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Mozambique's capital Maputo

When we talk about Islamic terrorism in Africa we tend to focus geographically on the Sahel, on what happens in Nigeria with Boko Haram, in Somalia with the Shabab or on the plethora of formations that transhume between southern Algeria, Libya, Mali, Niger and neighboring countries. Nations with a predominantly Muslim populations. But now phenomena linked to Islamic terrorism have also emerged in other countries where the majority of the population is not Islamic and geographically distant from the Sahel. The most striking case is Mozambique.

Mozambican Islam

Although many local Muslim leaders tend to corroborate different statistical data, the Islamic community in Mozambique does not exceed 20% of the population. The data, within certain limits, is questionable because of persistence of traditional and animists rites in both Christians and Muslims. The resulting religious syncretism creates space for indeterminacy, especially considering that the traditionalists/animists represent 50% of the population. To give an example, the cult of the ancestors, propitiatory rites to anticipate great events or favor rains, the recourse to local shamans with alleged divinatory powers and contacts with spirits is widespread in both monotheistic religions.

Geographically, Muslims are concentrated along the coast, they are the result of Arab settlements over the centuries, and in the north of the country, while Catholics are mainly present in the center and the Protestants in the south. The Mozambican Islamic community is not only made up of indigenous Africans, but also of worshippers of Asian origin (especially Indians), including many Ismailis (therefore closer to Shiism rather than Sunnism).

However – and this is the most important aspect – Mozambican Islam, like most of it in Africa, was not radical until recently, but rather inspired by moderate Sufism. It wasn’t linked to Qur'anic interpretations of Salafi inspiration. The prevailing school is the moderate Shafi school. The mutation took place over time, with the arrival of Wahabite charitable organizations, the consequent creation of mosques and Koranic schools, and proselytism helped by money donations.

The relationship between the State and religious communities

In 1977 the Marxist regime had nationalized all the structures that belonged to religious communities (including churches and mosques) and then later decided to return them, although this never happened completely. To address and resolve this diatribe, since 1982 the Mozambican government has established, within the Ministry of Justice, a Directorate for Religious Affairs.
The Constitution establishes the freedom of worship, does not define any state religion, but prohibits the existence of parties based on religion as they are considered a threat to national unity.

Despite this prohibition, a small Islamic-inspired party exists and is tolerated, the Independent Party of Mozambique (PIMO) led by Yacub Sibindi, which has no parliamentary representation nor offices, publications nor websites. Recently he joined forces with other minority groups. Within the FRE.LI.MO. (Frente de Libertaçao de Moçambique) itself there is a group called "Islamic Movement" which brings together all the Muslim MPs. A sort of symbiosis between Marxism and Islam. Since 1989 all religious communities and missionary organizations have the obligation to register with the Directorate.

In addition to the aforementioned Wahabite charitable organizations, other Islamic organizations operate in the country, including the "Tabligh Islamic Call mission" and many Muslim missionaries from South Africa who have financed a series of Islamic schools ("madrasas") in the northern provinces of Mozambique. Large Islamic primary and secondary schools have been built in Maputo in the recent past; there is an Islamic university in Nampula financed by Sudanese Muslim organizations.

Over the past few years there have been a number of diatribes around the fact that the government had accepted Islamic religious celebrations (which also revolve with the lunar calendar) as national holidays, while not doing the same with the Christian ones (Afonso Dhlakama from RE.NA.MO., Resistência Nacional Moçambicana, had supported the claims of the Catholics and had thus alienated the support that he enjoyed, even during the guerrilla war, from the Muslim community). The issue rebounded when the regime decided to grant the right to respect their holidays to every faith.

Another object of litigation was the family law, which raised the age for marriage (Muslims were against the initiative to set limit at 18 for both sexes) and forbade polygamy (which was very common among traditionalists / animists and who found common ground with Muslims).

Muslims in Mozambique have their own role to play in the politics of the country. Although they are subject to the dominant Catholic Church, both because it is financially richer, and because, after the success of the mediation between RE.NA.MO. and FRE.LI.MO orchestrated by the Community of Sant'Egidio, the political bargaining power of Catholics has increased. To date, a conference of bishops, including Anglican ones, is still a tool for dialogue and consultation with the authorities. However, Mozambique joined both the "Organization for the Islamic Conference" and the British Commonwealth in 1995.

