Reportage. To contain the advance of the local branch of the Islamic State, the Rwandans have also intervened, with the blessing of Paris, which is defending Total's interests in the gas field of Cabo Delgado. Maputo now claims the problem is almost solved, but no one believes it.

The battle against jihad in Mozambique is itself terrorizing people

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi stresses in every interview that the situation in Cabo Delgado is much improved and the jihadist danger almost eliminated. In April, the Maputo strongman visited the country’s battered northernmost province, which has been ravaged by attacks by militiamen affiliated with the Islamic State since 2017, and immediately called a series of press conferences to praise the progress made in terms of security and stability.

There are large interests operating in the area, with a gas field that could produce 13 million tons of liquefied natural gas per year. The investments made are close to $20 billion, between onshore and offshore, with an expected profit of more than $60 billion in the medium term. Mozambique LNG, the consortium that will exploit the field, is controlled by France’s Total, which holds 27 percent of the shares, but significant stakes are also held by Italy’s ENI, Anadarko from the U.S. and smaller Chinese, Japanese and Indian companies.

“The situation really appears to have improved,” says Delfim Anacleto, a reporter for the national television channel TV Miramar, “but it’s too early to get back to business as it was before 2021. The governor of Cabo Delgado is very insistent that the situation in the province has been normalized, but things are different on the ground. The coastal area, where gas extraction infrastructure is present, is heavily manned by the contingent of the South African-led Southern African Countries Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) and also by Rwandan special forces brought in by the French [an agreement signed in Paris, with Macron’s blessing, due to Total’s business interests there]. The deployment of forces has reduced the activity of the Islamist group Ahalu al Sunna Wal Jamaah, which, however, continues to strike in the interior districts of Macomia and Muidunde.”

At this point, the Mozambican government’s large-scale marketing campaign doesn’t seem to have convinced Total – which commissioned its own report on the real situation in Cabo Delgado – to unblock its investment, frozen at the start of the fighting, when the regular army was unable to curb the advance of the group locally called al-Shaabab, but which since 2019 has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State with their self-declared “vilaya” (province) called the Islamic State Central African Province (ISCAP), which is supposed to stretch from the eastern provinces of the Democratic Republic of Congo to the Mozambican coast on the Indian Ocean.

Although the jihadist command center has moved inland after the government retook the entire Mocimboa da Praia coastline, some of the more isolated coastal communities are forced to coexist with the Islamists, who get their food from local fishermen. And the Makonde, an ethnic group that lives straddling Mozambique and Tanzania, see their young men fighting on both sides. Jihadists often force people to enlist, and the militiamen kidnap both men and women to take them to areas under their control.

Mohammed Hassan Machado was kidnapped in one of the many villages that line the border. “They attacked my village at night and took about 10 people together with me. I was a prisoner of the Shaabab for about two months, I worked for them as a cook and odd-job man, they forced me to clean and wash. My family was saved because I was alone that night, but my neighbors were all taken away. Because we are all Muslims, they said we had to take part in the war against the Christians.”

The Islamists’ camp moved constantly, and Mohammed struggles to retrace the areas he went through. “We were kept under a tight leash, and they didn’t tell us anything except that they had killed some Christians and that we should pray to give thanks for the successes in the war. They said they never take Christians prisoner and prefer to kill them right away.”

“There were frequent attacks,” he continues, “and there was a lot of confusion. “The members of village militias, including the ethnic Makonde, are very effective in this territory, and it was during a retreat by the jihadists that we managed to escape. Everyone from my village returned home safely, and I think that’s a miracle.”

The inhabitants of Cabo Delgado province – and now also those of the neighboring provinces of Nampula and especially Niassa – are the real victims of this irregular war that the Maputo government is fighting with every means available to them. Most recently, there has been an operation by Mozambican special forces and self-defense militias in this area, the latter given legal recognition precisely in order to combat the jihadist phenomenon. Theoretically, they are under the direct control of the armed forces, but the reality is quite different: these militias, almost always organized on an ethnic basis, often become local power holders who rule by setting up a state within the state, enforcing their own law through violence.

“My village is very poor,” Mohammed concludes, “and we make do with what we grow, but the government does nothing to defend us and we feel abandoned. To fight the Shabaab, they have set up local militias that often become worse than the terrorists.”

This is also a problem encountered with the Rwandan forces, who recently killed a fisherman after mistaking him for a terrorist. Such incidents have happened before. And they could happen again, especially if – as many suspect – the Islamic State’s retreat is merely a strategic one to reorganize and study the array of the forces put in place to defend what could be the largest gas field on the entire African continent and could shift the balance of power in the region.

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