Youth key to halting insurgency in Mozambique

• By Jaynisha Patel and Amanda Lucey

HOPE for an imminent peaceful resolution to the insurgent conflict in northern Mozambique is becoming increasingly dim. Recent troop deployments by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Rwanda have done little to arrest the violence.

The al-Shabaab proxy, Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama’a, has recently managed to further extend its control of parts of Cabo Delgado province to the neighbouring province of Niassa. More recently, the SADC mission has made some ground but also suffered fatal losses.

Recent research by the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation (IJR), based in Cape Town, shows that brute military force does not offer the prospect of a sustainable solution. Instead, it points to deep-seated historical grievances regarding unresponsive democratic systems, and persistent material deprivation that will continue to fan the flames for as long as they remain unaddressed.

In September last year, the IJR collaborated with the Centre for Democracy and Development, Mozambique, to host focus groups in Cabo Delgado that invited the youth to share their perspectives and experiences of the insurgency.
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Young people are particularly at risk of being drawn into the insurgency in light of high unemployment levels, a dysfunctional education system and an economy that offers little in the way of future prospects.

At the same time, the youth, if mobilised in a constructive way, could become a positive force in challenging the circumstances that underpin their economic and political marginalisation.

These focus groups unearthed a number of insights on young people’s grievances that drive recruitment into the extremist group. Of greatest concern are the material drivers that include hunger, persistent deprivation and poverty.

The high prevalence of unemployment in some instances leaves the youth more inclined to take radical action to improve their precarious circumstances. It became apparent that many youths have been unsuccessful in their search for entry level or unskilled job opportunities, which they ascribe to systemically insurmountable barriers. Among these are educational shortfalls and illiteracy. Some contend that even with educational qualifications it is difficult to find gainful employment.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the economic grievances in Cabo Delgado. With restrictions on economic activity to prevent the spread of the virus, income earning opportunities were further limited.

Given its high reliance on the informal sector, Cabo Delgado’s vulnerable population was pushed even further towards the margins of economic inclusion. Focus group participants noted that this had the effect of forcing small businesses to close, causing a widespread loss of income and increased hunger.


One participant from Pemba said that Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama’a used promises of food and cash to lure young people into mosques where manipulated religious messages were being preached. Material deprivation and broader grievances, according to this participant, served as a conduit for the spread of misconstrued religious messaging.

Grievances with the efficiency and perceived bias of the state have also been cited as a powerful driver of extremism. With perceptions that most national wealth is allocated to southern provinces, Cabo Delgado is home to ethnic minorities who have long felt alienated from the state and slighted by an unequal dispensation of public wealth.

A small but well-connected elite in Cabo Delgado have positioned themselves to capture what national wealth does make its way to the northern regions, including gains from the emerging liquid natural gas sector and illicit trade. The unfair nature of the Mozambican political economy has created yet another loophole for extremists to exploit.

In light of the above, young people feel despondent about the efficacy of democratic practice and structures. In this regard, some have pointed to a trend of declining voter participation and frustration with the state’s unresponsiveness. They perceive their concerns to be falling on deaf ears and have little knowledge about the recourse that government institutions in theory offer.

Youths stated that the establishment of effective grievance mechanisms would build resilience among them, so that they are not forced to “take things into their own hands”. Youth also expressed a keen desire for forums where they can have their voices heard. More broadly, the Mozambican government and international community can do more to involve the youth in critical dialogue, governance and in vocational and technical training.

These complexities are compounded by a lack of faith in the country’s security apparatus. Distrust between the population and the military remains rife, mostly as a result of the impunity with which the latter have victimised some people.

Despite a heavy state presence in Cabo Delgado, state-led repression has violated human rights and free media through acts of intimidation and arbitrary arrests.


Youths indicate that this has created trust deficits that can work to push young people towards Ahlu-Sunnah Wa-Jama’a, because some fear the military more than insurgents. But, at the same time, current evidence suggests that displaced youths are beginning to express interest in joining the military as a means of protection both for their families and for themselves to reduce the chances that they will be mistakenly seen as insurgents and killed.

Much more can be done to integrate youths into peace and security discussions at the SADC level. But, preceding this, the more pressing issues of material deprivation, marginalisation and eroded trust in the state demand urgent action.

Without remedying these critical problems, we are looking at a microcosm of what might become a general reality across the region, with implications for broader regional security. As such, there is a strong case to be made for a more concerted effort to improve governance processes that could give birth to greater inclusion in the region.

At a sub-regional level, SADC has adopted a Youth Employment Promotion Policy, but it makes no mention of the active involvement of youths in peace and security.
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The policy has overlooked an opportunity to bring together the indivisible objects of peace and development. The situation in northern Mozambique patently underscores this. SADC would do well to recognise and address this nexus in more concrete ways.

*Jaynisha Patel is the project leader for Inclusive Economies at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. Amanda Lucey is the senior project leader for Countering Violent Extremism at the IJR.