There is no question that the insurgency in Cabo Delgado in the north of Mozambique is far from over. While the military has secured the town of Palma that was attacked on March 24, insurgents have withdrawn to regroup, moved to nearby areas with fresh supplies, and remain an imminent threat to the Cabo Delgado region.
The SADC held an Extraordinary Double Troika Summit on Thursday to discuss the way forward and concretise a regional strategy to deal with the security threat that has become a major concern not only for Mozambique, but for its neighbours and the international community.
While the government of Mozambique has been reticent to involve troops from the region in training its forces or countering the insurgents in the north, intensive discussions between leaders of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security have led to a common approach on the way forward. The SADC summit directed an immediate technical deployment to Mozambique and an Extraordinary meeting of the Ministerial Committee of the Organ by April 28 that will report to the Organ Troika Summit on April 29.
While assistance from Western nations in the form of specialised training has been welcomed by the government of Mozambique even prior to the SADC Summit, a role for the SADC needed to be mapped out.
Following the attack on Palma which captured headlines around the world, Portugal, the former colonial power, committed 60 soldiers to assist in training Mozambique’s security forces. Last month a dozen US Green Berets arrived in Mozambique to train Mozambican forces, and the UK is considering a similar mission.
The UK recently reorganised its armed forces, creating a special forces battalion called the Rangers to train and carry out combat operations to tackle an insurgency like the one in Cabo Delgado. The EU is also considering sending troops.
Some experts say it will take two years to train and arm effective counter insurgency forces in Mozambique – time that the country doesn’t have.
The rush to put foreign boots on the ground was concerning, especially when the region itself wanted to take a lead in the counterinsurgency effort. When US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab put out a recent statement calling for a united strategy to counter the insurgency in Cabo Delgado, it made the need for a regional roadmap all the more urgent.
There is a need for a military as well as a developmental approach to the conflict. The grievances of locals date back decades to Portugese colonial underdevelopment, as well as post-colonial economic marginalisation. Recent exploitation of lucrative resources in the area such as rubies and timber have also caused resentment as there is little trickle-down effect or employment for locals.
The government acknowledges the urgent need for jobs in the area and has promised to deliver them. The exploitation of natural gas further alienated the population. According to Friends of the Earth Mozambique, Total, which has the Afungi processing plant 12km from Palma, had been in the process of displacing thousands from their homes and livelihoods without adequate compensation. Insurgents capitalise on this discontent and frustration, and use it to attract recruits.
Although the numbers of insurgents are relatively small – 100 had attacked the town of Palma – it is the barbarity of the attacks which are so alarming. Insurgents left beheaded bodies in the streets, some of them children – reminiscent of the 50 villagers that insurgents had beheaded in a football field last year.
Insurgents also targeted foreigners this time, ambushing the Amarula Lodge. Foreigners tried to escape the ambush in 17 vehicles, but only seven vehicles made it out, and villagers later returned to find dozens of beheaded bodies, most of them foreigners.
Insurgents had also attempted to encircle Total’s gas processing plant and surrounded the area, also using three hijacked boats off the coast. Total had withdrawn its staff at the plant after insurgents had almost overrun it on New Year’s Eve, and had said they would only return if President Filipe Nyusi guaranteed a 25km cordon around the complex. Nyusi had promised the cordon and Total workers had returned, only to have the attack on Palma take place two days later. The recent attack had occurred within the 25km cordon, and now Total has withdrawn all its staff.
A particularly concerning development is that according to reports from a local security guard in Palma, a number of the insurgents who carried out the attacks were children between the ages of nine and 12. If those reports are confirmed, it would indicate the use of child soldiers in this conflict, a devastating and dangerous new development.
What is also notable about the attack on Palma is the sophistication and the extent to which it was planned and orchestrated. The insurgents targeted a number of banks, raided a WFP warehouse where they reportedly took around 23 tons of food, and raided a military barracks where they reportedly stole around 100 vehicles. Part of the success of the insurgents is that they make use of the thick bush, and they integrate themselves within the civilian population. Outside Palma, insurgents are continuing operations in Macomia district, and there are reports that their goal is to occupy Macomia town by the end of Ramadaan.
Reports also suggest that the insurgents have retreated to Mocimboa da Praia to regroup and restock. The provincial Secretary of State for Pemba has said he also fears an escalation of insurgent violence.
With the insurgency posing an ongoing threat to the area, it puts at risk the exploitation of the gas fields which are estimated to be worth $128 billion (about R1.9 trillion). Mozambique had hoped to be one of the top 10 producers of liquefied natural gas in the world, but those plans are now on hold. ExxonMobil has also said it is unlikely to go ahead with its plans.
Much hinges on the success of the SADC region implementing a holistic roadmap to counter the insurgency both militarily and in terms of fast tracked socio-economic development of the area.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s Foreign Editor.