Mozambique has fought a largely losing battle with Islamist insurgents in its northern Cabo Delgado province in 2020, ceding control of important towns and ports despite numerous military operations to retake them.
Nonetheless the government remains reluctant to accept help from neighbouring countries to tackle the three-year insurgency in which an estimated 2,400 militants, soldiers and civilians have died, and a further 570,000 have been displaced.
That reluctance is likely to embolden the jihadists, who are known locally as Al-Shabaab (“the youth”) and claim to have links with the Islamic State terror group, to intensify their fight in 2021 to carve out a caliphate in the province, regional security analysts believe.
Offers of international assistance to deal with the rebellion in resource-rich Cabo Delgado have poured into Maputo since April, when it first became clear that Mozambique's troops and military strategy were struggling to keep the insurgents at bay.
But to date President Filipe Nyusi's Frelimo party, which has ruled the country since independence from Portugal was negotiated in 1975 after 10 years of war, has relied on private sector security companies from Russia, and more recently South Africa, to fight the militants.
However, the escalating situation has left him under pressure to accept large-scale support from western stakeholders and Mozambique’s neighbours, as they fear the insurgency will spill over into their backyards.
Liesl Louw, senior researcher with South Africa's Institute of Security Studies, says the situation in Cabo Delgado is dire, with Al-Shabaab expanding its presence into 10 of the province's 17 districts in recent weeks.
She believes the creation of a regional force supported by a clear African Union-developed military strategy would be the best way to help the Mozambique Defence Armed Forces to defeat the insurgents.
“Once this was achieved the AU could call on the international community to finance the plan, but all this would take time. In the interim Al-Shabaab is likely to continue with its tactics, given its successes in 2020,” she says.
However, Louw says the government of the former Portuguese colony appears to be reluctant to accept outside help because of fears it might undermine the country’s hard-won sovereignty.
“There is also the issue of national pride,” she says, “and a belief that Mozambicans should deal with their own problems”.
Mozambique did sign an agreement in late November with Tanzania to launch joint operations to combat Al-Shabaab, as Nyusi has said some of its recruits and leaders are from the east African nation, which shares its southern border with Cabo Delgado.
But Jasmine Opperman, a South Africa-based analyst with Armed Conflict Location and Events Data, a violence monitoring group, has questioned how effective the collaboration can be against the terror group, and whether civilians will get caught in the middle again.
“What will be the cost of these limited cross-border operations given Al-Shabaab is likely to intensify its war on the back of its successes in 2020? Will we see more civilians targeted by both sides?” she wonders.
Al-Shabaab has been accused of brutally killing civilians this year by international rights groups, but so too have Mozambican troops, which has highlighted the government’s own governance failures in the province.
Nyusi has repeatedly blamed foreign extremists for the insurgency, rather than seeing it as a home-grown uprising by the province’s marginalised population.
But researchers say the unrest is strongly linked to the levels of poverty and inequality in the province, which has vast mineral and gas resources that multinational corporations aim to extract, with little discernible benefit to locals.
Delivering his state-of-the-nation address on December 16th, Nyusi confirmed Mozambique had received offers of help from around the world, but he seemed to suggest that foreign troop interventions were not a viable option.
“We Mozambicans need to develop our own skills,” he maintained. “We will be on the front line of defending the country. Nobody will do it for us.”
Indeed, the government's reluctance to embrace outside help is evident in how it has engaged with the European Union (EU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) on their offer of assistance in Cabo Delgado.
The EU has indicated it will provide military training for Mozambique’s troops as well as medical and humanitarian support, if international human rights and the rule of law are adhered to.
SADC, the region’s main intergovernmental body, has also offered to help, but it has said it first needs Mozambique to present it with a credible plan that outlines how and where it should get involved.
However, by mid-December Mozambique’s negotiations with both bodies had started to falter, despite the urgency of the situation.
‘We cannot move’
EU foreign affairs commissioner Josep Borrell publicly confirmed on December 16th that it had yet to receive "the green light" to send its security experts to assess the situation in Cabo Delgado even though the EU team was ready to go.
"We have problems in Mozambique: we cannot move, we cannot travel around," he told the European Parliament.
SADC’s defence and security organ also took part in a rescheduled meeting with Mozambique’s government on December 14th, but the talks in Maputo to address the crisis were postponed until January 2021 without any signs of progress.
In light of the difficult negotiations and escalating violence, Louw says it would be naive to think foreign military assistance could be rolled out in Mozambique before July.
“If a regional force is going to help Mozambique it will need 30,000 troops to tackle 5,000 insurgents,” she says. “This will take time to organise, even if things go according to plan, as SADC is weak in terms of its capacity.”
Opperman also sees little chance of the tide turning against Al-Shabaab next year, as the capacity and willingness of the Mozambican government to accept regional help is limited.
“The army will most likely focus on violence hot spots to give a false sense to the world that the crisis is under control, rather than allowing foreign boots on the ground to help tackle Al-Shabaab decisively,” she says.