the distant past to guide actions in Cabo Delgado. Development and negotiations should sit at the heart of a strategy, rather than waging a war that can only entrench differences — as amply evidenced by Mozambique’s post-colonial history.

Frelimo came to power when Portugal quit Mozambique in 1975, only for the country to be engulfed in civil war soon afterward as the opposition Renamo movement — supported by South Africa and what was then Rhodesia — battled for a share of the spoils.

After 15 years of fighting had wrecked Mozambique, leaving 1 million dead and 5 million displaced, a peace deal was agreed in 1992.

Escalating tensions

Renamo, however, resumed fighting in 2013, so Nyusi signed a second peace deal last year. The agreement did not sit well with a group calling itself the Renamo Military Junta, responsible for attacks in Mozambique’s central provinces.

But these attacks are not on the scale of those perpetrated by Islamic extremists in Cabo Delgado whose three-year insurgency is escalating and seemingly supported by Islamic State.

This is a serious situation and could get worse. It has yet to directly affect LNG construction activities at Palma, but fears are mounting.

Jobs needed quickly

There are complex reasons for the insurgency, but most observers suggest jobs, opportunities and investment are needed — quickly — to offer restive youths in Cabo Delgado a different path to follow.

With no obvious leaders representing the insurgents, however, negotiations appear all but impossible.

So, fearful of losing control of a resource-rich province, Nyusi is trying to contain the situation militarily while working out a development and engagement strategy.

Alleged abuse

However, the alleged abuse of poverty-stricken, neglected populations — already reeling from two huge cyclones in 2019 — by poorly equipped and ill-trained government forces may turn those people away from the nation's leaders in Maputo and boost support for radical Islamists.

The Maputo government bringing in mercenary groups, such as Wagner and Dyck Advisory does not help.

Maybe a better understanding of the history of Cabo Delgado’s coastal communities — at the insurgency’s epicentre — could help the government quell Islamist extremism.

Merchants' methods

Located more than 2500 kilometres from Mozambique’s capital city, Cabo Delgado’s coastal communities look to Mecca more than Maputo. They are predominantly Muslim, having been heavily influenced by Arabic and Persian traders for at least 1200 years.

These settlements are part of the historic land of Zanj where, according to the ninth-century tales of The Thousand and One Nights, Sindbad had many adventures and where, more than 600 years later, Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama arrived.

Da Gama made landfall at the sultanate of Mocambique Island, just south of what is now Cabo Delgado. But he had not come to trade; he came to conquer. He ultimately bombarded the island, a strategy pursued by later Portuguese military expeditions to Zanj that made few friends along East Africa’s coast.

Taking a leaf from the “trade, not war” playbook of Arabian and Persian merchants could perhaps help Nyusi arrive at a better outcome in Cabo Delgado than Da Gama's militaristic approach.

(This is an Upstream opinion article.)