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(Fighting) Jihadism in the age of the coronavirus: on the current crisis in northern Mozambique


Jannis Saalfeld

On 23 March 2020, UN Secretary-General António Guterres called for an immediate global ceasefire in light of the spread of the coronavirus. Guterres stated that it was now time for people in all conflict zones to lay down their weapons and concentrate on the joint fight against the pandemic. Unmoved by this appeal, Jihadist groups around the world are eager to exploit the current crisis for their purposes. Particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, which has become a hotspot for Islamist violence over the last decade, there is the danger that the spread of the virus will significantly aggravate existing trends of destabilisation. Compared to the Sahel zone, Northern Mozambique receives relatively little international attention in this respect.. This is despite the fact that  the region is currently at risk of sliding into a long-lasting civil war.

A local rebel group known under the name ‘Al-Shabaab’ has been launching regular attacks in the Cabo Delgado province since October 2017. In recent weeks, the security situation has dramatically deteriorated further. For a long time, the insurgents had focused their activities on rural areas, but at the end of March, they began to temporarily occupy district capitals and openly push for the establishment of an Islamic State. Against this background, the COVID-19 crisis could play into the Jihadists’ hands for several reasons.

International interest is waning

Most crucially, it is highly likely that the global recession will make the international community less prepared to help President Filipe Nyusi’s financially weak government in its fight against the violence. Indeed, even before the outbreak of the pandemic, Nyusi had criticised the European Union and the United Nations, among others, for only vaguely pledging their solidarity instead of promising concrete support.

Undoubtedly, the current situation urgently calls for extensive external assistance This is demonstrated by the fact that the soldiers stationed in Cabo Delgado are are poorly trained and equipped, and that more than 200,000 people have already been forced to flee their homes within the province due to the conflict. These internally displaced persons are struggling to survive under extremely t difficult conditions, which could deteriorate even further if the virus spreads across the region as expected. In the face of this civil and military emergency, it cannot be ruled out that the rebels will permanently establish themselves in the region and become increasingly popular with their anti-state narrative. As international interest in Cabo Delgado is waning because of the pandemic the  Mozambican government is able to intensify its repressive measures against the local population with relatively little interference. In April, for example, at least 18 civilians not involved in the conflict were executed without trial in the province by state security forces. The histories of other African countries show that such arbitrary measures are extremely counterproductive in combating Islamist violence as they serve to erode support for the police and military among the population and increase the recruitment potential of extremists. 

A comprehensive strategy is required
Ultimately, an end to the crisis in northern Mozambique will only become realistic if, despite the coronavirus, the international community defies expectations by exerting greater influence on the Mozambican government. The European Union, which so far has refrained from condemning the human rights violations in Cabo Delgado, could take the initiative here. In cooperation with the African Union, it could initiate a dialogue on a comprehensive civil-military strategy including preparations for a rapid regional spread of the coronavirus. As part of this, generous commitments to provide assistance – for example, a boost to the underfinanced Mozambique Humanitarian Response Plan of the United Nations – could be linked to the condition that the security forces operating in Cabo Delgado are trained in constructive dealings with the civilian population. In addition, local civil society actors should receive financial support for their joint efforts to hold public authorities accountable in the current crisis.

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Jannis Saalfeld is a research assistant at the Institute for Development and Peace. He conducts research on political change and social movements in sub-Saharan Africa.