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OUTBREAK OF RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM IN MOZAMBIQUE: FACT OR FICTION? – Dr. Barend Prinsloo

December 11, 2017

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OUTBREAK OF RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM IN MOZAMBIQUE: FACT OR FICTION?

By Dr. Barend Prinsloo

North-West University, South Africa

RIMA Occasional Papers, Volume 5 (2017), Number 26 (December 2017) 

Overview

Since October of 2017, there have been a number of events which may be linked to possible Islamic extremism present in Mozambique. These events include:

  • October 5: An attack on three police stations in Mocimboa da Praia. Community members and witnesses to the shootout that killed 16 people, believed that the perpetrators were part of a violent extremist group calling themselves “Al-Shabaab.”
  • October 10: Police forces arrested 52 people after the attacks in Mocimboa da Praia. Authorities have dismissed links between Somalia’s Al-Shabaab or Nigeria’s Boko Haram. However, this has raised concerns about home-grown radical influences.
  • October 13: The rapid intervention unit of the Mozambican police was attacked at night by a group of unidentified armed men. They killed 4 policemen in total. The attack took place on the road between Mocimboa da Praia and Palma in Cabo Delgado, close to the river Chiukilila. According to independent reports, 4 policemen remain missing and it is suspected they were captured by these armed men. Other reports put causalities at between 11 and 13.
  • October 21: The same group that was reported to have attack Mocimboa da Praia, clashed with government forces in the fishing village of Maluku, some 30 km from Mocimboa da Praia. This prompted many villagers to flee their homes.
  • October 22: Clashes were reported in the village of Columbe, which is situated 16 km south of an installation of Texas-based Anadarko Petroleum Corporation. According to sources, personnel of the company were asked to evacuate. Community members who witnessed the clashes claim that they were perpetrated by “al-Shabaab”.
  • October 22: Armed men, believed to be Islamic militants, attacked Ulumbi in Palma district, Cabo Delgado. The attack targeted a building. The incident followed another clash that had taken place in Palma during which 11 people were captured and handed to the police. The armed men are suspected of being affiliated with the people who perpetrated the attacks in Mocimboa da Praia.
  • Independent reports, have come out of Nampula, stating that a police operation resulted in the killing of a number of Muslim men. These independent reports said the men were recovered in the forest of Ribaue.

Context

These ‘extremist’ attacks are a new development in Mozambique, which to date has not seen Islamic violent extremism. Mozambican.Media reports indicate that the “Al-Shabaab” group behind the October attack comprises young Mozambican Muslims who formed a sect in 2014 and have taken over two mosques in Mocimboa da Praia. Media outlets are quick to point out that the attackers spoke Swahili, Portuguese, and Kimwani, the local dialect on the Cabo Delgado coast of Mozambique. Some of the group’s members are believed to have attended schools in Saudi Arabia and Sudan.[1]

Islam has a very old presence in Mozambique, particularly on the coast and in the Northern parts of the country. Various Sultanates and Sheikdom existed before Portugal occupied the territory in the late 19th Century. The Portuguese colonialists openly and officially favoured Catholicism, at a time repressing Islam and other religions. But Islam gained converts and nonetheless grew. By the time of independence in 1975 Muslims officially accounted for 13% of the population. The 1997 census gave the figure of 17.8%. Both figures are contested by Muslims who believe them to be higher. Islam is overwhelmingly Sufi in Mozambique, with a majority of Muslims belonging to different Turuq.[2]

Comments

Following the attacks, reports not reflected in the media stated that the Government of Mozambique arrested at least 100 local Muslim people. The media has also been asked to tone down the reporting on any Islamic extremist threat.  Officially, the government shut down three mosques in Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado province, and stated that they may extend the measure to other towns[3].  From the information available, the situation in Mozambique should be understood within the following perspectives:

  • Evidence is mounting that security forces are fomenting a climate of fear to suppress urban dissent while they conduct a scorched earth campaign against centres of support for the Renamo in the countryside.[4] In the same way, Muslims are now under pressure and will continue to be side-lined by the Government of Mozambique which would only further ripen the seeds for religious discontent while widening the door of support for extremist views;
  • The government’s clamp down on media reports is indicative of the sensitivity surrounding the attacks. The sensitivity is most likely related to an extremely harsh clamp down by the government on the Islamic community; the government’s efforts to ensure that oil and gas exploration and investment continues; ensuring that the message to the world is that “it is a minor local Islamic issue which is not connected to the wider spread of Islamic extremism in Africa”; and
  • Maintaining investor confidence is essential for the government of Mozambique given the country’s economic decline and burgeoning debt, coupled with huge allegations of governmental corruption[5]. Media reports on the developing situation should therefore not be taken on face value. It is therefore not a given that the extremist problem is only a localized phenomenon and it is more likely to be connected to the larger expansion of radical Islam into Africa.

Conclusion

Whether the recent attacks are related to localized Islamic groupings or being part of a larger extremist network, should not distract from the fact that the threat is clear and present. The impact of the threat is clearly high when the response from the government is taken into account. One perplexing issue is the motive for the extremist attacks – local people are not against the oil and gas exploration in their region, so the attacks cannot be seen as being against development.  Further, even though the attacks had been against police stations (i.e. the government), the motive has not been against the government per se. The only conclusion is that the attacks form part of a more strategic goal and by implication it is likely that larger Islamic extremists are involved. This may only be the be

[1] http://clubofmozambique.com/news/gunfire-continues-in-mocimboa-da-praia-aim

[2]https://www.news24.com/Africa/News/why-islamist-attack-demands-a-careful-response-from-mozambique-20171019

[3]https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/world/africa/2017-11-28-mozambique-closes-three-mosques-after-deadly-attacks/

[4]https://www.africa-confidential.com/article/id/11676/State_of_fear

[5]https://www.africa-confidential.com/article/id/11658/Secret_security_debts_devastate_economy

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