The northern Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado has recently witnessed an escalation of violence by an Islamist insurgency that has been active in the region since 2017. Attacks have worsened over the past few weeks and officials in neighbouring provinces fear that the violence could spread. As a result of the conflict, there is a rapidly growing humanitarian crisis in the country, along with increasing rates of displacement, and the government’s limited capacity to contain it. Despite all of this, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi has only recently accepted foreign aid from Portugal due to his fear of aid diminishing Mozambique’s sovereignty. His actions are an example of how the poor reputation of foreign intervention can have a negative impact on communities in crisis. 

The Rise of a Humanitarian Crisis   

In 2007, an extreme Islamist sect appeared in Northern Mozambique, known as Al-Sunnah wa Jama’ah, or al-Shabaab by locals. The group emerged out of social and economic grievances and turned to violence in 2017, having since been responsible for hundreds of attacks in the region. Its attacks have included destroying infrastructure such as cell towers, schools, and hospitals, initiating beheadings and massacres, and claiming Cabo Delgado as under its control. After ISIS took credit for a series of their attacks, Al-Sunnah wa Jama’ah pledged its allegiance to the Islamic State, and ISIS now considers the group a part of the global jihad movement. 

The violence in Cabo Delgado has led to the displacement of more than 565,000 people, diminished access to food and water, and increased human rights violations. The poor infrastructure in the province has complicated international efforts to reach families that are currently relying on humanitarian aid for their livelihoods. As Mozambique is a coastal country, it is also highly susceptible to cyclones. Cyclone Chalane hit the country in December 2020, affecting the same populations that were still recovering from the devastating effects of Cyclone Idai and Cyclone Kenneth in 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic has not helped the dire situation as it has put pressure on the already strained healthcare system. Mandatory quarantining has also affected people’s ability to work in the informal sector, which is how many earn a living.    

In December 2020, the United Nations Regional Directors for East and Southern Africa visited Mozambique to assess the local situation and to determine what the displaced populations in Cabo Delgado needed. They reported that the expansion of health, food, protection, nutrition, and vaccination programmes is urgent, especially for women and children. They also concluded that there needs to be an effort to help displaced farmers and fishers reestablish their means of livelihood for themselves and their families. In regard to the violent extremism, the Directors have urged the Mozambican government to increase their efforts to end the violence and invest in economic empowerment and the political inclusion of women to prevent the rise of future extremist groups.    

The President’s Response 

Although the insurgency began in 2017 and Mozambican President Nyusi has claimed he has had numerous offers from other states to help the deteriorating northern province, he has been hesitant in accepting international assistance. In 2019, he instead opted to hire private military contractors such as the Russian Wagner Group and the South African Dyke Advisory Group. This decision has led to a primarily military-focused counterinsurgency strategy with no efforts to address the underlying socioeconomic causes of the conflict. Mozambique’s government has also been arming militia groups on top of sending official military troops to fight the insurgency. The lack of coordination between all of these military groups has led to civilians being killed. The different groups were also reported to be attacking each other by accident, further highlighting the chaotic response.  

Cabo Delgado’s oil and gas reserves, the site of the largest amount of private investment in Africa, have caused President Nyusi to be slow in accepting foreign aid to help curb the violence. Nyusi appears to be wary of countries offering their “help” to Mozambique with future economic interests in mind. 

At the Southern African Development Community (SADC) meeting at the end of 2020, Nyusi continued to refuse any type of regionally coordinated effort. President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe hinted that the SADC was close to sending in troops to fight the insurgency due to the failure of Mozambique to contain the violence and the fear of spillover into neighbouring countries. The US has gone so far as to pressure Zimbabwe to unilaterally send in troops, but this has not happened. In December 2020, in his annual State of the Nation address to Parliament, Nyusi finally declared that Mozambique would be increasing its international cooperation to fight terrorism; however, he paired this statement with one emphasizing the importance of Mozambique’s interests. 

In December 2020, Nyusi finally accepted Portuguese assistance since Portugal had already invested in the region’s natural resources. Under the current agreement, Portugal will help train Mozambican security forces and has committed to deploying 1435 troops to Mozambique in 2021. The African Union has also given more recognition to the violence in Cabo Delgado and could further help if Nyusi allows it.   

The Downfalls of Foreign Aid

How each country deals with violence within its own borders varies by context, depending on the resources available, governance, local military capabilities among other factors. As many governments believe that maintaining their state’s sovereignty is their top priority, Nyusi’s wariness of accepting international assistance regarding Cabo Delgado, a region worth almost USD 60 billion, does have merit and makes a statement. International aid as a whole has significant downfalls. Rather than targeting the world’s poorest countries based on GDP per capita, wealthy countries tend to send aid to countries they have a political or economic interest in. For example, the US sends most of its foreign aid to Israel, Egypt, Afghanistan, Kenya, and Jordan, all places it has a geopolitical interest in. 

Additionally, a lot of foreign aid is offered to developing countries in the form of  “tied” aid, which includes conditions and oftentimes hurts the receiving country by forcing it to buy goods and services from the donor country or in high-interest loans to be repaid. For Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world, accepting aid blindly would not be a smart move. Not only could foreign aid add to the number of investors benefiting from Mozambique’s natural resources, but it could also require the country to listen to the demands of wealthier states, which in turn would mean a relinquishment of some of its sovereignty, just what Nyusi is trying to avoid.  

However, despite these considerations, Nyusi’s decisions may not have been the best for his country. He has not kept his citizens safe but has arguably put them in more danger by hiring foreign military contractors who have contributed to the growing numbers of human rights abuses under Nyusi’s term. 

Nyusi’s choice of sovereignty over the safety and security of Mozambican civilians has come with harsh consequences. But his reluctance in accepting aid highlights the importance of sovereignty, especially in regards to conflict. In order for a state in crisis, like Mozambique, to see foreign assistance as a beneficial option, state sovereignty needs to be a priority when offering aid. The reputation of intervention and economic and political interests disguised as international assistance has affected how countries deal with internal crises, to the point of putting their populations in danger. 

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