Mozambique has had a troubled history. Portugal gained control of parts of the Indian Ocean coast in the 16th century and ruled, often brutally, until 1975. A 10-year armed struggle by the Mozambique Liberation Front (Frelimo) won independence, following the overthrow of Portugal’s dictatorship in that country’s ‘carnation revolution’. Two years later, a 15-year civil war in Mozambique, backed by South Africa’s apartheid regime, killed over a million people and displaced five million. Since October 2017, fragile progress in a long recovery has been threatened by almost-daily scattered armed-group attacks in the north of Cabo Delgado province, where natural gas discoveries have attracted international energy companies investing billions of U.S. dollars in one of the poorest parts of the world. Compounding the misery, Cyclone Kenneth made landfall and stalled over Cabo Delgado last April, making internal ‘refugees’ of additional tens of thousands of people.
Dr. Yussuf Adam of Eduardo Mondlane University, one of the foremost experts on the region, cautions that simplistic explanations, such as Islamic extremism, obscure the complex causes of violence and retard the path to peace. He talked to AllAfrica by phone from Mozambique’s capital, Maputo.
You have spent much time with people in Cabo Delgado province and doing research there. You’ve written about extreme poverty and discrimination as underlying causes of violence and conflict. Do you see hope for building peace in northern Mozambique?
Yes, my reply would be yes. It is a complex situation and there is no other way [except understanding the issues] to get a peaceful situation in northern Cabo Delgado. I would not say the whole province of Cabo Delgado, and I wouldn’t speak about northern Mozambique.
The first response of the government to activities of the groups called by various names, for example al-Shabaab [Youth], was violence. Since then it has been escalating.
There hasn’t even been an attempt, using community institutions, mosques, and so on, to build some kind of relationship with the people and see who is doing what. A reaction generally from the people is that there are killings by insurgents, but that army units have been doing much of the killings, and that some of the attacks have been done by rogue army elements in Mozambique military outfits.
The government did not respond in the beginning. Then they responded to an emergency – and basically, it has been a military response. At the same time, the government did certain things which didn’t work. For example, they closed mosques, without even knowing whether they had the right to do it under laws. And after some weeks, they opened some of the mosques.
Local state authorities in Cabo Delgado have been caught in the middle of a struggle between different lines of thinking or sects inside Islam. Some have turned to a stricter religious practice. There is a group called the Islamic Congress, which warned for many years of growing extremism because of exploitation and lack of jobs and government services.
Then there is the oppressive apparatus of the state, and punishments people do not deserve. So you have a struggle which is very multifaceted.
There is an ambience of fear.
We have to sort it out. It is really very important to in Cabo Delgado to organize activities and projects to fight fear. There is an ambience of fear. When I was arriving in Cabo Delgado, most people were telling me, “I know you are an adult; you have worked here for many years; but you should be careful”. Thanks God I traveled around and it went okay.
We have to continue. We have to work with the community, with the villages, with the mosques, and also create some kind of project to promote peace. There are certain ethnic differences in the area which have to be discussed, for example, in land administration, and in the projects of companies.
There is also an environmental crisis, which doesn’t come only from the activities of the energy companies, but also comes from activities of the people. You still have a lot of slash-and-burn agriculture. You also have companies which have been cutting wood with Chinese partners and others, who are not very careful in the way they draw their plans and execute their plans. And we need protection of the coastal fisheries.
I have proposed to the chancellor of my university, Eduardo Mondlane, that we work out a project to promote peace, to promote ideas about peace negotiations. We’re going to work on it and see what we can do.
The assets which the University Eduardo Milan has and can deploy in the field, with students and teachers, can contribute to major activities. The idea is to work at the grassroots levels and create an ambience where people can talk without being very much preoccupied with who is who and who is doing what. Yes, we can make progress.
Long-term progress requires collaborating with the people.
We have been working in Cabo Delgado from 1977 onwards, so it’s a responsibility to continue. There are many activities which have been developed over the years, but we have continue to learn from our good and bad experiences.
On our last project, I worked with colleagues from the University of Bern in Zurich. And a colleague of mine in Lille [France], we worked for the last 10 years in a project helping the communities to end private exploitation of the forests – to help them work together and protect the forest and to have more rational exploitation of local wood species.
That is what has to be done. We have to have long-term projects at a slow pace, at a peaceful pace, where we manage to talk to people, work with people, have their collaboration.
We need dialogue, and we need all the parties involved to look at and reflect on their own positions. That is the way we have to come up with proper solutions.
