When Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi last month visited some of the areas in the gas-rich northern province of Cabo Delgado that have been hit by an escalating conflict, he was accosted by a man who had an urgent demand.
“We’re not asking for support,” the man said, after Nyusi pointed to humanitarian assistance being provided to the thousands of people forced to leave their homes because of the deadly fighting between an armed group linked to Isis and government forces. “We want the war to stop.”
The war, however, has not stopped. Instead, it seems to be entering a particularly gruesome new phase, if reports of dozens of recent beheadings in Cabo Delgado’s Muidumbe district turn out to be true.
Less than two weeks ago, just as Muidumbe was getting back on its feet after its main villages were overrun in April, Isis-linked fighters launched another assault on the district.
The attackers reportedly faced stiff resistance in some quarters from a local militia led by veterans of Mozambique’s war of independence in the 1960s and 1970s. But they have taken revenge by conducting mass beheadings in a football stadium in Muatide village, according to Pinnacle News, an outlet based in northern Mozambique with a network of correspondents across Cabo Delgado.
UN chief Antonio Guterres expressed shock at “the reports of massacres … including the reported beheading and kidnapping of women and children” and called Mozambique’s authorities to investigate the incidents.
It is also uncomfortably close to the town of Mueda, home to the Mozambican military’s most important base in Cabo Delgado.
Mueda itself has yet to come under attack, but neither has the military stationed there managed to retake Mocimboa da Praia, which remains out of the government’s control four months after it was seized by the fighters following fierce battles with Mozambican marines aided by South African mercenaries.
Mocimboa da Praia’s port is strategically important for liquefied natural gas projects led by Total and ExxonMobil that are being developed on a fortified peninsula a short way up the coast, close to the town of Palma.
Those gas projects should transform Mozambique’s economy and help bring Cabo Delgado – a province where development, and poverty reduction, has fallen dramatically short of that seen in the south of the country – out of poverty.
But that dream seems further away than ever since news broke in early November that a flagship project to use some of the gas in the country has been cancelled. Norwegian fertiliser giant Yara informed Nyusi’s government last month that it would not go ahead with a planned plant that would have used gas from the projects in Cabo Delgado to make fertiliser, local business news website Zitamar News reported – as government was unable to guarantee gas to Yara at a low enough price.
The failure of the Yara project is “a classic of what has caused the insurgency”, according to Joseph Hanlon, a veteran journalist who has been writing about Mozambique since the 1970s.
“In five years, government has done nothing to use the gas for domestic development. Nothing,” he said. “If they’d got Yara on board they’d have transformed Mozambique’s agriculture. But they just didn’t care.”
Meanwhile, the failure to take back control of Mocimboa da Praia may prove to be a big strategic mistake, according to Jasmine Opperman of the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
“We have seen new recruits going and joining them freely and willingly” in the town, Opperman warned during an Institute for Security Studies webinar on November 4.
Rights groups say the fighters in Cabo Delgado have carried out summary executions, beheadings, raids on villages, looting and destruction of infrastructure, including schools and medical facilities. Government forces have also been implicated in grave human rights abuses during operations in the province – including arbitrary arrests, torture, wrongful use of force against civilians and extrajudicial executions.
Last month, the fighters reportedly cleared an area of coastal Cabo Delgado known as Mucojo. Young people were abducted, men were killed and survivors fled to nearby islands and ultimately to the provincial capital of Pemba, according to reports.
The beach at Paquitequete, Pemba’s most densely populated neighbourhood, received well above 10 000 internally displaced people arriving by dhow in the second half of last month – the majority of them children.
One such boat capsized on October 29, and 54 people drowned.
Emboldened, the fighters have also expanded their sphere of operation north into neighbouring Tanzania, crossing the Rovuma River that marks the border between the two countries to carry out raids on villages in Tanzania’s Mtwara region.
The first such raid came two weeks before Tanzania’s presidential election last month when 200 fighters attacked the town of Kitaya, according to the Tanzanian police chief.
Since then, more attacks have been reported – despite a robust response from the Tanzanian security forces, who have also deported some 1 000 refugees back into Cabo Delgado in recent weeks.
Mozambique’s Prime Minister Carlos Agostinho do Rosário travelled to the Tanzanian capital of Dodoma on November 5 for President John Magufuli’s inauguration and had a private meeting with him to discuss the situation on the border.
Aware that the conflict will not only have a military solution, Mozambique’s government has created a new economic development agency for the north of the country, focusing on Cabo Delgado.
The first task of the Northern Integrated Development Agency is to help deal with the humanitarian catastrophe – but in the long term, it aims to promote development that will create much-needed employment in the region.
As the fighting spins out of control and investors leave, however, a solution seems further away than ever. – Al Jazeera