Mozambique: Better co-ordination needed to tackle Islamist insurgency – experts

Southern African leaders agree to extend military mission in Cabo Delgado province

Mozambiques president Filipe Nyusi (left) and Zambian president Hakainde Hichilema (right) at the Southern African Development Community Heads of State Extraordinary summit on the state of security in Mozambique at the Bingu International Convention Centre in Lilongwe on January 12th.  Photograph: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty

Mozambiques president Filipe Nyusi (left) and Zambian president Hakainde Hichilema (right) at the Southern African Development Community Heads of State Extraordinary summit on the state of security in Mozambique at the Bingu International Convention Centre in Lilongwe on January 12th. Photograph: Amos Gumulira/AFP via Getty

 

The two international forces helping Mozambique to tackle an Islamist insurgency in its northern provinces need to better co-ordinate their operations to bring the deadly conflict under control, security experts have said.

Southern African leaders have agreed to extend a regional military mission in Mozambique’s war-torn north, citing the “significant progress” its troops had made against the Islamist militants terrorising Cabo Delgado province since 2017.

Following a Southern African Development Community (SADC) security summit in Malawi last week, South African president Cyril Ramaphosa hailed the regional military mission for “neutralising” the insurgents, saying life was beginning to return to normal in the resource-rich province.

Known locally as Al-Shabaab (“the youth”), the militants have aligned themselves with the international terror group Islamic State, also known as Isis, and are seeking to establish a caliphate in the region.

The SADC mission in Mozambique (Samim), which was deployed in August, comprises special forces from Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Tanzania.

The decision by SADC to extend its mission by at least three months came days after Rwanda signed an agreement with Mozambique to expand their military cooperation, which also began last year.

Rwandan troops have been conducting counter-terrorism operations with Mozambique’s military in Cabo Delgado’s Afungi Peninsula since July 2021 and they have recorded some major battlefield victories against the extremists.

A 1,000-strong force was initially deployed by Rwandan president Paul Kagame with a mandate to protect a liquid natural gas processing plant in the area and secure a transport corridor between the country’s north and south.

Attacks and looting

Institute of Security Studies senior researcher Liesl Louw told The Irish Times that both foreign forces had performed admirably so far, but she warned greater cooperation between them was key to making further progress against the jihadists.

“After suffering defeats in Cabo Delgado last year Al-Shabaab withdrew some fighters from the area. They have re-emerged in Niassa – a province to the west of Cabo Delgado that borders Malawi – where they have been attacking and looting villages recently,” she said.

Cabo Ligado, a local conflict observatory launched last year to monitor political violence in Mozambique, has detailed dozens of attacks, murders and acts of looting by Al-Shabaab in Cabo Delgado and Niassa since mid-November 2021.

According to Ms Louw and other security experts, the current Samim force does not have enough troops or logistical equipment to effectively patrol the growing conflict area, and the Rwandans appear to be confined to the Afungi Peninsula.

Samim’s on-the-ground strength is said to be about a third of the 2,916 soldiers the mission’s original plan allowed for, and there are reportedly only two transport helicopters available to ferry troops into and out of battle.

Although a deployment of infantry troops is expected to beef up the Samim fighting force in the coming months, military experts in South Africa have warned there is no guarantee this will take place due to the financial and logistical constraints the mission is under.

Thus far the Samim mission has been funded by SADC member states, but the regional bloc has reportedly been reaching out to international stakeholders seeking financial support.

Despite numerous calls by security experts in recent weeks for greater cooperation between the Samim and Rwandan forces, there were no observers from Rwanda at last week’s SADC security summit.

Strained relations

Relations between Rwanda and South Africa, SADC’s political heavyweight, have been strained for years due to a variety of security and political disagreements.

However, it remains unclear why political leaders appear reluctant to increase the cooperation between both missions in Mozambique given the threat the conflict and Isis pose to the region.

Isis has increasingly tried to link itself to the attacks Al-Shabaab fighters have conducted since November through statements and social media posts, but Ms Louw said the true extent of the international terror group’s involvement is unclear.

“[Islamic State] wants to position itself as being involved in Mozambique, but we have interviewed more than 300 people in the conflict zone and so far, there is no real evidence that it is. The officials we talked to believe [Islamic State] is involved, but there is no clear documentary proof to establish the link,” she said.

More than 3,600 civilians, soldiers and militants have died in the conflict since it began, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Date Project, which tracks political violence globally.

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