Mozambique experienced its first confirmed Islamist attack earlier this month when a local group raided three police stations in the coastal town of Mocimboa da Praia. Now a “careful response” is required from the government, says African historian Eric Morier-Genoud.
A group of about 30 armed men launched the attack on the town in the northern Cabo Delgado province in the early hours of 5 October. In the fighting, which lasted several hours, 16 people were killed, including two policemen and a community leader.
While the group’s motives are not yet clear, the attack appears to have been carried out by young Mozambican Muslims who formed a sect in 2014 in Mocimboa da Praia. Locals know them as ‘Al-Shabaab’, but the group also goes by the name ‘Swahili-Sunah’ or ‘Al-Sunah’.
According to Morier-Genoud, lecturer in African History at Queen’s University Belfast, “the group controls two mosques in the town and have told their followers to stop sending their children to secular institutions such as state schools and hospitals. It wants Sharia [Islamic law] applied in the area… The fact that this first Islamist attack was carried out by Mozambicans makes the event no less shocking, particularly in a country proud of its sound and relaxed inter-religious relations”.
According to AIM, the Mozambican News Agency, the group also “wanted no Christian churches in the town”. National Muslim leaders have distanced themselves from the group and demanded the attackers are punished.
Locals told journalists they had been aware of the existence of the group since at least 2014 and had warned the authorities repeatedly about them.
AFP reports that Mozambique’s President, Filipe Nyusi, fired three top security chiefs yesterday (25 October), two weeks after the attack.
Morier-Genoud describes the Cabo Delgado province as a potential “powder keg”. Since giant oil and gas reserves have been discovered there, international companies have arrived and investments have started flowing in, he said, but people living in the “desperately poor” area have yet to benefit from the development.
“This is a wake-up call for Mozambique and unless inequality and youth unemployment and education is improved, we may see more of this,” Alex Vines from the London-based Chatham House think-tank told AFP following the attacks.
As the motives of the group are not known yet, Morier-Genoud argues for a historical perspective to understand why they attacked state institutions.
Colonised by the Portuguese, who favoured Catholicism, people of other religions in Mozambique were oppressed, including Muslims, says Morier-Genoud, who says this continued into the post-independence era, under the Marxist Leninist regime of the Liberation Front of Mozambique (Frelimo). The government was against all religions, but Islam in particular, he says.
When Frelimo started to relax its Marxist viewpoints to gain votes, it reached out to all religions but Morier-Genoud says it made some mistakes in the process, which sat uncomfortably with Muslims, who “still felt marginalised”.
While Islam in Mozambique has traditionally been Sufi, the more mystical side of Islam, conservative Wahhabi elements have slowly made inroads into the country, in particular in the 1970s through the return of Mozambicans who studied in Saudi Arabia, notes Morier-Genoud.
The Wahhabi influence has turned into a reform movement and although this has created tensions within the Muslim community in Mozambique, never before had violence targeted the state.
Muslims currently make up around 18 per cent of the population and most are Sunni.