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Non-international Armed Conflicts in Mozambique

Conflict type: Non-international armed conflict

Mozambique is party to parallel non-international armed conflicts (NIACs) against respectively splinter groups of RENAMO, such as the RENAMO Military Junta, and the so-called group Al-Shabab.

Parallel NIACs are taking place in Mozambique:

  • Between 1977 and 1992, Mozambique has been torn by the so-called Mozambiquan civil war, fought between Marxist Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), which was ruling the country at the time, Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), namely anti-communist insurgents, and a number of smaller groups. In 2013, new tensions emerged between FRELIMO and RENAMO as the latter withdrew from the peace agreement signed in 1992. This led to a new NIAC. While RENAMO and the government signed a peace agreement in 2019, a number of members of the opposition group refused to recognize the agreement and have been carrying out armed attacks against state forces. Since then, a number of RENAMO splinter groups, such as the RENAMO Military Junta, have been fighting against Mozambiquan troops.
  • Since the end of 2017, in the northern part of the country, notably in Cabo Delgado region, Mozambique has been engaging in a NIAC against the so-called Al-Shabab group, affiliated to the Islamic State (IS). The group has conducted military operations in Tanzania as well.

Two criteria need to be assessed in order to answer the question whether a situation of armed violence amounts to a non-international armed conflict.

  • First, the level of armed violence must reach a certain degree of intensity that goes beyond internal disturbances and tensions.
  • Second, in every non-international armed conflict, at least one side to the conflict must be a non-state armed group which must exhibit a certain level of organization in order to qualify as a party to the non-international armed conflict. Government forces are presumed to satisfy the criteria of organization. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict’ in our classification section.

Intensity of violence

Various indicative factors are used to assess whether a given situation has met the required intensity threshold, such as the number, duration, and intensity of individual confrontations; the types of weapons and military equipment used; the number of persons and types of forces participating in the fighting; the number of casualties; the extent of material destruction; the number of civilians fleeing; and the involvement of the United Nations Security Council. For further information, see ‘non-international armed conflict – intensity of violence’ in our classification section.

Al-Shabab

In October 2017, a Muslim armed group called “Al-Shabab” started conducting armed attacks against both Mozambican armed forces and civilians in Cabo Delgado province. Since then, the intensity of violence escalated and soon reached the threshold required by IHL to classify the situation as a NIAC.
On 5 October 2017, members of Al-Shabab conducted a military attack against three police stations in Mocimboa da Praia, Cabo Delgado province. Three days later, security forces retook control over the town. Furthermore, on 21 October al-Shabab fighters clashed with armed forces in Maluku. Armed confrontations continued during the following months. For instance, in December 2017 security forces attacked al-Shabab in Mitumbate, Mocímboa da Praia district, killing a substantial number of al-Shabab fighters. International Crisis Group, Stemming the Insurrection in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado, Africa Report N. 303, 11 June 2021, p. 10.

In spite of the increasing number of offensives conducted by Mozambican security forces against the armed group, al-Shabab succeeded in regrouping. Accordingly, its fighters spent 2019 conducting military attacks against armed forces and villages. For instance, on 2 April rebels attacked a military base in Mocímboa da Praia district. Furthermore, on 4 June they conducted a military operation in the same area. The Islamic State (IS) celebrated the attack and affirmed that the fighters were ‘soldiers of the caliphate.’ By the end of the year, al-Shabab had control over the four main districts of Cabo Delgado’s coastline and started moving inland. International Crisis Group, Stemming the Insurrection in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado, Africa Report N. 303, 11 June 2021, p. 11.

In the second half of 2019, fighting intensified. Worried by the levels of violence, Mozambican authorities asked for the intervention of the Russian Wagner Group of mercenaries in order to support state forces in the fight against al-Shabab. P. Sauer, ‘In Push for Africa, Russia's Wagner Mercenaries Are 'Out of Their Depth' in Mozambique’, The Moscow Times, 19 November 2019; C. Giles and P. Mwai, ‘Mozambique conflict: What's behind the unrest?’, BBC, 29 March 2021. Nevertheless, due to heavy casualties suffered by the group, the Russian mercenaries left in November 2019. Since then, they have been replaced by Dyck Advisory Group, a private military company based in South Africa. G. Feller, ‘An overview of foreign security involvement in Mozambique’, DefenceWeb, 7 April 2021.

Towards the end of 2019, the conflict spilled over in Tanzania. Notably, in November al-Shabab conducted its first military attack against the neighboring country, in Ngongo village. ‘Six killed in Tanzania attack near border with Mozambique’, AFP, 13 November 2019.

