Footage of the South African patrol vessel SAS Makhanda off the coast of Mozambique and the arrival of a column of Casspir armoured vehicles, once used by the apartheid regime against protesters, marked the beginning of a new stage in the struggle against Islamist radicals in the Province of Cabo Delgado.
The conflict that began in 2017 has already caused the deaths of 3,000 people and the displacement of 800,000 in northern Mozambique, and it has acquired regional characteristics.
At least five African countries have sent troops to Mozambique or are in the process of doing so, increasing the scale of the confrontation and the risks involved.
Located in the far north of the former Portuguese colony, Cabo Delgado is historically a poor and isolated region that seemed to have hit the jackpot ten years ago with the discovery of vast offshore natural gas fields.
However, as is often the case in Africa, mineral wealth has resulted in more instability.
In the Mozambican case, this has resulted in the emergence of the Ansar al-Sunna (“defenders of tradition”) faction, which includes around 3,000 combatants and claims links with the Islamic State.
In March of this year, the group carried out its most daring action, in the city of Palma, used as a base by several foreign workers. The attack killed dozens and caused the suspension of the operations of the French company Total, which owns the gas exploration concession.
It also sparked a reaction from the Mozambican government, which reversed its initial reservations and ultimately asked for international aid.
“At first, the Mozambican government treated the issue as a case of common banditry, of public disturbances which would be quickly overcome. There was a certain naivety, but the facts eventually prevailed, because the situation got complicated,” says Salvador Forquilha, who does research on the subject at the Institute of Social and Economic Studies (Iese) in Mozambique.
The multinational action concerns five countries, in addition to Mozambique. Four of them are part of a stabilisation force of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional bloc.
It is led by South Africa, which provides the largest contingent (1,500 men) and most of the heavy military equipment. For now, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Angola are also part of this force. There is also unofficial information that Tanzanian troops are already operating in Mozambican territory.
To complicate the picture, there are a thousand additional men sent by Rwanda, operating outside the chain of command of the SADC force, after bilateral negotiations with the Mozambican government.
In addition, military teams from the United States and the European Union train the Mozambican armed forces. The government has also hired Russian and South African mercenaries to help fight the rebels, who have theoretically already left but are believed to remain active.
“If there is no coordination between these different forces, the operation will become a mess,” says Jasmine Opperman, a South African defence analyst monitoring the crisis.
Rwandan troops are said to be funded by France, although there is no confirmation from the governments concerned.
With a background in peacekeeping missions on the continent and a reputation for professionalism and impetuosity, Rwandans were the first to arrive. They claim to have already secured traffic in areas previously occupied by radicals and have killed dozens of them in combat.
The SADC mission, on the other hand, has progressed more slowly and claims it will only stay three months, which analysts find utterly unrealistic.
“Regarding the roads and border areas, faster control is possible, but to defeat the insurgents, you have to go into the bush, and it’s not easy. It’s not something that lasts less than a year,” says Opperman.
Radicals adopt guerrilla tactics and methods sanctioned by other terrorists, such as explosions and the beheading of civilians and military personnel.
Despite this, says Alex Vines, an expert at UK think tank Chatham House, it is too much to see them only as an extension of other Islamic groups.
“This rebellion concerns less jihadism than practical problems, such as the lack of rights for the population,” explains Vines. “The supposed link with the Islamic State is another way for the militants to get the world’s attention.”
According to him, the north of Mozambique is culturally very close to the regions of Central Africa, with a strong Islamic tradition.
“Cabo Delgado sits at one end of the so-called ‘Swahili Corridor’, with personal and cultural ties that extend to Somalia. It’s an area of Islamic influence, but not necessarily radicalised,” Vines explains.
He estimates that more than 90 percent of the combatants are Mozambicans or come from Tanzania, a country bordering Cabo Delgado. A handful would only come from other countries or the Middle East.
“On the other hand, if the conflict spreads, Cabo Delgado could start to attract radicalised youth from other parts of the world, as has happened with Iraq and Syria in recent years.”
The scenario of an endless regional war, involving more and more countries, is not the most likely at this time, analysts say. “African countries do not have the resources to stay in Cabo Delgado indefinitely,” says Opperman.
The assessment for now is that there is a need to tackle Islamist radicalism before it grows and becomes another hotbed of instability on the continent.
The Cabo Delgado gas project alone is valued at US$20 billion and is not expected to resume soon. In addition, around one million people are in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of the conflict, according to the United Nations World Food Programme.
“The risk of Islamic radicalism spreading across southern Africa exists. In the attacks in Cabo Delgado, there have already been signs of the presence of South African citizens,” says Forquilha.
Even if the insurgency is brought under control, he says, the tension in the region would not immediately disappear.
“Everything indicates that we will have an area with some kind of endemic violence, as is happening in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And let’s hope that the group does not separate, because that will make the fight much more complicated,” says the researcher.
The government of Mozambique – which has around 4,000 troops operating in the region – has adopted a strategy that combines the use of force and diplomatic gestures.
In a speech at the end of July, President Filipe Nyusi thanked the presence of foreign troops and promised to maintain combat operations until he defeats the insurgency.
At the same time, former President Joaquim Chissano, a still quite influential leader in the country, proposed that at some point there should be negotiations with the radicals.“The situation is likely to calm down in the short term. But the big question is: once the dust settles, what is to prevent the problem from reappearing?” Vines asks. – KSUSentinel.com