/ 13 July 2020

The SADC will regret its approach to Mozambique’s insurgence

Mozambique Unrest Islam Politics
Amnesty International has released a report that implicates Al-Shabaab, the military and mercenaries in atrocities in Cabo Delgado province. (Photo by ADRIEN BARBIER / AFP)

On June 25 Mozambique celebrated 45 years of independence from Portugal that came as a result of a combination of factors including the fall of dictatorship in Lisbon through a military coup in 1974 that ended the country’s colonial conquest, and a decade-long liberation struggle led by Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO).

Mozambique’s independence in 1975 had a huge knock-on effect on other African countries. The new FRELIMO government opened up space and materially supported and inspired fellow liberation movements in Zimbabwe, Namibia and South Africa. 

As part of the Front Line States with Tanzania and Zambia, Mozambique is a founding member of the Southern Africa Development Co-ordination Conference which was formed in 1980 after Zimbabwe had gained independence, and is the ancestor to the present day Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) that was launched in 1992.

Mozambique’s sacrifice for fellow liberation movements had consequences. Soon after independence, the country was plunged into a 16-year civil war that was largely instigated by white minority-ruled Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa. Independent Zimbabwe later joined the war partly to return the favour for liberation support, but mainly to safeguard its economic lifeline — the Beira Corridor — for supplies because South Africa was regarded as a political enemy that was also reeling under international sanctions. When the civil war finally ended in 1992 after a peace deal with rival Mozambican National Resistance was signed, one million people were dead, several thousand maimed and the country was economically crippled.

After exactly 25 years of relative peace and stability, Mozambique is still one of the poorest countries in the world despite being endowed with vast mineral resources and some still being discovered.

Once considered relatively insulated against the threat of violent extremism, over the past few years Southern Africa, and northern Mozambique in particular, has seen a rise in extremist activity. On October 5 2017, members of a then largely unknown group called Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jammah (ASWJ) began a two-day attack on police stations and other government buildings in the town of Mocímboa da Praia, in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. 

The Mozambican authorities who had ignored the warning signs from locals for several years described the attack as an isolated incident and claimed to have the security situation under control. However, what began as relatively unsophisticated insurrection in 2017, where militants were primarily armed with machetes, has since transformed into a well-equipped and co-ordinated insurgency that has inflicted multiple casualties on the Mozambican security forces and innocent civilians. 

This insurgency has since morphed and now threatens the country’s most valuable economic projects, boasting growing ties with the Islamic State (IS) and could, if left unchecked, eventually destabilise not only Mozambique but the whole SADC region. 

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that more than 100 000 people have been displaced in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, with some seeking refuge in neighbouring Tanzania. 

The Mozambican government’s heavy-handed response, which has included mass dragnet arrests, the forced closure of mosques, the banning of media from entering Cabo Delgado and a general crackdown on civil society has done little to stem the violence. Despite operations by the Mozambique Defence Armed Forces, and the contracting of Russian, French and South African private military companies, ASWJ continues to strengthen and expand their operations into neighbouring Nampula and Niassa provinces.

Only in May, when the extent and intractability of the insurgency became impossible to deny, did Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi ask for help from other states in the region to address the growing threat, at a summit of the troika of the SADC’s organ on politics, defence and security currently chaired by Zimbabwe. 

Until this summit, two and a half years after ASWJ’s first attacks in Cabo Delgado province, the SADC had not made any official pronouncement on the matter. Although the African Union (AU) first acknowledged the crisis in February and announced its willingness to support Mozambique, it could not intervene ahead of the SADC following the principle of subsidiarity.

Recently, South Africa’s minister of defence confirmed in a virtual parliamentary session that the intelligence community believes that the Mozambique insurgence is a threat to the rest of southern Africa. 

In dealing with the evolving peace and security situation in Mozambique, the SADC should deliberately prioritise sovereign security and human security with equal measure in order to combat the rise of violent extremism. The already belated physical containment of the militarisation of the region should be supported by building local capacity for sustained dialogue, mediation and transitional justice to promote peace and sustainable inclusive development. 

Its fledgling mediation bodies comprising the Mediation Support Unit, the largely inactive Panel of the Wise and the little-known Mediation Reference Group should be activated to get their hands “dirty” in northern Mozambique. They should work with civil society partners that have already started to do intensive research and formulated intervention strategies to mitigate the growing security situation.

Over the past two decades, Africa has seen the rapid emergence and spread of violent extremist actors and associated acts of terrorism across the continent, often clustered in regional hotspots. Al-Shabaab, which emerged as local insurgence against the Somali state in 2005, now maintains an active presence in neighbouring Kenya, and has attempted or successfully carried out attacks in several other East African states, including Djibouti, Tanzania, Ethiopia and Uganda. 

Boko Haram emerged as a local insurgency against the Nigerian state in 2009, has spread into the Lake Chad region and is now a major security threat in Chad, Cameroon and Niger. And in the Sahel, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb was able to take advantage of the 2012 Tuareg rebellion to gain a foothold in northern Mali and has since expanded their operational footprint into Burkina Faso, eastern Niger and other West African states.

With this glaring evidence on the continent, it is shocking that the SADC is approaching the situation in Mozambique in such a lackadaisical manner. In the spirit of subsidiarity and complementarity, the AU and ultimately the United Nations will only intervene at the behest of the SADC. To date that call has not been made. The people of Mozambique and the rest of Southern Africa are vulnerable and on their own.

Dr. Webster Zambara is a senior project leader at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation in Cape Town. Annah Moyo-Kupeta is programme manager at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in Johannesburg.