Since 2020, al-Shabab became better organized: it formed three geographically separated sections, meant to operate respectively in the north, center, and south of Cabo Dalgado. As military confrontations continued over the year, the intensity of violence increased. It is worth mentioning some of the clashes between rebel and governmental forces. On 23 January 2020, al-Shabab attacked Mbau, which resulted in the death of more than twenty soldier. The attack was claimed by the IS. On 23 March, al-Shabab fighters took control over a military base in Mocímboa da Praia town, where they raised an IS flag. In that occasion, the group deployed hundreds of fighters. International Crisis Group, Stemming the Insurrection in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado, Africa Report N. 303, 11 June 2021, pp. 14 and 18. In late June, the rebels launched simultaneous attacks against government and police buildings in Mocímboa da Praia, killing both enemy soldiers and civilians. A few days later, in Quissanga district, governmental forces retaliated with the help of the mercenaries, causing the death of a number of al-Shabab fighters. Dyck mercenaries continued their involvement in the conflict. One successful example is the joint military operation conducted by governmental forces and mercenaries against a rebel military base in Quissanga district. International Crisis Group, Stemming the Insurrection in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado, Africa Report N. 303, 11 June 2021, p. 14. In 2020 there had been also attacks in Tanzania. For instance, 300 al-Shabab fighters ‘crossed into Tanzania and raided security, reportedly capturing military equipment in an attack again celebrated by ISIS.’ G. Obulutsa, ‘Militants from Mozambique staged deadly attack in Tanzania, police say’, Reuters, 23 October 2020.

In 2021, violence remained intense. For instance, on 24 March 2021 approximately 120 heavily harmed fighters attacked Palma town, using machine guns and grenades. As fighting continued the following day, other fighters arrived from the north to provide support. The government regained control over Palma on 4 April. It has been reported that ‘[t]he fighting ha[d] left more than 2,500 people dead.’ According to UNHCR, more than 30.000 people were displaced by the armed confrontations that took place in March 2021. K. Herrmannsen and C. Byaruhanga, ‘Mozambique: Dozens dead after militant assault on Palma’, BBC, 29 March 2021; ‘Mozambique town Palma 'retaken' from militant Islamists’, BBC, 5 April 2021; ‘Nearly 30,000 people displaced by March attacks in northern Mozambique’, UNHCR, 30 April 2021.

Since April 2021, al-Shabab activity has decreased significantly. On the other hand, the government has put them under pressure continuing military operations against the group. Notably, the government was capable to regain control over a number of strategic locations, such as Diacaand Namacande, which had been under al-Shabab control since November 2020. International Crisis Group, Stemming the Insurrection in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado, Africa Report N. 303, 11 June 2021, p. 14.

Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO)

Between 1977 and 1992, Mozambique has been torn by the so-called Mozambiquan civil war, fought between Marxist Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), which was ruling the country at the time, Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), namely anti-communist insurgents, and a number of smaller groups, such as the Revolutionary Party of Mozambique, the Mozambiquan national Union, and the Mozambique revolutionary Committee. RENAMO was supported by Rhodesia and South Africa, while FRELIMO was supported by the Soviet Union. In 1992, the conflict ended with the adoption of the Rome General Peace Accord. RENAMO was dismantled and the majority of its members were integrated in the Mozambiquan army. A. Vines, Still Killing: Landmines in Southern Africa, Human Rights Watch, 1997.

In 2013, new tensions emerged between FRELIMO and RENAMO, as the latter withdrew from the peace agreement signed in 1992. On 4 April, the police raided an office of the opposition group with tear gas and the rebel forces retaliated by attacking a police post in Muxungué town, Manica. The armed confrontations cause the death of 5 people on both sides. In November and December, RENAMO conducted a number of attacks against members of the Mozambiquan armed force. At the beginning of 2014, the situation escalated quickly and reached the threshold of a NIAC. As the intensity of violence increased, the government and the rebel group started negotiations which led to the adoption of a ceasefire in May 2014. While RENAMO suspended the ceasefire on 2 June, it then agreed to a new one in August, ahead of the elections, which took place in October 2014. The election results saw the victory of FRELIMO, with 57% of vote, while RENAMO won 33.8% of vote. While the Southern African Development Community (SADC) observer mission said polls “generally free, fair and credible”, RENAMO did not recognized the election results and refused to contribute to the creation of the new government. ‘Mozambique rivals agree ceasefire ahead of elections’, BBC, 25 August 2014; International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Mozambique, 2013 and 2014.

