Harare – Mozambique’s request to the European Union (EU) for assistance to quell an Islamist insurgency in the northern part of the country has added another geopolitical dimension to the unravelling security situation in the Southern African country.
Mozambique wrote to the EU in September asking for help in training its armed forces to battle an Islamic State-affiliated extremist group known as Al Sunnah wa Jama'ah (ASWJ).
Former colonial power, Portugal, and France are understood to also be keen on individually intervening for their own economic interests.
Those are not the only international players in the mix.
Maputo has formally notified SADC of the problems back home, and regional leaders – at their last Summit of Heads of State and Government in August – pledged to “support” Mozambique.
Just before that Summit, United States Special Operations Command (Africa) Major-General Dagvin Anderson was beating the drums for a multi-nation military intervention.
Since then, reports have emerged of an unlikely loose alliance of the US and Zimbabwe potentially assisting Mozambique’s government.
Indications have been that Mozambique appears to prefer international assistance from Zimbabwe rather than from SADC as a bloc.
The Zimbabwe Defence Forces played a key role in assisting Maputo to end a decades-old civil war in 1992. This time around, Zimbabwe is understood to be only willing to return to such a theatre in concert with other SADC countries.
South Africa, on its part as the region’s economic powerhouse, has tentatively offered military support.
Last week, South Africa’s Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor said: “If it is more intelligence support, if it is the South African navy patrolling the coast, if it is assistance from our defence force, we as South Africa stand ready, but we must have that indication from the government of Mozambique. Mozambique is a sovereign country, if it needs assistance from any of us it would ask for it.”
ASWJ has already said it will “open a fighting front inside South African borders” if Tshwane assists Maputo.
But despite all this apparent international interest and intrigue, not much has materialised by way of actual assistance for Mozambique.
In the two years since the ASWJ declared its intention to create a “Caliphate of Central Africa”, and more particularly in recent months when insurgents have become more emboldened, there is yet to a be a co-ordinated international response to the threat.
In that period, more than 1,500 people have been killed and another 300,000 have been displaced, according to the United Nations.
The attacks are concentrated in the north of the country where investment totalling US$60 billion is being poured into development of natural gas capacity.
Now, Mozambique is seeking military, medical and humanitarian assistance from the EU and the bloc says it is ready to discuss “options for assistance”.
Liesl Louw of the Institute of Security Studies has been quoted saying, “If the EU were to directly help Mozambique, that would definitely raise regional tensions. The best-case scenario is the deployment of a SADC force … that the EU supports financially.”
On their part, Southern African regional leaders in August “welcomed the decision by the Government of the Republic of Mozambique to bring to the attention of SADC the violent attacks situation in the country, and commended the country for its continued efforts towards combating terrorism and violent attacks. Summit expressed SADC solidarity and commitment to support Mozambique in addressing the terrorism and violent attacks, and condemned all acts of terrorism and armed attacks”.
But there has been little evidence since then of a concrete regional plan to stop ASWJ from marching on towns, military installations and even a seaport.
There is a possibility that Mozambique is wary of who it allows into its borders because of suspicion that the insurgency is not entirely what it seems to be.
In July, Mozambique National Defence and Security Council member and former Security Minister Jacinto Veloso said the insurgents, who are mainly based in Cabo Delgado, were being backed by an outside power to frustrate development of the gas fields.
Before that, Veloso had said: “I am convinced that we are facing a major operation whose objective is to block the natural gas projects of Cabo Delgado. We are confronted with a mega-operation of destabilisation very probably directed by a competent and powerful hub located somewhere outside the country.
"We are dealing with a mega-operation conceived, directed, and executed from outside the country to, at least, slow the natural gas projects, because they are considered a serious commercial threat to the giant economic interests of big companies involved in identical projects in the region which are competing for the same markets."
Jacinto likened what was happening in Mozambique to the manner in which the US used Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan from 1979 against Russia, and then turned around an hunted him when he was no longer of use to them.
President Felipe Nyusi has also said the insurgency was partly attributable to the activities of unnamed “external elites”.
After the attacks in Macomia and Mocimboa da Praia in early July, terrorists inscribed graffiti identifying themselves as “Mujaahid of Mozambique”, “Islamic State” and “Al Shabab”. Analysts have pointed out that the graffiti was in English, a language that is very rarely used in Cabo Delgado.
Likely war of all this international intrigue, Mozambique has turned to mercenaries – or “private military contractors” in politically correct parlance - for assistance.
In 2019, President Nyusi reportedly hired the Wagner Group from Russia but that company made little headway in confronting ASWJ.
Maputo then turned to Retired Colonel Lionel Dyck, who served in both the Rhodesian and Zimbabwe military, and his Dyck Advisory Group (DAG).
DAG initially deployed 30 men who operated entirely from the air with three machine gun-kitted helicopters, two fixed-wing aircraft, and two microlight armed spotter craft.
Their contract was reportedly extended to include training of Mozambican units, possible expansion of air operations and to put boots on the ground.
Last weekend, while marking the 28th anniversary of the General Peace Agreement between the government and Renamo rebels (October 4, 1992), President Nyusi assumed a bullish tone.
“As a sovereign state that we are, we shall continue to use all the resources at our disposal to guarantee public order and security. The Mozambican people deserve to have a peaceful country so that they can have time and space to build their dreams.”
President Nyusi said the military was being strengthened “So that they can give an even more efficient response to the attacks by the terrorists”.
Foreign Affairs and Co-operation Minister Veronica Macamo also put on a brave face.
“We do not think that there are problems of lack of strength or capacity on the part of our young military and police. It seems to us that, in fact, it is the complexity of the terrain, but we feel that they are gaining ground, they are striving and we feel that the results are there.”