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Responding to COVID-19 in an area of increasingly violent insurgency and inadequate government support

Making sense of the impact on society
Dr Nayanka Paquete Perdigao

Research Associate, African Leadership Centre

15 June 2020

With a state of national emergency having been declared, the Mozambican government reacted swiftly to the first case of COVID-19 in late March. The country closed its borders, suspended public gatherings and shut down schools. However, it has failed to adequately respond to Cabo Delgado – the region with ongoing Islamist insurgency, an already weakened healthcare system and the most cases of the virus. As Dr Nayanka Perdiago from the African Leadership Centre explains, the pandemic is exposing the urgent need to rethink humanitarian responses in this strategic region.

Cabo Delgago, in the northeast of Mozambique and at the border with Tanzania, is one of provinces with the most COVID-19 cases (58/80 cases registered as of May 2020). The region is also known for its vast natural resources and geopolitical positioning. In fact, the first confirmed cases have been linked to an outbreak at a liquefied natural gas (LNG) facility under construction by Total.

To make matters more complex, Cabo Delgado has only recently recovered from the devasting effects of Cyclone Kenneth, which saw people lose their homes, land, and means of employment, as well as a recent cholera outbreak.

Critically, Cabo Delgado is also the site of an Islamist insurgency. The ongoing violence has led to an influx of refugees and the establishment of temporary camp sites, which have in turn left many of the vulnerable to COVID-19.

The virus is exposing the complexities of escalating violence and its roots in deep structural challenges. It is also exposing the weaknesses in the government’s response. Paying attention to historical trajectories is important when understanding the impact of COVID-19 in the region.

Mozambique map

Cabo Delgado in context

The region, with a Muslim majority, ranks at the bottom of most social indicators: illiteracy, unemployment, poor housing conditions, high rates of child marriages, large families and poor sanitation.

According to a nurse based in Cabo Delgado, roughly 70% of the population in this region lives in precarious accommodation and is mostly reliant on agriculture and fishing for survival. Access to clean water is difficult, as is access to adequate healthcare (access is worse than in the rest of Mozambique).

Further discontentment amongst the people of the region began with the emergence of extractive industries in 2015, as the government was keen to capitalise on the discovery of vast natural resources (rubies, gold, timber and natural gas). This was done at the expense of the local populations, which were displaced through force and without any human rights consideration.

Despite extensive consultations with the population and promises of relocation, access to cultivated land and fishing grounds were lost by several communities. Local leaders have questioned whether these investments would benefit ordinary people.

Increasing Islamist insurgency during COVID-19

Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado began in 2017. Islamist insurgents – known by some as Ansar al-Sunnah – are linked to Al-Shabab, who has seized control of key parts of the region. So far, reports claim that the violence has led to the death of more than 1,000 people and 100,000 refugees, who have had to flee their homes.

The insurgency is taking place in the area of Cabo Delgado where foreign companies are working on a $60bn (£52bn) natural gas project. These exploration projects are estimated to produce up to 31 million tonnes per year (Africa's largest liquid natural gas projects are worth 30 billion in total).

A combination of falling oil prices due to COVID-19 and the ongoing insurgency has stalled progress on some of these projects. Recent studies have argued that extremists are exploiting COVID-19 to expand their footprint and increase civilian support.

This is partly because, although the attacks were initially aimed at government buildings and villages, more recently there have been claims by the Islamic State (IS) that the attacks, including beheadings and violent killings, are as part of its new ‘Central Africa Province’ branch.

The first message from the militias, came in late March 2020, and stated their objective was to establish Islamic Law. Militia members have been reported to be now using civilians as human shields and taking advantage of the people’s feelings of abandonment and resentment due to the government’s longstanding inadequate response.

Understanding the government’s response

Government responses to Islamist insurgency in the region have lacked in clarity and effectiveness, not to mention a reluctance to acknowledge the gravity of the situation. Its most recent reliance on Russian and South African mercenaries has shown little impact. Its heavy increase of security in the region has been marred by human rights abuses. There has also been the arbitrary arrest and silencing of journalists reporting on this situation, making it difficult to establish a clearer picture of what is happening in Cabo Delgado.

So, despite a recent meeting by the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in early May to discuss their response to the conflict, no concrete plans have been proposed. With resources being diverted to address the pandemic, Cabo Delgado’s violent crisis may be left to linger until it is too late for its people.

The future of Cabo Delgado

Whilst it could be deemed too early to know the full extent of the impact of COVID-19 on this already complex region, it is clear that the people in Cabo Delgado remain vulnerable to continuous attacks from the militias and a weakened healthcare system. 

The situation raises fundamental questions about state and society relations, and how these shape our responses to structural violence and conflict.– Dr Nayanka Paquete Perdiga

The ‘hard security’ approach from the Mozambican government already points to a lack of real engagement between the government and the local population. This is because this type of military approach will not be able to deal comprehensively with the underlying causes of the insurgency. Leadership scholars have long advocated for more holistic understandings of state and society relations and their potential for sustainable peace – these interactions have to be understood as part of an ever-evolving leadership process.

The complexities and challenges of state-building and peacebuilding in conflict affected states can be addressed through alternative and more holistic frameworks, in order to find lasting solutions. The government of Mozambique, as well as the ruling elites, has to fully engage with the context if it is to penetrate the people of Cabo Delgado and be able to engage with the militia groups. It must truly begin to address the people’s real situations of insecurity with honesty and compassion in order to find mutual pathways out of the crisis.


The African Leadership Centre (ALC) has launched an Africa-focused op-ed series to track, analyse and reflect on COVID-19 in and for Africa. To find out more, visit the ALC Nairobi website.

In this story

Nayanka Paquete Perdigão

Nayanka Paquete Perdigão

Research Associate

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