On 15 January, President Filipe Nyusi started his term. Nevertheless, RENAMO continued to reject election results. In February, the leader of the opposition group presented a proposal to the parliament to create autonomous provinces where Renamo won the majority of votes. In April the Parliament rejected the proposal. As dialogue between FRELIMO and RENAMO failed, violence erupted again and continued in 2016. On 21 July 2012, peace talks started in Maputo, but they were suspended two days later due to disagreements. During the following months, indirect talks took place between the two parties. However, fighting never ceased, causing talks to stall. On 27 December, RENAMO adopted a unilateral ceasefire, which positively influenced the peace talks, which continued in 2018. Notably, in February 2018 the two parties discussed disarmament and integration into state armed forces, integration that started being implemented in March 2019. However, in June 2019 a number of armed confrontations took place between state troops and armed fighters that claim to be members of RENAMO military’s wing. In August, the government and RENAMO signed the peace agreement to mark the official end of hostilities, while RENAMO fighters began to disarm. Nevertheless, a number of members of the opposition group refused to recognize the peace agreement and carried out armed attacks against state forces. Since then, a number of RENAMO splinter groups, such as the RENAMO Military Junta, have been fighting against Mozambiquan troops. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Mozambique.

As splinter factions of RENAMO have refused to accept the peace agreement and have continued fighting, the crucial question is whether hostilities between these groups and Mozambiquan armed forces should be considered a continuation of the previous NIAC between RENAMO and the government, or whether this should be considered as a new NIAC. This is relevant because only in the latter case the minimum requirements of violence must be met while in the former case it is only necessary that hostilities have not completely ceased. Such an assessment depends on whether this group has continued as the successor of the parent organ or deemed itself as a new independent entity. For a brief discussion on how to classify a conflict when a splinter group emerged from the parent group, see E. Nohle, ‘Drawing the line between armed groups under IHL’, Humanitarian LAw and Policy Blog, 22 July 2016. Since this group did not accept the peace agreement and never stopped fighting, it is possible to conclude that the NIAC between this group and the government is a continuation of the NIAC between RENAMO and Mozambique.

Organization

Al-Shabab

Al-Shabab in Mozambique is a jihadist group, whose objective is to impose Sharia law across in the northern part of the country. The group is known by several names, such as Ahlu al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah (ASJ), Ansar al-Sunnah, ISIS– Mozambique, and al-Shabab. The latter name was chosen by the group, allegedly because this is how the local population calls them. Nevertheless, it does not seem to have any connection with al-Shabab in East Africa. While the Islamic State has claimed a number of attacks conducted by the opposition group, there is no evidence of the degree of connection between the two groups. P. Conceição João Faria, ‘The rise and root causes of Islamic insurgency in Mozambique and its security implication to the region’, IPSS, Vol. 15, 5 March 2021; ‘The Islamist insurgency in Mozambique’, IISS, August 2021; ‘How big is the Islamist threat in Mozambique? And why are Rwandan troops there?’, The Conversation, 19 September 2019.

Cabo Delgado’s al-Shabab has a hierarchical structure, with a leadership group and lower-level fighters. The composition of the group is diverse. The leaders are mainly Tanzanian Islamists who fled Tanzania following crackdowns that have affected the country over the past years, although a few members of the leadership are Mozambiquan. On the other hand, lower-level members of the group are mostly young Mwani and Makua, notably former fishermen or farmers. While the leadership of the group is highly ideological, the majority of the fighters seem to be motivated by local reasons, such as they aversion toward the ruling party and local officials. It has been reported that the group comprises between 1.500 and 4.000 members. Low-ranking fighters are often abducted during raids and battles or join the group due to economic hardship and frustration towards the government, with the promise of money. International Crisis Group, Stemming the Insurrection in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado, Africa Report N. 303, 11 June 2021, pp. 18-19.

Since the first armed confrontations in 2017, the military capabilities of the group have increased significantly. While at first they relied mainly on AK-47 rifles and PKM machine gun, more recently they have started using RPG-7 rocket launchers and 60mm and 82mm mortar firing systems. Furthermore, following looting of state troops’ bases, they have acquired a number of governmental vehicles. Battlefield tactics have also improved, as fighters have been able to conduct simultaneous attacks in different areas and have shown capabilities on water as well, using small canoes and sailboats to conduct attacks against coastal targets. International Crisis Group, Stemming the Insurrection in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado, Africa Report N. 303, 11 June 2021, pp. 18.

RENAMO

RENAMO is characterised by a hierarchical structure, and it is clearly divided into a military and political wing. The head of the latter was Dhlakama, who died in May 2018, and Ivonne Soares, leader of RENAMO members of the parliament. On the other hand, the military wing comprises of soldiers and generals from the Mozambiquan civil war as well as combatants who have joined the NIAC which started between 2013 and 2014. L. Hood, ‘Why Renamo leader’s death could have a major impact on Mozambique’, The Conversation, 10 May 2018. Following the conclusion of the peace agreement, the military wing has been demobilized and its members have joined state armed forces. Nevertheless, a number of fighters refused to recognize the agreement and have not stopped fighting. Notably, it is worth mentioning the so-called Renamo Military Junta, which is led by Mariano Nhongo. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Mozambique; ‘Mozambique: Nhongo Refuses to Demobilise 'Renamo Military Junta'’, All Africa, 5 March 2021.

