Amid growing concerns about regional inaction on Mozambique’s jihadist insurgency crisis, the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Organ on Politics, Defence and Security hosted a one-day Extraordinary Organ Troika Summit in Harare on 19 May 2020. Hosted by Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa and attended by the presidents of Mozambique, Botswana and Zambia, the move suggests that SADC is at last paying attention to a security threat that could spread well beyond Mozambique’s borders.
Threatening the stability of the northern most province, Cabo Delgado, attacks led by the Ahl al-Sunnah wa-al-Jama’ah, also known as Ansar al-Sunna, first broke out in the province in October 2017, with the death toll reaching 1 100 by 25 April 2020. Attacks have intensified, as insurgents have captured important towns, destroyed government infrastructure and declared their goal of caliphate. The group, which has been linked to the Islamic State (ISIS), has been hoisting its flag in the towns and villages it claims, with many locals cheering them on. With signs that the insurgents are increasingly changing tack to win the hearts and minds of the population, the latest attacks have faced resistance from self-defence militias. There is also speculation that the insurgents are looking to reap the profits of trafficking routes in the region, including the bulk heroin trade, illegal ruby mining and gold.
The attacks are deeply troubling for businesses in the province, including oil and gas energy firms such as the United States (US) ExxonMobile and France’s Total, who are preparing to extract gas in the Rovuma basin off Cabo Delgado’s coast. In February, gunmen attacked an Andarko Petroleum convoy near the site of gas exploration. Attacks have also increasingly been directed at security forces, rather than civilians, demonstrating the group’s growing clout.
The government has vowed on numerous occasions to stamp out the insurgency and has already called on Russian mercenaries, as well as the governments of Angola, France, Russia and the US to assist. Latest reports suggest that South African private military contractors have been roped in to the government offensive. Tanzania has also deployed troops to the border to bolster security. However, details are scant, with security forces detaining journalists reporting on their activities. Prominent human rights lawyers and journalists have written to Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi, condemning these developments.
SADC has been greatly criticised for ignoring the situation to date especially after the African Union (AU) acknowledged the situation in February when AU Peace and Security Commissioner, Smail Chergui, urged the AU to help Mozambique with equipment, training, and broad solutions. While he said there would be a permanent exchange of information between the AU and Mozambican authorities, the matter is unlikely to reach the official agenda of the AU Peace and Security Council in the near future, since according to AU protocol, SADC should be the first to step in.
The SADC summit is yet to release a statement on the actual outcomes of the meeting, but details of assistance are reportedly being discussed with the troika urging all SADC states to support Mozambique, while adding that South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania have been advising Mozambique for months to admit the scale of the problem and allow SADC to address it.
However, with all SADC member states now looking inward as they struggle to keep their economies afloat in the context of the growing coronavirus crisis, the extent to which they will be able to follow through on support may be limited. South Africa in April deployed the vast majority of its defence force internally to help enforce its Covid-19 lockdown, and Zimbabwe has done the same. Zambia has also been struggling with a slowing economy as copper prices plummet, while increasingly stifling political dissent; and in Botswana, despite President Masisi’s re-election, there are growing political rifts. Further, while a proposal was made that Angolan forces be the backbone of a SADC force in Mozambique, due to their capacity and Portuguese language skills, it is rumoured that South Africa was not in favour of this idea.
As reported previously (see Alert 114) Mozambique’s haemorrhaging economy offers little future for those in its more remote provinces, leaving the youth at high risk of being recruited by the Ahl al-Sunnah wa-al-Jama’ah. Unless Mozambique simultaneously employs a developmental and political approach to the problem, any security-centric efforts are unlikely to provide long-term solutions.
Internationally, organisations have noted this dilemma with Resident Coordinator of the United Nations (UN) in Mozambique, Myrta Kaulard, calling on President Filipe Nyusi to address the situation in Cabo Delgado through development and job creation. On 15 April, the European Union (EU) echoed concerns about the visible deterioration in recent weeks, including a significant increase in attacks and the worsening humanitarian situation.
Hence, while pressure for solutions will be sustained in the short term, tangible help will remain hard to come by as the region and world focus on their own Covid-19 and related economic and political fallout. Mozambique, therefore, will not quickly win the battle to contain the insurgent threat, while also attending to the economic crisis that has created massive development deficits that are fertile recruitment and breeding grounds for insurgent groups like Ahl al-Sunnah wa-al-Jama’ah. Doing so without SADC support could well be impossible, and countries in the region may need to balance the risks of inaction with capacity constraints in a more decisive manner if they are to prevent a fresh contagion crossing regional borders.