Ugandan troops in Cabo Delgado could ignite powder keg of domestic conflict
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni has expressed his determination to offer Mozambique with military and economic assistance to combat violent extremism in the northern Cabo Delgado region.
Veterans of Mozambique’s independence war who trained Museveni and members of his rebel Front for National Salvation in Cabo Delgado in the 1970s would benefit from the assistance. Mozambique already receives military logistics help from Uganda, and President Filipe Nyusi recently visited Kampala to explore more aid.
While Uganda’s assistance may supplement that of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Rwanda, the fact that it is limited to liberation war veterans may exacerbate the conflict.
When terror attacks began to extend inland and government troops were unable to protect the populace from intrusions, veterans formed a militia to defend their villages and possessions. The first of these groups appeared in Mueda District in 2019-20, before to the deployment of Rwandan and SADC soldiers in 2021.
They are known as a força local, and they are mostly made up of struggle veterans and their sons from the dominating Makonde ethnic group. The militia is mostly active inland, where they are attempting to prevent the rebellion from spreading from the coastal districts.
The Cabo Delgado terrorist attacks began in the coastal district of Mocmboa da Praia and extended to the coastal districts of Macomia and Palma during the first two years. Attacks have spread into the interior, reaching the regions of Nangande, Muidumbe, and Mueda. The coastal areas are mostly occupied by the Muslim Kimwani and Makua ethnic groups, while the Christian Makonde reside inland.
Although the ethnic part of the war has not been thoroughly explored, some experts think it is a Mwani insurrection “against what they regard as an intrusion by Makonde people and interests of their territory.” Severino Ngoenha, rector of Mozambique’s Technical University, sees ethnic connections. He claims that the insurrection is motivated by “ethnic difficulties and socioeconomic disparities that Frelimo [Mozambique Liberation Front] has not been able to solve” in almost five decades of control.
In many instances, the assailants’ objectives reflect an ethnic component. According to journalists on the scene, during attacks on Kimwani and Makonde villages, “the homes they destroyed all belonged to primarily Christian Makonde ethnic community.”
While violent radicals received some sympathy from people in coastal regions and were often referred to as Mocmboa’s sons, they faced opposition from Makonde residents inland. When the indigenous populace in these places refused to join the rebellion, they were confronted with cruelty, even a slaughter.
As a result, the formation of the local militia is seen as a Makonde effort to halt the expansion of assaults inland — basically, a Makonde reaction to the Kimwani uprising. Makonde militias aren’t a new phenomenon. They existed from 1976 to 1992 in Mozambique and assisted government troops in fighting Mozambican National Resistance Movement militants, mostly from the Makwa ethnic group, from the south of Cabo Delgado.
The Makonde are the country’s military, political, and economic elite, accounting for around 20% of the province’s two million people. They are also key members of Frelimo, which has been in power since 1975. Many defense force generals, as well as Nyusi and at least three past defense ministers, are Cabo Delgado Makonde.
There is no legislation in Mozambique that allows the força local to function, and some perceive it as an imposition by strong Makonde generals. Members’ efforts were initially disorganized, with friendly fire incidents with government troops recorded. Recently, the government began assisting in the reorganization of the group and proclaimed its desire to legalize the militia.
Local militias have increased ethnic tensions in other African countries confronting violent extremism, according to research.
Regardless of their involvement in assisting security forces, such armed groups have contributed to the situation throughout northern Nigeria. Bandits in the country’s north-west defend their actions in part as retaliation for Yan Sakai militia activity.
Some Combined Joint Task Force personnel utilize their governmental support to perpetrate rape, armed robbery, and extrajudicial executions in the north-east.
Uganda has extensive experience combatting terrorism in Africa, having committed hundreds of troops to Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Although Uganda’s engagement in eastern DRC is sometimes seen as controversial — troops have been accused of assisting certain rebel groups and facilitating illicit mineral exports – Uganda’s assistance might help stabilize Cabo Delgado.
Uganda is similarly interested in the stability of Cabo Delgado. Ugandans were among the terrorists apprehended in Mozambique, and the nation is fighting the Allied Democratic Forces – a group associated with the Islamic State, similar to al-Sunnah in Mozambique.
Uganda will also soon begin agro-industry development initiatives in Cabo Delgado to assist Makonde veterans, and soldiers will defend such businesses, according to Ugandan military sources.
However, Uganda’s assistance should go to Mozambique’s government and military forces, not an ethnically discriminatory militia. Military assistance should also be coordinated with the other soldiers currently stationed in Cabo Delgado as well as the African Union (AU).
It’s worth recalling that the presidents of Rwanda and Uganda just recently repaired the schism that had kept their nations’ borders closed for months.
By assisting the local força, Uganda may unknowingly contribute to the ethnic war between Mozambique’s dominating Makonde and Cabo Delgado’s majority Makwa and Kimwani. To avoid this, SADC and the AU should work with the governments of Mozambique and Uganda to organize the promised assistance.