International interventions

A number of countries have been providing military assistance to Mozambique to fight against al-Shabab. It should be recalled that, since the intervention is taking place with the consent of the Mozambiquan government, the foreign involvement in the conflict does not affect the classification. Under the ‘support-based approach’ propounded by the ICRC, the intervening countries are bound by IHL regulating NIACs even if the hostilities they conduct against al-Shabab do not reach the level of violence which would be necessary to make IHL of NIACs separately applicable. Accordingly, we can conclude that the intervening states are party to the conflict between Mozambique and al-Shabab.

Tanzania

Towards the end of 2019, the conflict spilled over in Tanzania. Notably, in November al-Shabab conducted its first military attack against the neighboring country, in Ngongo village. ‘Six killed in Tanzania attack near border with Mozambique’, AFP, 13 November 2019. In 2020 there had been also attacks in Tanzania. For instance, 300 al-Shabab fighters ‘crossed into Tanzania and raided security, reportedly capturing military equipment in an attack again celebrated by ISIS.’ G. Obulutsa, ‘Militants from Mozambique staged deadly attack in Tanzania, police say’, Reuters, 23 October 2020. Cross border attacks have been reported in 2021 as well. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Mozambique. Due to fear of further attacks, Tanzania has adopted a strict policy at the border, preventing civilians from entering into Tanzania or sending them back to Cabo province. This policy was criticised by UNHCR, as it has led to the deportation of asylum seekers coming from areas affected by the conflict. L. Schlein, ‘UNHCR Calls on Tanzania to Stop Deporting Mozambican Asylum Seekers’, Voa News, 19 May 2021; International Crisis Group, Stemming the Insurrection in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado, Africa Report N. 303, 11 June 2021, p. 14.

South Africa

In May 2020, Mozambique and South Africa started talks on a possible assistance to fight against al-Shabab. On 19 July 2021, South African Special Forces were deployed in Cabo Delgado ‘to pave way for deployment of Southern Africa regional block (SADC) Standby Force.’ Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, announced that he will deploy 1.495 troops as a contribution to the regional force. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Mozambique.

Rwanda

On 24 June 2021, Rwanda and Mozambique announced the conclusion of a bilateral agreement, whereby Rwanda would have deployed troops in cabo Delgado to fight against the opposition group. Accordingly, on 9 July, Rwanda deployed 1.000 members of its army and police forces. On 20 July, Rwandan troops engaged in armed confrontations in Quionga village, Palma district. Moreover, on 23 July they killed 26 fighters in Mandela village, Muidumbe district. The following month, Rwandan and Mozambican armed forces regained control over Mocìmboa da Praia town, which had been under rebels’ control since August 2020. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Mozambique.

Southern African Development Community (SADC)

Worried by the developments of the situation in Mozambique, a number Southern African Development Community (SADC) states – such as Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – met in Zimbabwe to discuss the insurgency in Cabo Delgado. In a final comuniqué, they communicated their intention to provide support to Mozambique in its fight against jihadist insurgents. Discussions on the modality of assistance continued over the following months. In April 2021, a SADC technical mission was sent to Cabo Delgado to help developing a plan of assistance. Upon its return from Mozambique, the commission recommended the deployment of a 3.000-strong armed force to the north of the country. On 23 June, the Southern Africa’s regional bloc of SADC held an Extraordinary Summit of Heads of State and Government and decided to deploy SADC’s Standby Force to be deployed in Cabo Delgado, which was launched on 9 August. Far from what suggested, the force consists of 738 soldiers. International Crisis Group, Crisis Watch: Mozambique.

All parties to the conflict are bound by Article 3 common to the 1949 Geneva Conventions that provides for the minimum standard to be respected and requires humane treatment without adverse distinction of all persons not or no longer taking active part in hostilities. It prohibits murder, mutilation, torture, cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, hostage taking and unfair trials. Moreover, all parties are bound by customary international humanitarian law applicable to non-international armed conflict. Customary international law consists of unwritten rules that come from a general practice accepted as law. Based on an extensive study, the International Committee of the Red Cross maintains a database on customary international humanitarian law.

In addition to international humanitarian law, international human rights law continues to apply during times of armed conflict. Under human rights law, the territorial state has an obligation to prevent and to investigate alleged violations, including by non-state actors. 

State parties

  • Mozambique
  • Tanzania
  • Rwanda
  • South Africa

Regional organizations

  • Southern African Development Community (SADC)

Non-state parties

  • Al-Shabab
  • RENAMO splinter groups
Last updated: Monday 27th September 2021