Renamo [long backed by white Southern African regimes ] was the independent Mozambican government’s main opponent during the civil war – before signing a peace agreement and becoming a political opposition. Is it active in the Cabo Delgado area?
Renamo is present. One of the problems we have with the government is that a lot of times they think that Renamo is present everywhere. In the electoral campaign [in October 2019], the president of Renamo, when he went to areas in Cabo Delgado, he had huge followings. Some accused the government of bringing al-Shabaab to the area.
Naturally the state president, Mr. [Filipe Jacinto] Nysi, said that it was an insult to Frelimo to say that Frelimo brought al-Shabaab here. A lot of Frelimo [supporters] think that Renamo is involved in activities against the state. Also they think that Renamo has some kind of special relationship with the peasants.
They were thinking during the elections that a lot of Muslim leaders would vote for Renamo. But we do not know. These questions will come out in the research that is being conducted by a colleague, [Eric] Morier-Genoud, from [Queen’s University] Belfast, and I’m sure when it’s published, some of these issues will be dealt with.
You’ve talked about issues of trust in and accountability by government. Can you say more about that?
I think that there are three elements that we have to consider. One is that we have a youth bulge in these areas. Two, we have the use of repression by the state as a way to dialogue. You don’t dialogue with anyone by repression, but that is a thing that has been used by the state. The third is corruption.
Corruption is present everywhere. Nyusi declared some time ago that corruption in Mozambique was systemic, and I think that all over the country that is a problem and also the way certain institutions work.
Everyone is declaring how good the election campaign in Mozambique was, that it went very well. But there was an election monitor, a colleague of ours from Gaza [a Mozambican province] who belonged to an organization [Forum of NGOs for Gaza], which links various non-governmental oganizations. He was – it was accepted by the police – killed by a special unit within the police. Other people were killed. We don’t know how many people have been killed, tortured, taken to jail. We need transparency. That is one of the factors.
Are there local civil society organizations in Cabo Delgado working on these issues and trying to build peace?
Yes, there are a number of local organizations which are working on the problems, doing some interesting work. But they need some kind of liaison between the community and people who are more specialized. If a cooperative in Cabo Delgado is doing a very good job in the field, we have to go into the areas and discuss with community leaders, with women who are already leading. For example, one of the most dramatic accusations [against the government] came from a lady of a mosque that was closed. She came on the TV saying. “My mosque was closed by someone who doesn’t like women leaders of mosques.”
It is not only a question of trying to find external influences -some kind of presence of jihadist people from outside. I’m not saying they will not be any there; probably they are there. But remember that some Mozambican Muslims went to Afghanistan on their own – independently, individually – to fight the Russians.
The Catholic Church is doing good work. The Bishop of Pemba, Bishop [Luiz Fernando] Lisboa, has a group around him working intensely with the intention that we need to stop this fighting, these massacres; we have to talk and promote peace.
There are Islamic organizations, even if I disagree with things that they do connecting religion and politics. One, the oldest mosque in Pemba, is trying to help as much as they can in various areas. They are trying to organize seminars and talks with mosques and communities, for them to understand that this is not an Islamic state, this is a democratic state. Everyone can have their own religion, and there are laws to be obeyed and respected.
There is a lot of work between Christian communities and Muslim communities, which started years ago. In 1982/83, Oxfam had a project dealing with creating peace. But certain international NGOs told the lie that kids going to madrassas [Islamic religious schools] weren’t attending government schools.
What the Imams said to us, what we saw, the experience of Oxfam, and studies that were done at the time came to the conclusion that the best students in the madrassas were also the best students in the public schools. Student attendance and depended very much on the environment that they had at home and the occupations of their parents.
Some years ago when there was an attack in Oslo – a crazy man killed a lot of young people – the society, the government, the churches in Norway responded in a way which I think was exemplary. They took care of people. They helped create an environment where they were not [traumatized] – their psychological needs were taken care of.
That is something we have to do. We have to work with people and create a way that everyone gets over the shock, because when I speak to peasants or traders, or whatever, they always look around, trying to see if there was anyone hearing what they are saying. They are afraid of being heard and considered to be terrorists.
That cannot continue. We have to have more coordination between different groups and the state, so that we create an environment which facilitates peace, a non-violent way of communicating.
We also have to be honest and say that there has been Islamophobia very present in certain analyses, and the state hasn’t replied to it. In Mozambique, it is very common to explain everything through conspiracy theories. When something happens, it’s always someone who comes from outside to create these conditions. I don’t think so.
If we have a clear democratic system, where people have the right to say what they want, then there will be a future.