Op-Ed Series – Vol.3 Issue: 2

June 11, 2020


COVID-19 in Africa: Challenges and Responses to Violent Insurgency in Northeast Mozambique

 Nayanka Paquete Perdigao

In Summary

  • The interconnected nature of the public health crisis, economic interests and violent extremism has had searing effects on the population of Cabo Delgado.
  • Paying attention to the colonial and historical trajectories that have caused and shaped the disconnect between central government and Cabo Delgado remains critical in the search for lasting solutions.
  • An exclusively military and ‘hard security’ approach may have limited outcomes, especially in tackling the underlying causes of the insurgency and the historical neglect of the people of Cabo Delgado.
  • COVID-19 has created further challenges for Cabo Delgado’s population, but it has also exposed the urgent need to rethink how to effectively respond to the escalating humanitarian crisis.

The emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the development, conflict and security nexus in Africa. Whilst much of the focus has been on African governments’ approaches to the emerging public health crisis, few links have been made between responses to the virus and ongoing violent conflicts. The first case of COVID-19 in Mozambique was confirmed on 20 March 2020. The first confirmed infections were linked to an outbreak in the Cabo Delgado region, in the northeast of the country, at a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility under construction by Total. By this time, the Mozambican government had reacted swiftly by closing its borders, suspending public gatherings and shutting down schools. As Mozambique declared a state of national emergency in late March 2020, fighting between the government and militias in the North had been escalating.

Cabo Delgado province, which borders Tanzania, is one of the regions with high COVID-19 infections. Of the 80 cases which were registered in early May 2020, 58 were located in this region. Cabo Delgado is still recovering from the devastating effects of Cyclone Kenneth, which saw scores of people losing their lives, homes, land and means of employment. Crucially, Cabo Delgado is also the site of an Islamist insurgency which began in 2017. So far, reports indicate that the violence has led to the death of more than 1,000 people and 100,000 internally displaced people. It is clear that the pandemic exacerbates an already fragile and complex security situation and exposes the weaknesses of the government’s response to these challenges. The interconnected nature of the public health crisis, economic interests and violent extremism has had searing effects on the local population. COVID-19 has shed light on the issues which are faced by the populations of Cabo Delgado and the role of the Mozambican government, particularly its leadership and the inadequate responses to this multi-layered crisis. The effects of the pandemic on the escalating crisis and the ensuing responses have to be analysed more deeply.

Accounts by some healthcare workers indicate that the people in Cabo Delgado are confronted with extreme living conditions from a combination of the insurgency, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown measures which have been implemented by the government. Roughly 70% of the population in this region live in precarious accommodation and is mostly reliant on agriculture and fishing. Adhering to social distancing measures is almost impossible, especially for those who have to rely on daily wages to survive. Furthermore, access to clean water and adequate health care is far worse in Cabo Delgado compared with the rest of Mozambique. The region ranks bottom in most social indicators. Prior to the arrival of COVID-19, Cabo Delgado was already facing a public health crisis, including an endemic cholera outbreak. Thus the insurgency and the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated an already critical socio-economic situation.

Recent studies argue that extremists are exploiting COVID-19 to expand their footprint and increase civilian support. The COVID-19 pandemic exposes the complexities of an escalating violent situation that has deep structural challenges. The outcome has multiple ramifications, considering the region’s strategic importance because of the presence of vast natural resources and its geopolitical positioning. The insurgent group has exponentially gained ground during the course of the pandemic. Within the first half of 2020, there have been more than 100 attacks in the region and major cities were occupied. This is a massive increase of 300 percent compared to the same period in 2019. The reasons for these attacks, which were initially aimed at government buildings and villages, are still unclear, but recent reports suggest that there are links between the insurgents and the Islamic State (IS) as part of its new “Central Africa Province” branch. Militia members have been reported to be now using civilians as human shields and alluding to feelings of abandonment and exploitation as sources of resentment. The responses from the Mozambican government have lacked clarity and effectiveness, not to mention displaying a reluctance to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. The ongoing violence has also led to widespread population displacements and the establishment of temporary camp sites, which have left many of the vulnerable populations exposed to COVID-19. Furthermore, it is challenging to observe social distancing measures in cramped makeshift camps. A recent meeting by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in early May to discuss its response to the conflict has not provided any concrete plans. There are growing fears that if the insurgency is not contained swiftly, it may spread to neighbouring countries in the region. 

Whilst it could be deemed too early to know the full extent of the impact of COVID-19 pandemic on the ongoing conflict, it is clear that the people in Cabo Delgado remain vulnerable to continuous attacks from the insurgency, and are now also exposed to the pandemic. The public health crisis and the violent conflict raise fundamental questions about state-society relations and how these shape responses to structural violence and conflict. The heavy handed ‘hard’ security approach by the Mozambican government points to a lack of mutual engagement between the government and the local population. In order to find lasting solutions, the complexities and challenges of state-building and peacebuilding in conflict affected states need to be addressed through alternative frameworks of engagement which are more holistic. The people of Cabo Delgado have been isolated by their government for more than 40 years. Paying attention to the colonial and historical trajectories that have caused and shaped this disconnect between central government and Cabo Delgado remains critical in the search for durable solutions.

The government of Mozambique and the ruling elite have to fully engage with the context in which they operate, if they are to build trust with the people of Cabo Delgado. The ruling elite must also, perhaps for the first time in history, begin to address the people’s real situations of insecurity with honesty and compassion in order to find mutual pathways and guardrails out of the crisis. They must also engage in difficult ‘conversations’ with the insurgent group to find lasting solutions out of the crisis. An exclusively military and ‘hard security’ approach may have limited outcomes, especially in tackling the underlying causes of the insurgency and the historical neglect of the people of Cabo Delgado.  Leadership scholars have long advocated for more holistic understandings of state-society relations and their potential for sustainable peace - these interactions have to be understood as part of an ever-evolving leadership process. COVID-19 has created further challenges for Cabo Delgado’s population, but it has also exposed the urgent need to rethink how to effectively respond to the escalating humanitarian crisis. The region commonly known as the forgotten cape (Cabo Esquecido) cannot continue to be forgotten, especially in times of coronavirus.

*Dr.  Nayanka Paquete Perdigao is a Research Associate and Head of Fellowships with the African Leadership Centre, London.

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