The roots of the Cabo Delgado conflict

Multimedia story by Nompumelelo Mtsweni and Susan Russell


The present conflict in northern Mozambique, in the region of Cabo Delgado, has its roots partly in ethnic tensions that were exacerbated by clashing loyalties during the war of independence and the subsequent actions of the liberation party, FRELIMO.


FRELIMO was founded in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania in 1962.


Since October 2017, jihadist fighters have raided villages and towns in the Cabo Delgado region, claiming at least 2,600 lives, half of them civilians, according to the US-based data-collecting agency Armed Conflict Location and Event Data (ACLED). Nearly 700,000 people have had to flee their homes. In late March, the conflict escalated when dozens of people were killed in coordinated jihadist attacks in northern Mozambique's Palma town.

Watch: Stephen Buchanan-Clarke , Head of the Human Security and Climate Change Programme at GGA, gives us an overview of the current insurgency.

For more insights into the background of the conflict in Cabo Delgado, listen to Stephen Buchanan-Clarke's interview on Power FM.


The majority of FRELIMO's founding members were from the north of Mozambique, predominantly from the Makonde ethnic group (Linos Mapfumo, Extremisms in Africa vol 3). However, the largest ethnic group in the region by population is the Mwani, who are predominantly Muslim.

The war of independence between 1964 and 1974 was largely fought in the north of the country. As shown in the timeline, the Makonde, mostly Christian, aligned themselves with FRELIMO, while the Mwani sided with the Portuguese colonialists and, later, the rival liberation party Renamo.


As the most prominent operational area during the conflict, Cabo Delgado battled to recover from the impact of the war, which was one of the reasons it began to lag developmentally when compared to other provinces.

Our Northern Mozambique Conflict Monitor continually updates the conflict in Cabo Delgado, as shown below. Click on any point on the map for more on an incident:


Since the war, FRELIMO has dominated the political space in Mozambique and has not forgotten that the Mwani supported and even fought with the Portuguese during the war.

As a result, the Mwani have been marginalised and sidelined in political and public life, with the Makonde and other ethnic groups receiving preferential treatment.



Developmentally, the province has been neglected by central government, left behind with high poverty rates, a lack of access to social services and very little infrastructural development.



The Mwani resent their marginalisation, made worse by the discovery of huge liquid natural gas reserves and other natural resources in their province. These have attracted an influx of foreign investors and the politically connected among the ruling elite.

The exploitation of minerals, gas and oil have made matters much worse, posing a threat not only to Mozambique but its neighbours too.


The local population has seen little or no benefit from the billions of dollars pouring into the region. Worse they have lost land and livelihoods (farming and fishing) in this process, and there is a deep feeling of grievance against international mining companies and the government.



The geographic distance between Cabo Delgado and the seat of power in Maputo has also exacerbated governance failures. This toxic mix of ethnic and religious tensions, underdevelopment and political favouritism has been instrumental in growing local support for Muslim extremists.