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Villages in Mozambique’s northern region grapple with faceless jihadists

President Filipe Nyusi has repeatedly pledged to “eradicate” what he refers to as “criminals” rather than Islamists

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Mozambique's north grapples with faceless jihadists | News Central TV
A woman holds her younger child while standing in a burned out area in the recently attacked village of Aldeia da Paz outside Macomia, on August 24, 2019. - On August 1, the inhabitants of Aldeia da Paz joined the long list of victims of a faceless Islamist group that has been sowing death and terror for nearly two years in the north of the country, which welcomes from September 4 the Pope. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

Aldeia da Paz was once a sleepy place. Farmers went about their daily lives, tending to meagre crops along the road linking Mozambique to its northern border with Tanzania. 

Everything changed after nightfall on August 1st.

“They arrived around seven o’clock in the evening,” said Lucas Saimone, one of the village chiefs. “When they started shooting and burning down houses, the whole population fled into the forest.”

No one was killed, said Saimone, but the entire village was “turned to ashes.”       

That day, the inhabitants of Aldeia da Paz became the latest victims of unknown Islamist militants sowing death and fear in the north of Mozambique — a country renowned for its pristine beaches and coral reefs. 

Pope Francis is expected to visit on Wednesday, months after the nation was hit by two devastating cyclones that claimed more than 600 lives. 

But the northern province of Cabo Delgado is also grappling with a less visible, more insidious enemy than climate change.

Jihadists have killed at least 300 civilians over the past two years, often by beheading them. Dozens of villages have been wiped off the map and thousands of people displaced. Local media reported around 20 deaths in August.

READ: Mozambique cyclones: Donors pledge $1.2 billion to aid recovery

Since the attack, Aldeia da Paz has come to a standstill. The villagers are hungry and terrified. 

All that remains are piles of ash and a few daub walls topped with blacked roof beams. 

‘Sentenced to die’ –

Villages in Mozambique's northern region grapple with faceless jihadists
Ilda Paulo, 60, a survivor of an Islamist attack in Aldeia da Paz outside Macomia where seven people have been killed walks in the patio of her daughter house in Macomia, on August 24, 2019. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

Zahina Asman sits near a rusty saucepan surrounded by a pile of debris.

“This is all that is left of my house,” said the 60-year old, chewing on a cassava root.

“They didn’t kill anyone but they burnt all our crops. It makes no difference because without food, we are sentenced to die of hunger.” 

Catholic charity Caritas has delivered emergency aid, but chief Saimone does not consider this “enough”.

“What we need the most is a roof. People are sleeping outside,” he said.

“We also want some soldiers to stay here permanently like they do in other villages.”

Military officials were deployed to Cabo Delgado after the first suspected Islamist attack in October 2017. But today, there is barely a checkpoint along the 400 kilometres of road linking the regional capital Pemba to the border post town of Mocimboa da Praia. There is only the occasional soldier carrying an automatic rifle.

READ: Mozambique’s Renamo party says members attacked after peace deal

Without a shelter and crops to harvest, many villagers have left.

Fransa Abou fled her home in November after it was incinerated by Islamists. She found refuge 50 kilometres away, in the district of Macomia, with her husband and four children.  

“My house was burnt with everything inside it. I came here to protect my children,” she said. 

‘We are hungry’ –

Fransa first stayed in a hut provided by relatives. But the house was destroyed by Cyclone Kenneth in May, forcing the family to squeeze into a tiny wooden structure.    

Villages in Mozambique's northern region grapple with faceless jihadists
A destroyed house is seen in the recently attacked village of Aldeia da Paz outside Macomia, on August 24, 2019. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

“Over there, I used to fish and cultivate [crops]. Here, I can do nothing to feed my children. We are hungry,” said Fransa’s husband Ayuba Chacour, 30.

“Those who are attacking us, we don’t even know what they want!”

Less than 20 per cent of Mozambique’s 29.5 million inhabitants are Muslim. The majority live in Cabo Delgado, and do not understand why they are being targeted.   

