Jihadis meet their match in Africa

In Mozambique, a rise in violent Islamist groups has been countered by a mix of military and social responses based on shared values.

People in Maputo, Mozambique, walk past police standing guard July 14 in anticipation of protests against the high cost of living.

When the United States set up a special command for its military operations in Africa 15 years ago, one concern was that weak governments were becoming a cause of violent Islamist extremism. That assumption turned out to be correct. Offshoots of Al Qaeda and Islamic State have since spread to more than a dozen countries. In the global effort to counter jihadism, Africa is now a front-line continent.

That struggle is particularly acute in Mozambique. Since 2017, Islamist extremists have overrun cities and villages in the country’s northernmost province, Cabo Delgado. Thousands of people have been killed and about 800,000 have been displaced. At the same time, the conflict has compelled an unusual response from a collection of players – other African states, Europe, and civil society groups – to assert a vision in the province of social uplift, common security, and rule of law.

A year ago, for example, a regional bloc of nations, the Southern African Development Community, deployed roughly 3,000 troops to quell the violence. Working with partners from the European Union, the U.S., and Rwanda, the intervention has become one of the most successful joint security operations in Africa. The insurgents have been pushed into remote areas. Last week, regional leaders agreed to extend the mission another six months.

“This is exactly the kind of solutions that the United States likes to see: solutions led by African partners, buttressed by other international partners, and supported by the United States where we can lend a hand,” Gen. Stephen J. Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, said in February.

The enhanced security has allowed religious and civic groups to more safely address social and economic problems in Cabo Delgado, reaching vulnerable youth who might be inclined to join violent jihadis. That work, supported by the United Nations, includes building schools and health clinics while providing families with seeds and tools to start farms. The national government has developed a $300 million recovery plan for the province.

Just as important have been efforts to give people a greater say in civic affairs. At a meeting of community leaders, police, and civil servants in June, for example, Dinis Matsolo, a Methodist bishop from the capital, Maputo, urged peace building based on a restoration of trust, honesty, and respect between local government and the people. That call was matched by appeals for unity from religious leaders.

Muslim clerics have also tried to enlighten the jihadis. Islam, said Jamal Mussa, a member of the Islamic Council of Mozambique, preserves life and respects a “healthy coexistence between people regardless of their convictions, be they religious, political, and even cultural,” according to the Mozambique News Agency.

Such messages resonate beyond the Muslim community. Manuel Rodrigues, the governor of the nearby province of Nampula, has thanked Muslim leaders for “defending the noblest values of human life – peace, harmony, love, compassion, and solidarity," according to AllAfrica website.

For Mozambique, the struggle against violent Islamists requires more than a military response. It also means addressing grievances that drive the insurgency by building new norms of governance and shared security.

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