/ 26 July 2020

Mozambique needs an intervention – but SADC must not rush in blindly

Macomia district in the province of Cabo Delgado
Macomia district in the province of Cabo Delgado, which is expected to become the centre of a gas industry, has seen a string of assaults on security forces and civilians, but no one has claimed responsibility. (Emidio Josine/AFP)

This year, as the insurgency in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province has intensified, calls for regional intervention have got louder. This is more than just talk: the Southern African Development Community (SADC) is actively exploring ways to intervene, including some kind of military response.

A virtual meeting of relevant SADC committees on 25-26 June resulted in some progress. This included, according to sources, commitments from some countries for boots on the ground, but an overall strategy has not been locked down. The process of doing so is frustrated by the reluctance of some countries to get involved; practical realities, such as who will fund an intervention; and Mozambique’s determination to remain “in charge” of the situation.

There is no doubt that some kind of intervention is necessary, to prevent the situation from spiralling out of control. But caution is required. Walking in blindly – without understanding the complexities at play, and without addressing some of the socio-economic factors that underpin and exacerbate the violence – could make the situation even worse.

A complex insurgency

The insurgency in Cabo Delgado, a coastal province in northern Mozambique, began in 2017 with an attack on a police station in the town of Mocimboa da Praia. Since then, the insurgency has gone from strength to strength, even though little is known about its motivations or intent. The insurgents go by the name Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama, and have reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.

This year, both the frequency and intensity of attacks has increased, and insurgents have gained access to more sophisticated weaponry. They have yet to attempt to set up any kind of parallel governance structure, but are showing sufficient sophistication to take on Mozambique’s security forces directly. They have also demonstrated the ability to briefly occupy towns such as Mocimboa da Praia and Macomia.

The response from Mozambique’s security forces has been characterised by coercive tactics and human rights abuses, which risks entrenching local grievances against the state. This is a challenge for any potential regional intervention: a close alignment with the Mozambican state could make it difficult to generate trust among affected communities, which is essential for any kind of peacekeeping effort. A recent MediaFax report noted that the Mozambican government’s hardline response has left young men in Cabo Delgado feeling sympathetic to the insurgents; they are more likely to support the insurgency in response to human rights violations by the state than out of any ideological conviction.

SADC and member countries also risk implicating themselves in these human rights violations committed by Mozambican soldiers.

Another hurdle is the involvement of the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), a private security company that has been contracted by the Mozambican government, and whose helicopters have been used in fighting against the insurgents. DAG’s contract was recently renewed for another eight months. How would any regional military force work with private security contractors?

The insurgency takes place against the backdrop of the discovery of enormous quantities of liquid natural gas in Cabo Delgado, which is attracting foreign direct investment in excess of $50 billion. International gas companies have created pockets of high security in which their staff can work, but they cannot isolate themselves completely from the rest of Cabo Delgado. An attack on a vehicle belonging to Fenix Construction Services, which is working on building a plant for Total SA, killed eight people in late June, while a security manager for Gaboon Protection went missing in early July.

It is essential, in this context, that any regional intervention is aimed not at protecting multinational corporations, but instead at creating a secure environment for residents of Cabo Delgado – who have consistently born the brunt of both insurgent attacks and the government’s response. There are more than 250 000 internally displaced people in the province, most of whom do not have access to adequate housing or medical care. The violence has forced out humanitarian actors such as Doctors Without Borders who were offering vital services.

Protecting people is ultimately what any successful intervention needs to be about. Treating the Cabo Delgado insurgency as just a “terrorist” threat, and responding only with force, risks feeding the insurgents’ propaganda – and is likely to be counterproductive. Instead, as SADC mulls its response, it needs to recognise the many local drivers of discontent in Cabo Delgado – including endemic poverty and neglect by the state – and work to address these at the same time as improving security. Otherwise, no matter how many boots are on the ground, the insurgency is likely to continue unabated.

Jasmine Opperman is an analyst with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Click here for the latest edition of Cabo Ligado, a new conflict observatory monitoring political violence in Mozambique, launched by ACLED in partnership with Zitamar News, Mediafax, and the International Crisis Group.