Fears are growing that southern Africa's coronavirus outbreak could undermine regional efforts to tackle an escalating conflict in Mozambique between government troops and militants seeking to establish an Islamist state.
An insurgency that has simmered in Mozambique's most northern province since late 2017 erupted into open warfare this year, with the jihadists launching co-ordinated attacks on three large towns and numerous villages in Cabo Delgado since January.
In their latest major attack the extremists, who claim to be affiliated to the Islamic State terror group but are known locally by the name al-Shabaab ("the youth"), seized the district capital Macomia in late May and occupied it for three days before soldiers drove them out. The group is not believed to be connected to the Somalia-based terror group of the same name.
Mozambique defence minister Jaime Neto said in a press conference on May 31st that the army had killed 78 militants at Macomia, including two al-Shabaab leaders who were foreign nationals, but he provided no evidence to support his claim.
Hundreds of civilians, militants and government troops have died in 2020 as a result of the insurgency, and according to security analysts the jihadists are showing new levels of sophistication and co-ordination this year.
South Africa-based terrorism expert Jasmine Opperman said the Mozambican government's recent statements on the insurgency were trying to create a narrative of victory for its military, but the reality on the ground told a different story.
“The level of planning and execution going into al-Shabaab’s attacks is improving all the time,” she told The Irish Times, “They are dictating where the battles occur. The government reacts to the attacks when it should be trying to control the conflict’s momentum”.
Earlier this year Mozambique asked the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the main regional intergovernmental body, for help to tackle the conflict, which also poses a significant threat to regional stability.
As a result there were high expectations that an SADC security summit in Zimbabwe's capital, Harare, on May 20th would yield a significant regional commitment to support Mozambique.
But according to South Africa’s Institute of Security Studies researcher Ringisai Chikohomero, the SADC’s official communiqué on the matter was little more than a vague expression of solidarity with Mozambique.
“This could be a tactical move to deceive the insurgents by not pre-empting the bloc’s next move,” he wrote in the Daily Maverick online newspaper. “However, it fails to engender confidence that SADC is treating the matter with gravity and urgency”.
In the weeks since the summit took place the SADC has revealed nothing more about plans it has to assist Mozambique to end an insurgency that many experts say has its origins in the government’s poor treatment of the gas-rich province’s impoverished Muslim population.
Indeed, the United Nations has urged Mozambique to use job creation and development as its primary method to defuse the crisis.
Opperman, who is the Africa associate at the Islamic Theology of Counter Terrorism, a UK-based think tank, also questions the SADC's ability to tackle the threat of Islamist extremism, saying the Covid-19 outbreak is forcing Mozambique's neighbours to focus their attention internally.
"I cannot see how regional powers like South Africa and Angola will get meaningfully involved in Mozambique when they have to deal with Covid-19 at home. At best we may see attempts by them to secure their borders over the coming months," she said.
Indeed, in April South Africa deployed most of its defence force internally to help enforce its ongoing coronavirus lockdown. Another of Mozambique's neighbours, Zimbabwe, has done the same.
Although Covid-19 outbreaks in many Western nations peaked over the past two months, countries in southern Africa, including South Africa, are not expecting their infection rates to peak for another couple of months.
That may mean less attention being paid to Mozambique’s difficulties for some time to come.