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Can SADC’s Military Intervention In Mozambique End Its Raging Insurgency?

As an insurgency in northern Mozambique continues to worsen, SADC members recently resolved to intervene, raising fears that this intervention may not only worsen the situation but may even inflame the war into a regional crisis.

A Southern African Development Community (SADC)’s Summit on the Mozambican security crisis held in Maputo on April 08 resolved to undertake a military intervention in the gas-rich Cabo Delgado province where an Islamic State-linked insurgency that started nearly four years ago has killed more than 2,500 people and displaced over 800,000 others.

The Islamic State-linked armed group calling itself Ansar al-Sunna (supporters of the tradition) is believed to be behind this insurgency that is threatening to blow up the multi-billion dollar gas exploitation project in this vast resource-rich-but-poor southern African nation. Also known locally as Al Shabab, the Cabo Delgado extremist group has launched more than 800 raids on towns and villages in the north most part of Mozambique. 

The March 24 attack on the coastal town of Palma, which resulted in the death of about 100 people – including expatriates, some of them beheaded – appeared to be the final straw for the regional bloc that has for a long time remained undecided on how to assist the government in Maputo. 

However, it is this planned intervention by the bloc that has fuelled concerns that it might worsen the situation both inside Mozambique and beyond.

Case For Military Intervention

“An attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” declared Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, who together with his Botswana counterpart, Mokgweetsi Masisi, is leading the push for a military form of intervention. “United we stand. Hence, we cannot sit back and allow acts of insurgency to continue without a robust regional response,” he said.

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Until the Maputo summit, calls had been growing for both SADC and the African Union to do something about this insurgency.

SADC has a defence pact that allows a member state under attack to seek help from the bloc, but until the eve of the summit, President Filipe Nyusi’s government had been obstinate in its refusal to seek foreign intervention, only limiting its request for assistance to weapons, money and training. 

However, analysts say while President Nyusi insisted that his government decision was informed by the need to protect the country’s sovereignty, in actual fact it could have been informed by the sobering reality that up to this point, military campaigns – even with the sophisticated support of mercenary forces such as the Wagner Group and Dyck Advisory Group – only served to strengthen the insurgents. He could also be reconciling himself to the reality that there are not many examples where jihadist movements, such as the one in Cabo Delgado, have been successfully defeated militarily. If anything, similar jihadist insurgents like Boko Haram in West Africa and al Shabaab in East Africa have shown how external military interventions only serve to complicate the situation. 

The Crisis Could Be Solved By Solving The Underlying Causes

However, since the insurgency started intensifying late last year, there has been a growing body of opinion, including that of journalists, researchers, churches, human rights groups and aid workers, that this conflict is rooted in local grievances. Most of them suggested that this is a rebellion against thoroughly corrupt Frelimo elites that have continued to amass vast wealth at the expense of the ordinary citizenry.

These are the issues that were repeatedly raised by the former Bishop of Pemba, Luiz Lisboa, which also earned him death threats, allegedly from members of the Mozambican government. On April 16, Catholic bishops in Mozambique issued a hard-hitting statement in which they blamed the insurrection on governance grievances.

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“Behind this conflict, there are interests of certain groups taking over the nation and its resources,” the bishops said. “Instead of being put at the service of local communities and becoming a source of sustenance and development, these resources are taken away with a total lack of transparency, fuelling revolt and resentment, especially in the hearts of the young.”

Adriano Nuvunga, director at the Centre for Democracy and Development, also believes that years of bad governance, marginalisation and poverty in the conflict-ridden region is at the centre of the conflict.

“By capacity, we don’t mean military capacity,” said Nuvunga who has in the past also received death threats because of his candid views. “The situation in northern Mozambique is not about militarisation. It’s a failure of governance, it’s a failure of democracy. But there are questions being asked about whether or not SADC has the capacity to support Mozambique. Some of these SADC members are facing similar challenges in terms of governance deficit. So how can they support Mozambique, which is in need of strengthening its governance mechanism? We hope to engage the technical deployment, we lobby them to make them understand that Mozambique is facing a governance challenge.”

Luiz Fernando Lisboa, bishop from the Diocese of Pemba, Mozambique, during his pastoral work

Joseph Hanlon, a researcher who has dedicated considerable time to the Cabo Delgado conflict, also shares the same sentiment.

“The government (of Mozambique) appears happier to blame IS (Islamic State) rather than its own policy failings for the continued conflict,” noted Hanlon. “But increasing numbers of Mozambicans are saying that creating thousands of jobs would end the war sooner and cost much less than a huge international military involvement.”

Insurgents Well-Armed, Highly Organised

After the seizure of the town of Palma, it took the government nearly a fortnight to reclaim it, a development that confirmed the growing strength of the militants. 

A study published on April 16 by João Feijó, the technical coordinator of Observatório do Meio Rural (Rural Environment Observatory) (OMR), a Mozambican non-governmental organisation, suggested that the insurgents are well-equipped, well-organised and highly motivated compared to the Mozambican army. 

“Eyewitnesses report a great deal of military power by the machabos [local word for the insurgents], sometimes well in excess of that of the Mozambican army,” said the report. 

Feijó notes that their large military capacity raises suspicions of external support. “One interviewee suggested they may have satellite phones, because of apparent communication between bases.”

According to the report, the insurgents’ military strategies rely on rapid attacks, often at night. “According to reports from the women who have survived being kidnapped by the insurgents, the latter have four advantages: 1) growing numbers; 2) growing military and logistical capacity; 3) the ability to camouflage themselves by wearing the uniforms of the armed forces, confusing the population and the enemy, or even by hiding amongst the local population and using them as human shields; and 4) a vast network of observers and access to information.”

Read More: Are Mercenaries the Answer to Mozambique’s Deadly Insurgency?

The report said that in contrast to the defence and security forces, which have demonstrated disorganisation, indiscipline and lack of motivation, the insurgent group has shown high morale and conviction.

The OMR research shows that this is a war in which even local Mozambican soldiers cannot distinguish between ordinary citizens and insurgents and this raises questions of how difficult it would be for SADC forces to operate in an environment where the enemy is not clearly defined. 

As has already been shown by the government forces and their mercenary allies, the strategy has, so far, been one of indiscriminate killing. Security experts say these indiscriminate killings by the army have only served to swell the ranks of the insurgents.

Residents of Palma, northern Mozambique, are trying to get back to normality in the wake of the attack

While some security analysts admit there could be a link between Mozambique and ISIS central, there are others that believe the Mozambican insurgency operates “under an ISIS flag of convenience” to justify its brutal activities.

“It provides excellent propaganda opportunity for ISIS central but the majority of what’s happening in northern Mozambique is driven by local grievances,” said Dr Alex Vines, of Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

Threat To The Region

There are also fears that threats by the insurgents that attacks would be extended to regional countries that intervene in the conflict could become a reality once a SADC force is deployed in Mozambique. This could see the conflict spreading throughout the region, making it even more difficult to contain, as has been the case with similar conflicts on the continent.

So serious is this threat that in his address to the nation, President Masisi of Botswana revealed that they were expecting attacks to occur in Botswana at any time because of their involvement in Mozambique through SADC.

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