The New African Marcher Lords

Borderland warlords fly the ISIS banner, but their power is their own

The whole of Africa appears at times to be what scientists and strategists like to call a “known unknown.” It is something that the West is aware of but does not understand. Nowhere in Africa is this clearer than along the Swahili coast, amid the borderlands between Mozambique, Tanzania, Kenya, and Somalia. It is here, in these in-between places, that a new generation of African warlords is coming of age.

It is here that the West cannot, or will not, understand. Resentment and violence over mass poverty, climate catastrophes, and government abuses in regions such as Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province began simmering more than a decade and a half ago. In 2017, that simmering enmity boiled over into the full-blown insurgency that has wracked the nation’s northernmost province with horrific, headline-catching brutalism ever since. In 2019, the so-called Islamic State began claiming responsibility for some of the worse atrocities in the area that it now considers to be its Central African Province (ISCAP). Last month, the US designated the insurgents in Mozambique “ISIS affiliates.”

Such is an adequate summation of the Western perspective concerning recent events in eastern Africa. But The reality of the situation is much more complex and horrifying than all that.

ISCAP is growing and improving thanks to the support of ISIS trainers and tacticians, to be sure. It is all but guaranteed that the insurgency in Cabo Delgado will grow in strides over the course of the coming year, as will the myriad other insurgencies along the coast. But violent insurgents are just one piece of a terrifying puzzle, and those who champion purely military solutions to these ongoing tragedies fail to understand even the basic structure of the crisis at hand.

What is now spoken of as ISCAP was until very recently a large collection of disparate gangs such as Ansar al-Sunna, simply referred to by locals as Al-Shabaab, meaning “The Youth.” Too often lost in the discussions of Western media is how apropos the title The Youth is, and why it matters.

The eldest national population along the Swahili coast is in Kenya, where the median age is 20. In Tanzania it is 18, in Mozambique it is 17, and in Somalia it is 16. For comparison, the median ages of the US, UK, and France are 38, 40, and 42, respectively. It is from vast swathes of homeless or otherwise dispossessed young men that groups such as ISCAP are able to recruit and radicalize new troops.

The problem of east African insurgency then, now also an international terrorism problem, is also a child soldier problem. This creates an intergenerational dilemma in which the future leaders of the region are increasingly bound up in terroristic violence. Put simply, one of the gravest threats facing the region is the reality that the tyrants of tomorrow are marching with ISCAP today, and that they will be capable of contending for command of borderland regions in eastern Africa for decades to come.

Another key factor contributing to this situation is the nature of the three major groups currently on the ground in Cabo Delgado: ISCAP, Mozambican government security forces, and the South African private military company Dyck Advisory Group.

All three groups stand accused of war crimes by Amnesty International. The insurgents, whose campaign of kidnappings and beheadings is well known, stand accused of torture, rape, murder, and mutilation. Government forces too, however, stand accused of torture, rape, murder, and mutilation, stemming from their own campaign of terror against suspected insurgents and assaults on the women left behind by the violence. The Dyck Advisory Group, meanwhile, is accused of using indiscriminate fires by targeting crowds and civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, to strike insurgents that were attempting to use civilians for cover.

All of this combines to create a crisis of legitimacy that can only result in a power vacuum.

It is this crisis of legitimacy that is the single greatest threat facing the Swahili coast. Of the 189 nations listed in the Human Development Index, Mozambique is ranked 181st. Some