Little is known about the attackers, who act under the name of Al-Shabab — Arabic for “the Youth”. The group was started by young fundamentalists who returned to the area after attending Koranic schools in Somalia and Tanzania.   

Aside from two dubious claims of responsibility by so-called Islamic State (IS), the group seldom communicates and makes no distinction between Christians and Muslims.   

Experts are baffled. Some have drawn parallels to Boko Haram in northeastern Nigeria. Others describe a group of political dissidents, frustrated by poverty and anxious to benefit from the vast natural gas deposits discovered off Mozambique’s northern coast.

Lack of action –

“Some of those who were arrested said they were paid to attack… They have no (religious) conviction,” said Eliane Costa Santana, a Brazilian missionary who has lived in Mocimboa da Praia for two years.     

“But they have succeeded in creating a climate of terror. People are scared to speak, to meet, to move, they stay holed up in their homes,” she said.

“And the army is not changing anything.”

President Filipe Nyusi has repeatedly pledged to “eradicate” what he refers to as “criminals” rather than Islamists.

Villages in Mozambique's northern region grapple with faceless jihadists
Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi looks on during a meeting with businessmen from different sectors in Beira, Mozambique, on March 27, 2019. (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Cabo Delgado’s police spokesman Augusto Guta told reporters the situation was a “concern” but that measures were being taken “to ensure safety to the communities”. He added that specific details could not be disclosed for security reasons.

On the eve of Pope Francis’ scheduled arrival in Maputo, the bishop of Pemba strongly condemned the government’s passivity in the face of what he calls Islamist “ghosts”.

READ:Cyclone hit communities in Mozambique require $3.2 billion fund

“They should tell us who they are, expose them and act to put an end to the attacks,” said Dom Luiz Fernandes.

“It is the poorest who die, those who have almost nothing, and we cannot accept this.”

The frustration is palpable.

“We live in a state of war,” said a Mocimboa resident.

“It is high time we went back to a regular life.”

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Mozambique votes in tense election after violent campaign

Mozambique began voting in a general election on Tuesday that some fear could test the country’s fragile peace, after a heated campaign marred by violence and allegations of electoral fraud.

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Mozambique began voting in a general election on Tuesday that some fear could test the country’s fragile peace, after a heated campaign marred by violence and allegations of electoral fraud.

The Frelimo party, which has ruled the impoverished southern African nation since independence from Portugal in 1975, is widely expected to again beat its arch-rival Renamo, a former rebel group turned main opposition party.

President Filipe Nyusi, who cast his ballot as polls opened at 7:00 am (0500 GMT), called on voters to show “the world we stand for democracy and tolerance”.

“Mozambique has chosen to move forward peacefully,” he said, adding that more than more than 4,000 observers had been deployed in the most-watched election in the country’s history.

“Let’s continue this process in a serene way. Peace means that everything must be done according to the rules.”

Nyusi, 60, is forecast to win a second five-year term despite his popularity taking a hit from chronic unrest and a financial crisis linked to alleged state corruption.

While the election is expected to see regional wins for Renamo, few think Frelimo will be unseated from government after 44 years at the helm.

“Frelimo is a machine,” said Castro Davis, a 42-year-old public servant in the capital Maputo, predicting a “straight-forward victory.” 

Elena Jorge, 50, told AFP she wants Renamo to win “but people know that these elections will not be free, fair or transparent — but we have hope.”

Around 13 million of Mozambique’s 30 million citizens are registered to vote at more than 20,000 polling booths, which closes at 6:00 pm (1600 GMT).

Renamo is predicted to take control of three to five of Mozambique’s 10 provinces for the first time following a change of law allowing voters to elect provincial governors.

“This election will be a test for democracy,” said Ericino de Salema of the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa.

“For the first time, the political geography of the country may change substantially, it may even lead to confrontation.”

Renamo’s candidate Ossufo Momade, 58, heads a party of former anti-communist rebels who fought a brutal civil war with Frelimo from 1975-1992, devastating the economy and leaving almost one million people dead. 

Renamo picked up arms again in 2013 to 2016, but tension continued until Nyusi and Momade signed a peace deal in August. 

