Ritha Jaime Lucas is the bubbly fast-talking assistant manager of Amarula Hotel in Palma, the unassuming beach town in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Province, which was attacked by jihadist IS-Mozambique rebels (known locally as Al-Shabaab) in March 2021.
She describes herself as a Mozambican-Tanzanian girl — a border person.
Many people were killed, and outside the hotel, where expatriates, contractors working in nearby TotalEnergies’ natural gas project and local officials took refuge, 12 people were slaughtered by the rebels. There is still a whiff of decomposing bodies in the air.
Like nearly all of Palma, the hotel was trashed and looted. In the town itself, where life is beginning to return to normal after Rwandan troops retook large parts of Cabo Delgado from the insurgents last August, many buildings lie in ruins. The hotel has partially re-opened after extensive repairs and clean-up, and will soon be fully up and running.
In the reception area, new art has been mounted. One of them is by Ugandan artist John Kyambadde; a colourful elephant in his signature fabric and acrylic forms. For a place that was looted, the furniture has the old rustic look that is the aesthetic of the hotel, not something that was recently bought to replace the looted ones.
Lucas explains that, yes, indeed it is their old furniture – they are buying it back at a “reasonable” price from the looters. Which tells you the rebels weren’t the looters. They destroy and move on.
In most of Cabo Delgado, after the rebels struck, the Mozambican army swooped in and looted. And when they were done, the people moved in and cleaned out what was left. Many buildings in Palma and other towns in the region were ransacked in the same way. Those three acts tell one pretty much all they need to know about how Cabo Delgado was lost to IS-Mozambique.
A predatory army and government alienated from the citizens; a marginalised people seizing the scraps, and an Islamist group exploiting the state’s failures and grievances of the masses to establish its violent order.
The region is rich in natural gas, gold, graphite and timber, and a coastline teeming with fish. But it has benefited little from this wealth, which is siphoned off by the wealthy coastal and ruling Frelimo party elite in the capital Maputo. It has the highest illiteracy rate in the country — 67 percent (although on the ground one is told the rate is closer to 90 percent).
At a temporary sanctuary on the side of the bombed-out police station in the port town of Mocimboa da Praia we spoke to a group of 85 civilians who had recently either been rescued or escaped from the rebels. I asked if any children in the group had been going to school, or any parent there had a child who was getting a formal education, before the war. Not a single one was.
A man who wobbled to his feet, still tired from the recent trek to safety, said he had a child who was getting an education, but it was in madrassa (Islamic religious school). Even these were “bush madrassas,” introduced by IS-Mozambique as indoctrination nurseries.
Until the war disrupted it, Cabo Delgado was the hub for drugs, wildlife, and timber trafficking. The drug trade in Mozambique is allegedly controlled by “old powerful Frelimo families” and it’s claimed they contribute possibly up to $100 million a year to this once great revolutionary party, although hard independent evidence of this is hard to find.
The army preys on the people. It wasn’t uncommon to have four roadblocks along a five-kilometre stretch of road, manned by the army, the police, the local defence force, and the local administration, all of them shaking down passengers and drivers.
In Afungi, which is emerging as an oil town, and where TotalEnergies is establishing extensive worker residences and a gas plant, it built 500 houses for the families from whom it bought land, and paid some money into their accounts.
They have moved into the homes, but many of them haven’t got their money, and the fact that IS-Mozambique and rogue government soldiers stripped and demolished the banks is not the explanation. A network of corrupt government officials, security services, and banking staff have conspired to milk them, and they can’t get their money until they pay them a portion.
Complaints by clients that they have to bribe to withdraw their own cash from banks are common in Mozambique. The system is so extortionate that one of the few people in the region who keeps cows and a few goats has to pay an annual fee on each head of cattle for the privilege of raising a herd.
Capo Delgado is the province Mozambique left behind. The distance has created a palpable gulf. Maputo is 2,200 kilometres from Afungi, farther away than Rwandan troops had to fly to intervene in the conflict last year.
Some of the soldiers and officials posted to the region come from distances as far away as 3,000 kilometres. Detached from Maputo and illiterate, most people in the region don’t speak Portuguese, so they have no medium of communication with the people who represent the state.
Because they are part of the East African Swahili belt, many of them are fluent in Kiswahili. In one of the most bizarre manifestations of this alienation, Kiswahili-speaking Rwanda troops often have to translate to the Mozambican soldiers they work with what their own people are saying.
In the settlement Total has built for the people it bought land from, the flashy homes stand in stark contrast to miserable tents where internally displaced persons (IDPs) live. There are over 100,000 IDPs in Cabo Delgado, most of whom have not returned home, even in areas that have been peaceful since September. They want to, but they aren’t allowed.
The government’s official reason is that more work needs to be done to secure the places they fled from. But as countries like Uganda or Rwanda, which have had to resettle their populations displaced to neighbouring countries or internally by war know, you don’t build a village Sheraton then the IDPs and refugees return. They return, and working on the bare minimum, they build back.
It has spawned rumours that crooked government officials want the IDP camps to stay, because they are skimming off the aid being provided by humanitarian agencies, or that it is a security-driven decision because they believe the IDPs have too many relatives among Al-Shabaab, and when they go back to their homes, they will provide the infrastructure for the insurgents to rebuild.
The irony of all this is that Cabo Delgado is where Frelimo was headquartered when it fought its war of independence against Portuguese colonialists. Mueda in Cabo Delgado is the home district of President Felipe Nyusi. It is rare in African politics that a region that headquartered a victorious liberation movement and is also home to the incumbent president is so shortchanged as Cabo Delgado.
But there is not too much ill-will toward President Nyusi. He is considered by many as a man with his heart in the right place, but who has no way to find a path out of the woods in which he is lost, smothered by a mighty and corrupt Frelimo machine.
With its vast resources and a population of only 2.5 million, with a splash of modest investment in the economy, health and education, the change in the region would be dramatic. For now, there are the Rwandan army and Southern African Development Community forces holding up the shield for Mozambique in the region, freeing them to undertake critical security sector reform which is projected to bring quick results.
But the window on that will inevitably close because they can’t stand guard over Mozambique forever. The clock is ticking.