Rwandan troops deployed in early July to Mozambique’s northeast province of Cabo Delgado have achieved remarkable results on the battlefield.
In just over 30 days, they helped Mozambican forces consolidate control of Palma, near the future gas city, retake the strategic town of Mocimboa da Praia and reopen circulation on the only paved road in the region, which connects the north of Cabo Delgado to the provincial capital Pemba.
The Rwandan military presence in Cabo Delgado has seemingly changed the balance of power in the conflict. Before the insurgents attacked Mozambican military positions, occupied villages and towns, beheaded men while kidnapping women and children. With Rwandan boots-on-the-ground in Cabo Delgado, it has now become a situation where government forces are chasing the insurgents.
These military victories were achieved without the engagement of troops from the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) regional bloc, also deployed to help a fellow member-state fight terrorism and violent extremism on its soil. This may raise questions about what is left for SADC to do in Cabo Delgado.
The answer is simple: a lot!
As the heads of state and government of the 16 countries of the regional bloc are meeting in Lilongwe for their annual summit this week, it is opportune to reflect on the role of SADC in fighting violent extremism in Mozambique.
In terms of intelligence, countries in the region need to help Mozambique collect data on the nature of the group or groups conducting attacks in Cabo Delgado. Despite several published studies on the subject, there is still no conclusive information on the insurgency’s leadership, objectives, sources of funding, the origin of its foreign fighters and many more important pieces of the puzzle that are still missing to understand the conflict fully.
Six countries border Mozambique, all of them members of SADC. A joint effort by these countries in intelligence gathering and sharing could help cut off the insurgents’ logistics. Apart from Mozambique’s long and ill- protected maritime border, there is no land border to enter and leave this country without having to cross the borders of another SADC member state.
Intelligence co-ordination can help border guards, immigration and other security agencies cut the insurgents’ logistics and trap them within the confines of Cabo Delgado.
Equally, good intelligence co-ordination between neighbouring countries can prevent violent extremists from growing their ranks by recruiting citizens from the countries of the region, notably Tanzania and South Africa. These two countries have already been cited as being the origin of some foreign fighters in Cabo Delgado.
In terms of military operations, while there were advances thanks to cooperation with the Rwandan troops, the insurgency has not yet been crippled.
The retaking of Mocimboa da Praia is essential for its symbolic value and because it is believed that the town with access to the sea and served by a port and an airport could serve as a logistical base for the insurgents.
In the battle for the recapture of Mocimboa da Praia, there was no considerable combat, which is an indication that the insurgents had left the town on foot on the eve of the arrival of government and Rwandan forces.
So far, there is no information that critical leaders of the insurgents have been eliminated, either captured or killed. Furthermore, the insurgents’ occupation of Mocimboa da Praia only happened in August 2020, when the conflict was already three years old. Before that, insurgents prepared and conducted attacks from the dense rainforests of Cabo Delgado.
Therefore, it is most likely that they returned to these areas when they learned of the approach of Rwandan and Mozambican troops to Mocimboa da Praia.
That means more military operations will be needed to chase the insurgents from their forest hideouts, and the 1,000 Rwandan troops may be too few for what can be a challenging mission.
The SADC troops could be instrumental in dislodging the insurgents from their bases.
Notably, the South African National Defence Forces (SANDF), with its naval power and experience of joint maritime operations with Mozambique to combat piracy in the Mozambique Channel, can play a crucial role in blocking the insurgents’ logistics at sea.
At the official launch of the SADC mission in Pemba on August 9, President Filipe Nyusi emphasised that “with SADC, together we will fight against terrorism and violent extremism”.
In the humanitarian area, the Mozambican Defence and Security Forces proved a significant lack of ability to protect civilians who are caught in the crossfire in fighting with insurgents.
About 800,000 civilians were forced to leave their lands, fleeing the conflict, and Mozambique did not provide any means to rescue civilians to safe areas. Dozens of internally displaced people (IDPs) died when overcrowded precarious boats sank on the high seas transporting men, women and children from conflict zones to the regional capital Pemba. Many IDPs walked long distances in search of refuge after having been attacked.
SADC troops can also help to rescue IDPs fleeing from conflict zones. The SANDF has previously helped in Mozambique to rescue hundreds of people hanging from trees and roofs when the city of Beira and neighbouring areas were washed away by the Cyclone Idai two years ago.
At the political level, SADC can be useful in persuading Maputo to fight the insurgency beyond the security perimeter of Afungi, the future gas city.
Since the beginning of the terrorist attacks in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique has shown little ability or even interest in protecting local communities that were killed by insurgents and their homes and livelihoods set on fire. Rather, the government has channelled all the best-trained military and police units and means available to protect Total’s gas exploration site.
It will be necessary for SADC leaders to tell their counterparts in Maputo that the security issue in Cabo Delgado goes far beyond the protection of natural gas exploration and processing fields. They need to emphasise that it is necessary to protect the local populations and their properties and eliminate the terrorist threat to allow the resumption of life in the region.
SADC can also be beneficial in ensuring that the hundreds of thousands of IDPs who have left conflict zones are returned to their lands once the security is restored. Several displaced people have raised concerns that they will never return to their homes even after the war ends, as there have been allegations that the government uses the war as a pretext for land grabs.
SADC leaders have the responsibility to persuade Maputo that the return of IDPs to their land should be a priority, once security measures are in place. This could prevent discontentment and further conflict in the future.Therefore, the SADC mission in Mozambique can be instrumental in influencing change in the approach to conflict, protecting more civilians and cutting off possible networks of insurgent cells in the countries of the region, but also advising the host government on appropriate public policies to address grievances that can fuel the conflict. – Institute for Security Studies Consultant