Southern Africa struggles to respond to Mozambique’s Islamist insurgency

Government slow to embrace the assistance it has been offered to defeat Al-Shabaab

The onslaught by Islamist militants on a key town in northern Mozambique last week has led to renewed calls for a decisive regional response to the insurgency under way since 2017.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch regional director Dewa Mavhinga said the ongoing violence in resource-rich Cabo Delgado province required urgent action from the region's main intergovernmental body, the South African Development Community (SADC), and the African Union.

South Africa’s main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, has also repeated its call for a military force comprised of all SADC countries to be dispatched to tackle the growing terrorist threat posed by the insurgents, who are known locally as Al-Shabaab (“the youth”).

However, Mozambique’s government has been slow to embrace assistance over the past two years from neighbours and western countries with a stake in the regional peace or Cabo Delgado’s lucrative offshore gas fields.

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So far, it has only accepted limited military training from the US and the EU for its beleaguered army, although South Africa’s navy confirmed recently it will ramp up anti-piracy patrols in the Mozambique Channel until March 2023.

In terms of direct assistance, Mozambique has relied on help from Russian military security contractor the Wagner Group, and more recently the Dyck Advisory Group, a South African security company, to keep the insurgents at bay.

It is believed the Mozambican government’s refusal to allow foreign troops to join its fight against Al-Shabaab is rooted in fears that it would lead to a loss of national sovereignty.

But president Filipe Nyusi’s government is under increasing pressure to defeat the insurgents, who are seeking to establish a caliphate in the province, so the gas developments in Cabo Delgado’s Afungi area can be brought to fruition.

Total confirmed last weekend it had halted all construction work at its site near Palma – which is a facility being developed to liquefy and export gas extracted from its offshore gas fields – until peace in the area has been restored.

Al-Shabaab’s attack on Palma and its 70,000 inhabitants also shows that the terror group is becoming increasingly emboldened and sophisticated, but some security experts have said it could also mark a turning point in the escalating conflict.

Foreign contractors

Although more than 2,600 people have died and about 700,000 have been displaced since the violence began in Cabo Delgado four years ago, according to the United Nations, the Palma attack is the first time that foreigners have been directly targeted by Al-Shabaab.

Since last Wednesday dozens of people, including foreign contractors linked to the gas projects, have been killed in the large-scale attack on the coastal town, which is the closest yet to Total’s multibillion-euro gas project.

Hundreds of foreign contractors have also been forced to flee the area by sea and road to escape the ongoing hostilities.

Researchers say the jihadists are predominantly made up of disaffected young men from the province, which is predominately Muslim. But Al-Shabaab’s leaders also claim to be affiliated to the Islamic State (Isis) terror group, which on Monday took responsibility for the latest offensive.

Institute for Security Studies senior researcher Lisel Louw-Vaudran told The Irish Times that South Africa was crucial to dealing with the unrest in Cabo Delgado, as it was the region's strongest economic, military and political power.

However, she maintained its government appeared hesitant to work through SADC to achieve that goal, even though it was the only acceptable approach for countries in the region.

“South Africa doesn’t have a lot of faith in the SADC secretariat to tackle the insurgency efficiently and effectively. South Africa also has no real sense of ownership of SADC, which was created in the 1970s to resist apartheid,” she said.

South Africa's president Cyril Ramaphosa has met with security chiefs following the Palma attacks, but Louw-Vaudran said the outcome of the meeting was as yet unknown.

SADC has also not released a statement on the Palma attacks to date.

Louw-Vaudran said that in the short term, one option for South Africa would be to use its maritime agreement with Mozambique, which was originally signed to tackle piracy, to legitimately increase its presence in the area.

“South Africa’s navy is patrolling the Mozambique Channel at present so it could be used to respond quickly to what is happening in Palma,” she said. “Any other type of military intervention would need the South African parliament’s approval.”

For now, how southern African nations intend to deal with the insurgency in the medium-to-long term remains a mystery.

But if Mozambique’s government continues to decline most of the help it has been offered to defeat Al-Shabaab, the gas bonanza it hopes will uplift the impoverished nation in the decades ahead could disappear for good.