As Mozambique faces the growing security problem of an Islamist insurgency in the gas-rich northeastern province of Cabo Delgado, will the deployment of mercenaries solve – rather than exacerbate – the deadly insurgency?
Mozambique is ranked the second poorest country in the world. It was therefore only natural that the recent discovery of large gas reserves in the northernmost part of the country was initially celebrated as a blessing that could economically transform a nation that is still struggling to recover from decades of civil war. But the jubilation and hope were short-lived. As has been the case in many African that are blessed with valuable natural resources, Mozambique’s huge gas find is turning out to be more of a curse than a blessing.
Cabo Delgado province, where the gas deposits are located, borders Tanzania and is home to 2.3 million people, a majority of about 60% being Muslims and the hullabaloo surrounding the gas discovery didn’t only attract investors to the province, but also opportunists. Among the latter category is an Islamist group calling itself Ansar al-Sunna (supporters of the tradition) that has launched an insurgency which has so far claimed the lives of more than 1,500 people and caused the displacement of hundreds of thousands and destroyed homes and property.
The Causes of the Insurgency
There is no agreement on the motives for the insurgency, but it is generally understood that one of the key motivations for the rebels is a widespread feeling of marginalisation by the country’s leadership that is ensconced in the relative comfort of Maputo, some 1,700 km away.
While religion does play a fundamental role in the conflict, analysts believe the most important factors in the insurgency are widespread social, economic and political problems in Mozambique in general and in Cabo Delgado in particular. Increasing inequalities mean that many young people are easily attracted by the radical movement – Ansar al-Sunna promises that its form of Islam will act as an “antidote” to the existing “corrupt, elitist rule”.
According to Dr Eric Morier-Genoud, a Mozambican-born political scientist at Queen’s University in Belfast, this new guerrilla movement is primarily a local phenomenon with very specific historical and social dynamics.
“The movement emerged within a particular religious, social and ethnic group known as the Mwani. They feel they have been marginalised for decades by migration into their area, a lack of economic development, and their neighbours’ political clout,” said Dr Morier-Genoud.
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However, there is also a school of thought that the insurgency could be a conspiracy by some shadowy international groups seeking to share in the multi-billion dollar gas bonanza.
“For now it remains unclear whether the terrorist attacks in the region are more closely connected to radical Islamists from the north or organized crime using Islamism as a cover,” wrote Andrew McGregor, a security expert. “The intention could be to create enough insecurity to delay the development of a legitimate industry that could threaten their operations. It has been suggested elsewhere that the insurgency is designed to facilitate the entry of private military firms into the region and enable their exploitation of local energy resources.”
A Botched Military Response
The reaction of President Filipe Nyusi’s government has been to dismiss the insurgency as acts of banditry, and he has unleashed the country’s security forces on the province in the hope of nipping the rebellion in the bud. But it looks like Nyusi, himself a former Defence minister, either misjudged the size of the problem or did not actually understand the strength, morale and discipline of his forces, as the military deployment did not bring the desired results.
With the security forces also suffering from government neglect, analysts think progress could also have been affected by the reality that the security forces share the same grievances as those that they are deployed to fight.
According to information supplied to this writer by researchers from Observatório do Meio Rural (Rural Observatory) (OMR), a Mozambican non-governmental organisation, the military deployment only served to build a groundswell of disgruntlement within both the military and the general citizenry.
“In fact the military on the ground complain of being underpaid and of problems of logistical supply. In the case of death or injury, the family is left unprotected. The military claims that the money support stays with their officers, who are taking advantage of the situation,” OMR researchers said in a written response.
According to these researchers, the military deployments have also caused anger within the local communities. “Some peasants complain of theft and extortion of money by the military. News reports and WhatsApp videos indicate the general feeling that the military are not adequately protecting populations by avoiding confrontation with insurgents.”