But an armed breakaway faction of Renamo has rejected Momade’s candidacy and threatened to attack campaign events, raising fears the presidential, parliamentary and provincial polls could be marred by bloodshed.

The six-week campaign was one of the most violent in the country’s turbulent history, with candidates threatened, election material destroyed, and deadly clashes breaking out between supporters.

The opposition has already accused Frelimo of tampering with the vote.

Enrolment has more than doubled in the southeastern Gaza province, a Frelimo bastion, and civil society groups have expressed concern about the size of the increase.

They also estimate that there are around 300,000 “ghost voters” on electoral rolls — names on the electoral roll not aligned with real, potential voters.

“We definitely have some irregularities that put stains on the whole process,” said Hermenegildo Mulhovo of election monitoring group Sala da Paz.

The situation escalated last week, when the head of a local election observation mission was shot dead by members of a special police unit in Gaza’s capital Xai-Xai.

Lutero Simango, an MP of the country’s third biggest party MDM, accused Frelimo of “using all state means, including police and secret services, to intimidate people”.

Frelimo suffered its worst result at the ballot box — 51.8 percent — in local elections last year and has been severely weakened in recent years.

In 2016 it was revealed the government secretly borrowed $2 billion, sparking the worst financial crisis in the country’s history and uncovering a vast corruption network with links to the regime.

The government is also battling to recover from two devastating cyclones in March which displaced nearly two million people. 

And a shadowy jihadist insurgency that has killed hundreds in the far north has delayed development of one of the government’s biggest selling points — the discovery of vast gas reserves that is hoped to put billions in state coffers and lift millions out of poverty.

The instability has already forced the National Election Commission to close 10 polling booths, however first Preliminary results are expected to be announced on Thursday. 

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Mozambican President campaigns on gas wealth ahead of general elections

The gas deposits could turn Mozambique into one of the world’s biggest exporters of liquefied natural gas

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Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi campaigns on gas wealth ahead of general elections
Mozambican ruling Party FRELIMO (Mozambique Liberation Front) Presidential Candidate and Incumbent Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi gestures as he delivers a speech during his party's last Mozambican General Election campaign rally on October 12, 2019 in Matola, Mozambique. - Mozambique general elections will take place on October 15, 2019. (Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)

The discovery of vast gas reserves in Mozambique’s remote northern coast has the potential to transform the country and lift millions out of poverty.

That’s the message President Filipe Nyusi has repeated at every opportunity as he campaigned ahead of the country’s general election on Tuesday.

“With this project, the children of farmers will become doctors and the children of miners will become lawyers,” he said on the campaign trail.

But since the underwater treasure was identified almost a decade ago, questions have been raised about whether the colossal riches will ultimately benefit the nearly half of the southeastern African country living in poverty.

The size of the discovery is staggering.

Estimated at up to 5,000 billion cubic metres (175,000 billion cubic feet), the gas deposits have the potential immediately to turn Mozambique into one of the world’s biggest exporters of liquefied natural gas.

Some have already dubbed the country the “new Qatar”.

Energy consultancy Wood McKenzie forecasts that state revenue from LNG will reach $3 billion a year from 2030 — single-handedly doubling current revenue.

But development at the sites in the northernmost province Cabo Delgado has been repeatedly delayed — in part due to deadly attacks by a shadowy jihadist insurgency in the area — and has only recently started to make headway.

Construction began in August on a $25 billion project that French energy giant Total acquired from US firm Anadarko as part of the latter company’s takeover by Occidental.

And American gas giant Exxon Mobil is expected to finalise a $30 billion investment next year.

For the many or the few? –

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi campaigns on gas wealth ahead of general elections
(Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)

Nyusi’s Frelimo party has been in power since the country gained independence in 1975, but its popularity has recently taken a hit due to a financial crisis linked to state corruption.

READ: Mozambique’s Renamo party says members attacked after peace deal

The president, running for a second term, has been keen to talk up the gas projects, estimated to create 5,000 direct jobs and 45,000 indirect jobs.

Of course, history is littered with examples of countries with huge energy wealth that enriches only those in power.

