Efforts to contain the ongoing conflict in Mozambique appear to be losing ground. According to reports, Niassa province is now likely to become the next frontier of insurgent activity by the Islamist group Ahlu-Sunna Wa-Jama’a (ASWJ). This comes amid offensives by troops from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Rwanda in Cabo Delgado, the birthplace of the conflict, leading to speculation that the ASWJ has shifted the base of its operations. The Islamic State (IS) has claimed ties to the group, but the extent of these linkages is unknown. Meanwhile a growing body of evidence speaks to the localised dimensions of the conflict and the need for enhanced governance.

Recent research by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR) has found that ASWJ recruits youth into the insurgency by appealing to their feelings of marginalisation across economic, political, security and social spheres. The research, which was conducted in September 2021 in partnership with the Centre for Democratic Dialogue (CDD) in Mozambique, hosted focus groups with young people to understand the drivers and key challenges surrounding youth recruitment while also seeking possible pathways to inclusion for disenfranchised youth. From these discussions, the researchers identified five critical elements at play:

  • Material considerations relating to a lack of inclusive economic development;
  • The manipulation of religious and ethnic identities;
  • A lack of safety and security;
  • Weak governance and democratic despondency; and
  • Fractured social cohesion

All of these speak to the overarching structural constraints of living in Mozambique’s underdeveloped north. Without a concerted effort to address these structural drivers, military action is unlikely to yield lasting peace.

Overwhelmingly, youths cited hunger, poverty and unemployment as factors that drive them to recruitment. Cabo Delgado is often labelled the ‘Forgotten Cape/Cabo Esquecido’ due to its extremely low levels of human development that are largely the result of unequal resource dispensation. Nationally, almost one in two Mozambican youths report going without food ‘several times’, ‘many times’, or ‘always’ according to the IJR’s 2021 Afrobarometer public opinion survey data, and this figure may even be higher in Cabo Delgado*. In the province, these challenges are overlayed by perceptions of elite enrichment by former FRELIMO military figures and an illicit economy that thrives on corruption. Coupled with educational deficits, poor infrastructure, and a near absence of government services, youth feel slighted and find few alternative prospects for their future.

Safety and security is another factor driving youths to extremism. According to Afrobarometer data, one in three citizens (31%) fear extremist violence. Given high levels of distrust between society and the national army, the focus groups revealed instances where youths felt safer in joining the ASWJ than the government. Human-rights abuses, heavy-handed state repression and corruption have done little to instill trust, although there are expectations that the situation will improve with foreign intervention. This speaks to the state-centric system of the government that pits people apart in an “us-and-them” scenario.

Youth also alluded to a manipulation of both religious texts and ethnic identities as factors behind recruitment. Although widely touted as a religious conflict, IJR’s research found that economic incentives have been used to lure young people into mosques where extreme Salafist religious messages were being preached. This often overlapped with ethnic factors related to perceptions of inequitable resource distribution among different ethnic groups. According to Afrobarometer, one in four people feel that they have been treated unfairly based on religion or ethnicity. These findings confirm research by the United Nations (UN), that found that, while religion is often cited as a reason for joining extremist groups, many of these recruits have little or no understanding of religious texts. Moreover, higher than average years of religious schooling actually builds resilience, bringing to the fore the importance of creating counter-narratives to disrupt extremist interpretations of religious texts. Rather, it is the patronage underlying ethnic identities that remains critical to address.

Ultimately, these factors boil down to one single issue: the critical need for inclusive governance across all spheres. Youths often mentioned their feelings of alienation from the state, with few mechanisms for engagement. Youths also expressed their dissatisfaction with democracy and as such, a sense of democratic despondency is taking hold. Indeed, Afrobarometer data shows that a quarter of Mozambicans aged 18 and 30 years did not vote, while 58% said they were dissatisfied with the state of the country’s democracy.

The bottom line is simple to summarise but harder to achieve – a pressing need for the Mozambican government to look internally and to ask hard questions. The time of blaming external forces is over. Now is the time to act with a matter of urgency, implementing pathways to inclusion that will include security measures as part of a more holistic package of responses. Longer-term holistic and inclusive measures must be taken to address the root causes and drivers of the conflict, without which hope for lasting peace will not be realised. The recent expansion of the conflict makes it critical to contemplate the implications for the broader region.

In lieu of the above, the following recommendations are made:

To the Mozambican government:

  • Adopt a zero-tolerance approach to human rights abuses in the military, enforceable through an independent oversight body, and develop mechanisms to strengthen engagement between the military and communities.
  • Prioritise the adoption of ADIN’s strategy for Cabo Delgado, ensuring inclusive consultations with youth and other marginalised groups and develop mechanisms for problem solving, social innovation and skills development.
  • Provide support to youth-focused institutions and youth hubs and ensure a two-way engagement that takes youth perspectives into account.
  • Assess blockages in government grievance mechanisms so that they can be more responsive to the grievances of communities in Cabo Delgado.
  • Allocate national resources on a needs-basis and make meaningful efforts to ensure that youth in Cabo Delgado are the recipients of quality public services.
  • Develop a national framework for youth engagement in terms of peace and security.
  • In addressing corruption, more assertive and independent oversight is necessary. This includes the unbundling of elitism that drives grievances and facilitates youth radicalisation.
  • Prioritise human development outcomes that help build resilience.
  • Consider macroeconomic policy interventions that can develop employment intensive industry in Cabo Delgado that can be connected to global supply chains.
  • Insist on coordinated external engagements, in line with national and local priorities and ensure the accountability of foreign troops.

To SADC:

  • Strengthen the civilian component of the SADC mission and place a focus on human rights training for both the SADC mission and the Mozambican military.
  • Develop a regional framework for youth, peace and security and develop programmes that use youths as agents for peace.
  • Consider ways to support youth employment in Mozambique through SADC’s Youth Employment Promotion Policy.
  • Generate financial support and technical expertise from the region to support the youth.

To the International Community:

  • Support training for the Mozambican military on human rights and community engagement.
  • Coordinate support for Cabo Delgado and complement harder security approaches with efforts to promote youth dialogue and social cohesion.
  • Facilitate a regular dialogue among youth, state authorities, civil society organizations and private sector on resilience to violent extremism among youth.
  • Share successful lessons relating to youth empowerment from the African continent and around the globe and raise awareness on the positive power of youth for peace.
  • Support the development of regional and national frameworks for youth, peace and security and invest in their implementation.
  • Consider skills-transfer programmes for youth in Cabo Delgado.
  • Provide mental health and psychosocial support for youths affected by the conflict

*Afrobarometer data was nationally sampled, due to challenges in accessing the most rural areas of Cabo Delgado.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA.

(Main image: Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP via Getty Images)

This article was first published in the Mail & Guardian