Mozambique’s army and police force are among the lowest paid public servants in the country, and this, coupled with a lack of resources, has affected morale and provided ideal conditions for corruption.
Enter Top-Dollar Mercenaries
As Mozambique’s state security forces – the Forças de Defesa e Segurança (FDS) – proved incapable of dealing with the lightly armed terrorists Maputo began a search for military alternatives. This resulted in the arrival in Cabo Delgado – in September of 2019 – of a team of more than 200 mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a private company owned by a Russian businessman with close Kremlin connections. Despite their sophisticated equipment, by late November, the Wagner Group fighters had suffered heavy losses, including some beheadings – forcing them to flee from Mozambique.
Buoyed by their success over the Russian outfit, the militants started the year with increased attacks, prompting the Mozambican government, early this year, to hire South African-based Dyck Advisory Group, which is headed by former Zimbabwean army official, Colonel Lionel Dyck. There were immediate reports of some successes, including the killing of 129 insurgents.
Insurgents ‘Organised, Motivated and Well-Equipped’
The semi-retired 76-year old Dyck whose military operations in the troubled area have until now been only airborne, is understood to be on the cusp of deploying a ground force to complement the airstrikes.
“The stakes are extremely high,” Dyck said in an interview with Africa Unauthorised. “But the Mozambique Defence Forces are unprepared and under-resourced and we have to move fast.”
The veteran soldier of fortune went on to give a vivid picture of the situation confronting his force on the ground.
“Some of the atrocities committed are unlike anything I have seen before and I’ve seen a lot of wars, in a lot of different places. The massacre that followed the attack on Quissanga Police Post involved the mutilation of bodies, severing of limbs and we believe the attackers ate some of the body-parts. Despite this barbarism, this enemy is organised, motivated and well equipped. If we don’t get on top of this, it’s going to spread south fast and that will be a catastrophe for the entire region.”
However, the military victories posted by the Dyck Advisory Group appeared to be just a setback for the well-coordinated and well-equipped insurgents as they returned with vengeance in mid-August taking control of the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia.
“At the current rate, the momentum is firmly with ASWJ insurgents and without significant regional assistance, substantial financial commitments and major structural reform it is unlikely that the Mozambican army will manage to substantially turn the tide in their favour in the next six months,” Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft in London, told The Africa Report.
The Need for Mercenaries
Analysts said the engagement of foreign military contractors was an open admission by the Nyusi administration that its security forces are proving no match for the insurgents.
“According to the local population, the military has lost the initiative. For instance, in Muidumbe district, some local populations expelled the military arguing that they did not protect them. These events are not good for the morale (of the government soldiers),” the OMR researchers said.
Political analyst Calton Cadeado of the ISRI-Istituto Superior de Relações Internacionais said it was not surprising that Maputo had resorted to seeking outside help to deal with the growing security threat.
“Irrespective of absence of official confirmation, I do think that Mozambique is open to cooperation with State and non-State actors (such as private military companies) that can provide expertise to deal with the problem in Cabo Delgado province,” Cadeado said in an interview. “It is, however, surprising knowing the nationalistic vein of FRELIMO government. In the past, when Mozambique was at war, (the) FRELIMO government refused, to the last minute, all offers coming from private military companies.”
He said the change in attitude towards private military contractors might have been informed by results posted in other countries that have had similar problems.
“(It) is perhaps, an implicit acknowledgement to past relative success stories that happened when Executive Outcomes and Sandline (International) intervened, for instance, in Angola and Sierra Leone. I do have to highlight the relative success (in providing intelligence, transport, logistics and combat operations) because it is well known that these private military companies were also a source of problems.”
The OMR researchers pointed out that while it would be naïve to rule out the military option in this case, however, it is the use of mercenaries that is the problem.
“The use of mercenaries is problematic because the protection of populations is a State function. On the other hand, these mercenaries don’t understand the local reality and are unable to distinguish local from non-local. The terrain of war, with huge forests is very hostile and it will be very complicated to defeat a guerrilla war, especially in a scenario where there is evidence that the guerrillas have some social support base in the field, among the families of the rebels.”
