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Cabo Delgado Conflict: Escalating tensions and COVID-19 threaten civilian population

Source: Wikimedia Commons, F Mira

Since 2017, the ongoing conflict in Mozambique’s northernmost province, Cabo Delgado, has cost the lives of more than 1000 people, displaced some 355,000 and left 712,000 needing humanitarian assistance. 2020 has seen the conflict become increasingly brutal and has shown Daesh affiliated extremists to be increasingly sophisticated, organised and well resourced.

Expansion of al-Shabaab

Cabo Delgado province borders Tanzania to the north and the Indian Ocean to the east. The province is the poorest in Mozambique, with high unemployment, low literacy rates and very limited infrastructure and services. These conditions have enabled the radicalisation of local youth by Islamist extremists. Known locally as al-Shabaab, but also commonly referred to as Ahlu al-Sunna and Swahili Sunna, the group is the Mozambique affiliate of Daesh and the main militant group responsible for the frequent attacks in Cabo Delgado.

Mozambique is a predominantly Christian nation; however, the Cabo Delgado region is predominantly Muslim. The expansion of al-Shabaab in the region shows the expansion of Daesh and its affiliates following territorial losses in Syria and Iraq. The extremist group has declared that its ultimate goal is to take control of Cabo Delgado as a caliphate regulated by Sharia law.


The capture of the Mocimboa da Praia port in northern Mozambique in August 2020 represented a significant escalation in tensions since the conflict began in 2017. During this attack, insurgents maintained their position, whereas in previous attacks the insurgents left within one or two days of launching an attack. Emilia Columbo, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues these recent activities suggest the group is focused on “consolidating its position along the coast and on using Mocimboa da Praia and its port as a base of operations.” Gaining control over the port would allow the group to disrupt government forces’ ability to resupply essential needs during the conflict and, in the mid- to long-term, may disrupt multi-billion dollar natural gas and oil projects in the region.

Effects of the conflict

There are three major energy projects planned for Mozambique that have drawn significant foreign investment in recent years. Large natural gas fields were discovered in the country in 2010. It is estimated that $US60 billion has been invested into energy developments in Mozambique since then. Ownership of these projects is shared between local energy firm Mitsui E&P Mozambique Area 1, Total, Eni SpA, and Exxon Mobil.

Located 37 miles north of Mocimboa da Praia port, the total natural gas project is valued at $US23 billion and is projected to produce 13 million metric tonnes of natural gas per year after completion in 2023. However, this project and others rely on the port for importing building supplies and heavy equipment. Due to the conflict, progress is on hold as no ships are able to get in or out of the port. If the conflict subsides, there will continue to be disruptions as much of the port’s key infrastructure has been reportedly damaged or vandalised during the conflict.

In November 2020, Mozambique and Tanzania signed a memorandum of understanding to join forces to counter the attacks and fighting in Cabo Delgado. The agreement enables Tanzania’s armed forces to support their counterparts in Cabo Delgado and to collaborate in areas such as information sharing. There are, however, concerns that Tanzania may not share all relevant information with Mozambique, weakening the abilities of both governments to counter the conflict.

Humanitarian Crisis

The escalating violence in Cabo Delgado has sparked concern among governments across southern Africa and international organisations. There have been reports of massacres, including beheadings, and kidnapping of women and children. It is estimated 265,000 people have been displaced in 2020 alone. The main needs reported by displaced people are food, shelter and non-food items; however, without easy access to the Mocimboa da Praia port, further violence will only escalate an ever-increasing humanitarian crisis.

Humanitarian aid is being provided by The International Committee of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (ICRC) and the Mozambique Red Cross Society. However, COVID-19 has placed increased pressure on the situation. The region does not have suitable health infrastructure to handle COVID-19 outbreaks, and as families flee violence in Cabo Delgado, they have higher exposure risk as they travel to the regional capital.

In addition to the humanitarian complications of COVID-19, the pandemic may hinder the previous efforts of Tanzania and Mozambique to counter the violence in Cabo Delgado. In particular, Tanzania has chosen to deny the existence of COVID-19 in the country, creating the very real risk that it will be overrun by the virus and unable to contribute to any regional effort to counter violent extremism. Furthermore, al-Shabaab have capitalised on the insecurity created by COVID-19 to further their anti-government narrative and increase their popularity among individuals.


The immediate outlook for the region is one of continued humanitarian crises. COVID-19 is exacerbating an already dire situation, and until the pandemic is under control in both Mozambique and Tanzania, it is unlikely either state will have the capacity to successfully counter al-Shabaab violence and expansion. International humanitarian aid will be essential in supporting Mozambique’s efforts to respond to both COVID-19 and Cabo Delgado violence, and responses to both will be necessary for the region to see peace.


Belle Davenport is a first year Master’s student in International Relations and Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Queensland. Her interests include security, conflict and geopolitics.