“Some countries have had natural resources for a long time, but a majority of their population stayed poor,” Nyusi said last week.

He pledged that would not be the case in Mozambique:

“We want and we have to make a difference.”

Nyusi said last month that the state would spend $880 million it expects to receive as part of the Occidental takeover on rebuilding areas devastated by cyclones Idai and Kenneth earlier this year, as well as paying off state debt and closing the budget deficit.

With 46 per cent of the country’s around 31 million population living below the poverty line, according to the World Bank, such huge sums raise the hopes of some voters.

“These resources will benefit everyone,” said Sara Lucas, a 35-year-old mother at Nyusi’s final campaign event in the capital Maputo on Saturday.

But this enthusiasm is not shared by everyone, with critics accusing the regime of entrenched corruption.

“As with everything else, these resources will only benefit the few,” said Stelio Inacio, a 41-year-old official from the former rebel group turned main opposition party Renamo.

Fears of fresh violence –

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi campaigns on gas wealth ahead of general elections
(Photo by GIANLUIGI GUERCIA / AFP)

Even paying off state debt is contentious after it was revealed in 2016 that the government secretly borrowed $2 billion, plunging the country into the worst financial crisis in its history.

The “hidden debt” scandal uncovered a vast network of corruption with close links — allegedly including family members — to the regime.

“They said they would use the gas revenues to pay for the ‘hidden debt’. We do not want that,” said opposition MP Simon Macuiani.

“The revenues must first serve the economic development of the country.”

The opposition is not alone in fearing the wealth may not trickle down.

“Our forecast is that the poorest of the poorest in Mozambique are not really going to benefit,” said Liesl Louw-Vaudran, an analyst at South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies.

READ: Exxon to invest $500 million in Mozambique LNG project

“It is still crucial to have stability… Frelimo and Renamo have to stick to their political agreement if things are going to improve in Mozambique.”

The two arch-foes signed a peace deal in August hoping to turn the page on decades of conflict, including a brutal 1975-1992 civil war that left nearly a million dead.

But the campaign for Tuesday’s elections has been marred by violence, sparking fears the vote could sorely test the fragile peace.

Lutero Simango, an MP of the country’s third largest party MDM, said the gas resources could be “a curse or a promise of prosperity.”

“If the poor population of the country does not benefit, it will create the conditions for a new cycle of violence.”

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Rwanda deports controversial US evangelist

Rwanda announced on Tuesday that a controversial American missionary, who was arrested for calling an illegal public meeting with journalists, has been deported.

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Rwanda announced on Tuesday that a controversial American missionary, who was arrested for calling an illegal public meeting with journalists, has been deported.

Gregg Schoof, a Baptist, has been operating in Rwanda since 2003, mainly through his church and a radio station, Amazing Grace FM, which was shut last year over a sermon calling women “evil” and “prostitutes”.

He was arrested on Monday, alongside his son, at the start of a press conference at which he planned to read out a statement slamming the government’s “heathen practices”.

Francois-Regis Gatarayiha, the Director General of Immigration and Emigration, told AFP the son — who was not named — was released, but that Schoof was deported on Monday night.

Read Also: Rwanda arrests 5 suspects from Hutu militia based in DR Congo

“Mr Schoof was deported back to America for two reasons. His work permit had expired. When he applied for renewal, we found that his purpose for staying in Rwanda was no longer valid because his church and radio were closed,” he said.

He said that Schoof had been given a visa extension to prepare his departure from the country “on the condition that he does not disturb public order. So what he did yesterday was in contravention of that condition and we decided to deport him.”

The immigration office said they expect him to make arrangements for his other family members in Rwanda to travel back to the US.

Schoof’s church was among about 700 shut in February for “failing to comply with building regulations and for noise pollution.”

In a statement handed to journalists before his arrest he asked if authorities — by shutting his church — were trying to “smack God in the face … that is what devils do.”

“Is this government trying to send people to hell?” he asked, before slamming the teaching of evolution in schools, the handing out of condoms in schools, and the easing of restrictions on abortion.

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