Lately, even the Islamic Council has become a privileged interlocutor of the government as it tries to counter the rise of Islamic terrorism. Apparently, it was a dissident fringe of this body that fueled Islamic radicalism. A rebel rib of Mozambican Islam that created and registered its own organization in the north of the country under the name of "Ansar Sunna" (Partisans of the Islamic tradition) and that spread its influence through the construction of mosques and madrasas. The Islamic Council has repeatedly called for government intervention against this dissident sect without success. Only at the end of 2016 did the police intervene, arresting some members of Ansar Sunna.

mosque mozambique

Islamic terrorism

The first Islamic attacks in Mozambique began on October 5, 2017 in the north of the country, in the province of Cabo Delgado, in an area near the border with Tanzania. That day a commando of 30 terrorists attacked three police stations at dawn killing 17 people. Since then the attacks have continued with continuity; the biggest victims are mainly civilians and, in recent times, perhaps to emphasize their deeds and to copy those of ISIS, those captured have been beheaded.

Terrorists attack villages, kill people and destroy homes. Recently they seem more dedicated to hitting convoys and workers working in the oil sector. And this escalation has increased with time. So far, over two hundred people have been killed and almost twice as many have been injured. The aim is clear: to terrorize the population and affect the economy of an area rich in gas, minerals and oil.

The region in which terrorists operate is one of the poorest in the country, the main economic activities being agriculture and pastoralism; the unemployment rate – especially among the youth – is very high, local Muslims feel marginalized because gas discoveries and oil have not produced any positive effects on the local economy. The proceeds deriving from energetic resources are managed centrally by Maputo and therefore the windfall doesn’t reach, if not marginally, the local population. These are all causes of discontent that help the spread of terrorism fueled by social, political, economic and obviously religious problems.

The proximity with Tanzania offers terrorists the use of safe sanctuaries where to escape. There has always been a cross-border Islamic activity that is now the glue between the radical groups in Tanzania (who then ran away in Mozambique) with their Mozambican counterparts (who are now fleeing to Tanzania). Forms of collaboration have also emerged between the two groups.

Who are the terrorists

The problem is that the emergence of Islamic terrorism in Mozambique finds local security authorities unprepared. There is no definite information about these groups, who finances them, who commands them, what they want (apart from the imposition of Sharia and anti-Christian and anti-Western sentiments) and how strong they are militarily. The authorities label them as criminals who feed on banditry, a bit like in the Sahel. They are involved in drug trafficking, ivory, timber, coal, ruby ​​extraction, extortions and kidnappings. All these activities combined earn terrorists, according to some estimates, some 3 million dollars a month. An important figure if seen in the context of the endemic poverty of the Mozambican province.

The lack of information makes the hypothesis of succeeding in eradicating this terrorism uncertain. For now, the phenomenon has been confined to only one part of Mozambique, but this has not prevented local authorities to enact initiatives that can reduce social resentment. Obviously security forces have committed repeated violations of human rights, such as indiscriminate arrests, intimidations, censorship of news in the press.

Some estimates, however questionable, indicate that the militants of Ansar Sunna are around 1,000/1,500 and that they have been recruited from the local population, especially young people with a low cultural coefficient. They don't have a name. They are called "Shabaab" even though there are no links with their Somali counterparts. "Shabaab" because they are students who are therefore connected to the madrasas run by Ansar Sunna. The latter, is a name that was also borrowed from terrorists who fought US troops in Iraq.

After their attacks, the militants identified themselves as "Alhu Sunna wal Jamaa" (Organization of the followers of the Islamic tradition). They operate in small groups, they seem to have no centralized command structure and the various leaders often identify themselves as imams. In the fight against this organization, the Mozambican authorities can now rely on the technical and logistical support of Russia.

filipe nyusi

Filipe Nyusi

Risks for the future

The government of Filipe Nyusi, the President of Mozambique, needs to solve the issue of terrorism in the north of the country. In October there will be parliamentary elections and generally, at the turn of the vote, as happened in 2014, there will be contrasts, accusations, protests and clashes between the FRE.LI.MO. in power and the RE.MNA.MO. This year negotiations are underway to avoid conflicts, but the result is not guaranteed. Furthermore, by eradicating terrorism, Nyusi could obtain greater electoral support for his party.

Another problem, as often happens in Africa, is linked to ethnic contrasts. The Shabaab mostly belong to the Mwani ethnic group, rival to the Makonde of President Nyusi. It is a recurring event in Islamic terrorism that the battle of a group attracts the attention and solidarity of other similar formations. It also happened in Mozambique, where Ugandan radical Islamic militants were recently arrested after they volunteered in support of Ansar Sunna. There have also been arrests of Tanzanians and South Africans. And it is no coincidence that the terrorists of Ansar Sunna ideologically refer to a Kenyan extremist preacher, Aboud Rogo, killed in 2012. There are therefore all the premises to internationalize the fight against the authorities of Maputo and insert it in the context of a global war by terrorists.

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