Central Africa’s deadly hot zone of disease and insurgency

Central Africa’s deadly hot zone of disease and insurgency

An Ebola treatment center in Butembo, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. (Reuters)

Events in southern Central Africa are beginning to make this region inflamed with violence and disease. The prevalence of increasingly destabilizing events, including the further spread of Ebola and the insurgency and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Mozambique are turning this part of Africa into a hot zone. Now Ebola is in Uganda too.

Hot zone usually refers to a contagion and quarantine until conditions on the ground are stabilized. The phrase is also used to describe a violent scene under investigation. Here, hot zone refers to the nexus of disease and insurgency that can be so destabilizing for the continent. This toxic mix is extremely unhealthy and demands attention. 

The Ebola outbreak in DRC last week broke through the 2,000 cases barrier, including almost 1,400 deaths, as population movements, conflict and poor governance are combining to create a perfect storm for disease outbreak and spread. To make matters worse, thieves are now targeting Ebola labs. The disease is being spread — maliciously — by the militias that are rampaging through infected zones.

The fact that Ebola is now truly mixing with the country’s violent landscape is a complicating factor, as international health care officials are developing an inoculation ring in Rwanda, Uganda and South Sudan that began in mid-January. In effect, a program of spatial containment is being instituted.

The DRC security situation is most problematic in the east of the country, where dozens of armed militias struggle over resources such as gold, diamonds, copper and coltan for profit and power. The region is home to the vast majority of the country’s 70 armed groups, all pursuing shifting local and national agendas. Most of them are small, numbering less than 200 fighters, but the havoc they have caused over decades, especially in the North and South Kivu provinces, have made eastern DRC the epicenter of deadly violence and humanitarian crises. This mix makes treating Ebola problematic, as this is the first time that an outbreak has occurred in an area with daily violence.

Meanwhile, in Mozambique, the threat of a similar situation is growing.

There, Daesh appears to have infected the extremist insurgency in Cabo Delgado province that has already claimed 200 lives. The group is increasingly engaging the Mozambican army, specifically during Ramadan and into Eid. Cabo Delgado is a gas-rich Muslim-majority province, with the Rovuma Basin gas fields adding an extra dimension to the insurgency, as international exploration companies have been caught up in the violence. Next to the Tanzanian border, the attacks by insurgents have been ongoing for a number of years and have been tied to the gas development projects and their impact on the country’s north. The unrest has caused hundreds of people to flee villages for the relative safety of islands and larger towns.

The fact that Ebola is now truly mixing with the DRC’s violent landscape is a complicating factor.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

The unrest is also a concern to companies such as Eni and the others working in the Coral South field. February’s fatal attack on contractors working at the development site of Anadarko’s liquefied natural gas export facility on the Afungi Peninsula was believed to be the first extremist attack on foreign oil workers in Mozambique.

Origins are important. In Mozambique, the insurgency’s origins go back to the 2000s and the Islamic Council of Mozambique. In Cabo Delgado, they created a sub-organization within the Islamic Council called Ansar Al-Sunna and built new mosques, but a sect broke off and this is what has become known locally as “Al-Shabaab.” This group attempted to impose its view of Shariah in various towns and police had to intervene several times in 2015. In 2016, government forces began arresting group leaders and this set off the current round of violence. 

The state’s actions against Al-Shabaab’s leaders seem to have been the tipping point toward their passing into armed action. In October 2017, this group attacked the port town of Mocimboa da Praia and the surrounding communities. It now seems to have become more organized and its attacks and activities have focused on a coastal belt about 150 kilometers wide, from Pemba, the provincial capital, to the Tanzanian border. 

There are reports that the group’s international connections played into the group’s birth. Links to Somalia, the DRC and Uganda are mentioned, but a serious relationship with Mozambique’s Al-Shabaab has yet to be proven. It is known that Mozambican clerics have trained in Tanzania for more than a century and exchanges have taken place among religious communities on both sides of the border for even longer. So it would be unsurprising if the Mozambican so-called Al-Shabaab had connected with like-minded Muslims in Tanzania in the 2010s. Tanzanian extremists faced their own threats from state forces and some fled into Mozambique, taking refuge with Al-Shabaab. This has reinforced and partially internationalized the insurgency.

Overall, the combination of the above represents an emerging hot zone of insurgency, militia activity, extremism and disease, with poor governmental capabilities for dealing with a widening geopolitical contagion.

  • Dr. Theodore Karasik is a non-resident senior fellow at the Lexington Institute and a national security expert, specializing in Europe, Eurasia and the Middle East. He worked for the RAND Corporation and publishes widely in the US and international media. Twitter: @tkarasik
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