They said it was regrettable that the agreements with military contractor firms remain top-drawer secrets, thereby creating room for corruption. “This scenario of lack of public information and transparency opens up opportunities for corruption… military conflicts open business opportunities in the security field.” This is of serious concern as Mozambique is reeling from increasing cases of unbridled corruption involving the ruling elites.
How much it is costing the Mozambican government may not be known, but it remains a mystery how a government that pleads poverty when it comes to remuneration and welfare of its own security forces can afford top-dollar private military contractors. Information revealed by other private military contractor firms that were rubbing their palms in gleeful anticipation of landing lucrative security contracts in the area showed that they invoice monthly figures of between $15,000 and $25,000 for each pair of boots on the ground, in addition to the cost of equipment and other logistical considerations. Whereas the other mercenary firms were offering to deploy 50 men at most, the disgraced Wagner Group had landed with a bloated contingent of 203 men.
If these jaw-dropping figures are anything to go by, a mercenary firm can earn several times the monthly salary bill of Mozambique’s entire 11,200 men army, whose officers earn an average of $70 per month. The $25,000 per man that some mercenary firms ask for is enough to pay nearly 360 regular Mozambican military personnel.
These costs have raised questions on whether the poor country can sustain this bill in the long run, given the protracted nature of insurgents of this type as seen from West Africa’s Boko Haram and East Africa’s al Shabaab insurgencies.
The Unsustainable Long-term Cost of Hired Guns
A former Zimbabwean soldier who, like Dyck, operated in Mozambique during the neighbouring country’s 1970s liberation war and returned there later to help the Mozambican government fight against RENAMO insurgency told this writer anonymously that the dense forests of Mozambique, which have the biblical “thickets of the Jordan” undertones, can be a dangerous theatre for conducting warfare.
“The routing of the Russians may have had the effect of showing that the risks are very high and this makes the whole exercise costly,” said the retired military official. “Just like RENAMO was never defeated in many decades, this conflict can drag for many years and I doubt that the use of mercenaries can be sustainable in the long run,” he said.
Cadeado from the OMR said ideally the money being spent on private military companies should be invested in the State security and military forces. He pointed out that the Mozambican armed forces are a victim of neglect as a result of many factors and their failure to adequately attend to this insurgency highlights the dangers of neglecting this key sector.
Non Military Solutions
Dr Morier-Genoud thinks the Mozambican government and its partners also need to devise non-military measures.
“They need to constructively engage with issues of land ownership, begin to address sectarian tensions, and avoid vexing Muslims in their security operations if they want to prevent the Islamist guerrillas from tapping into local grievances and gaining more ground,” he said.
The OMR researchers agree with Dr Morier-Genoud.
“The solution cannot be just military, because it is almost impossible to win (against) a guerrilla movement in a scenario of poverty, inequality and with historical deep tensions. But it is crucial that the military on the ground be provided with adequate working conditions, including logistics, but also training, including in areas related to respect for the human rights of the people.”
“More importantly, invest in socio-economic initiatives of development at local level. It includes, above all, close attention to the youth bulge, which is clearly pervasive in the areas affected by the insurgency.”
A Regional Solution?
There has been talk of seeking help from neighbouring countries, or even of a regional Southern African Development Community (SADC) brigade to help in fighting the insurgents, but nothing appears to be materializing on the ground.
Although Mozambique shares borders with Malawi, South Africa, eSwatini, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Tanzania – all SADC members – the neighbours are yet to launch a coordinated response to the growing threat. South Africa says Maputo has not made any direct request for assistance.
Security analysts have urged SADC to respond swiftly before the insurgency begins to spread into the region, as has been the case with Boko Haram insurgency in West Africa that started in Nigeria’s north-east and has spilled into Cameroon and Niger.