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Observatory of Illicit Economies in Eastern and Southern Africa


Summary highlights

  1. Insurgent tactics are shifting in Cabo Delgado, following the pattern of other insurgencies in Africa.

    An attack by insurgents in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province on the town of Mocímboa da Praia in late March marked a significant escalation in the struggle between government and insurgent forces, which has been ongoing since October 2017. Insurgents occupied the town in an audacious attack, destroyed state infrastructure and used the opportunity to broadcast their Islamist message to local communities. Subsequent attacks on other towns in the province suggest that these tactics are becoming the new normal for the emboldened insurgents. Similar tactics used by al-Shabaab in Somalia in the late 2000s could help predict how the struggle for Mozambique’s north may unfold.

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  2. Government neglect and corruption in Cabo Delgado have strengthened the insurgency’s hand.

    Cabo Delgado has long been one of Mozambique’s most neglected provinces, and since the outbreak of conflict, the needs and concerns of its population continue to play second fiddle to the economic interests of the elite. The Mozambique government’s response to the conflict has been dogged by state corruption and weak state legitimacy. A desire to maintain the political and economic status quo in the north has led to a focus on quick military fixes and ham-fisted attempts to control the narrative about the war. This is playing into the insurgents’ hands and failing to win the local population’s support.

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  3. The Cabo Delgado insurgents may be poised to increase their control over trafficking routes.

    Illicit economies are a major part of the political landscape in northern Mozambique. Organized crime has shaped the conditions which led to the emergence of the insurgency and may now exacerbate the situation. As the insurgents grow more audacious, signs are emerging that they may be taking a greater role in the illicit trafficking of heroin, rubies and gold. As the strategies of the insurgents seem to be shifting towards controlling territory in Cabo Delgado, their interests in and connections to the illicit economy may become more systematic.

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  4. Ethiopia’s Bole International Airport has emerged as a trafficking hub for wildlife and narcotics.

    Trafficking of illegal narcotics and wildlife is increasing at Ethiopia’s Addis Ababa Bole International Airport. Lack of security capacity has made it difficult to confront the problem, while improvements in enforcement at other regional hub airports, such as Jomo Kenyatta in Nairobi, have disrupted trafficking and pushed criminal networks to funnel drug and wildlife shipments through Bole.

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  5. Violence aimed at lawyers threatens to undermine the criminal-justice system in South Africa.

    An assassination attempt on prominent Cape Town defence lawyer William Booth is the latest in a string of violent incidents aimed at lawyers who represent gangland figures. While the reasons for the attempted hit on Booth are unknown, research shows that some of these lawyers may be pressured to become a conduit for corruption, or drawn into disputes over the control of illegal funds or the representation of rival gang members. This makes them a target for threats and violence. The fear this engenders may ultimately erode the integrity of the legal system.

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About this issue

The conflict in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado region stands to have an acute humanitarian impact for the local population. Many fear that it may have a destabilizing effect on the wider region, and may deteriorate further than the current outbreak of violence, which has left many dead and an estimated 180,000 displaced.

The province boasts enormous natural wealth, from oil and gas reserves, ruby deposits along with other gems and minerals, to timber and wildlife, including thousands of elephants in the Niassa Reserve. Yet conflicts and grievances over who controls this wealth – in both licit and illicit economies – have shaped the region’s politics. In the last decade, the region’s trafficking economy has boomed, channelling profits into the hands of a few traffickers and politicians. Local communities have been marginalized from the vast wealth that stands to be made from the region’s oil resources. In 2017, a guerrilla conflict broke out, where a militia group that became known as Al Sunnah wa Jamo (ASWJ) violently challenged the right of the state to rule.

The way the insurgents operate has shifted in recent weeks. They are better armed, better organized militarily, and have formed a link of some nature with ISCAP (Islamic State Central African Province), the central African wing of Islamic State. The insurgency has also recently changed the style of its attacks, from terrorizing locals to targeting state infrastructure and attempting to establish its own legitimacy.

When the conflict began in 2017, many observers saw the potential for it to get entangled with the substantial illicit economy of the north. Although some assumed this convergence would be immediate and serious, Global Initiative research found that insurgents’ links to the illicit economy then were largely ad hoc, and did not suggest they played a major role in trafficking networks. Their involvement, at that time, was more reflective of the fact that the illicit economy largely is the economy of the north, as a result of the failures of governance that have left people impoverished and angry in the midst of great natural-resource wealth. But recent shifts, as well as information from our networks, also suggest that the insurgency’s relationship to the illicit economy is changing, and it is vital to take stock again.

This special edition of the Eastern and Southern African Risk Bulletin focuses on the Mozambique crisis. The first of three articles on the subject describes the recent shift in insurgent tactics and how comparisons may be drawn to tactics used by al-Shabaab a decade ago. The second looks at the political response to the crisis, and how this seems to have been shaped by the government’s view of the region primarily through the lens of natural-resource extraction. The third story provides a unique analysis of current dynamics in the illicit economy of the region, how major trafficking networks are adjusting to the conflict and how far the insurgents may be implicated in these illicit markets. This draws on recent fieldwork in the region and inputs from people who are currently based on the ground. We believe it is important to understand all three elements – conflict, governance and illicit economies – and how they interconnect.

This issue also provides analysis of new trends elsewhere in East and Southern Africa, by looking at the emergence of Addis Ababa’s Bole airport as a transit hub for trafficking routes, and the dark implications of the attempted assassination of a prominent attorney in Cape Town.

Lastly, we encourage you to read the forthcoming Global Initiative report, ‘A triangle of vulnerability: Changing patterns of illicit trafficking off the Swahili coast’ for an in-depth look at how trafficking connects disparate locations across the eastern African seaboard, and the political and security risks this carries.