Islamist threats and border disputes threaten region’s stability
The continent’s bastion of political stability and security – the Southern African Development Community – is witnessing an increase in armed conflict.
Analysts say in addition to the threat to human life, livelihoods and infrastructure, the growing instability provides interest groups like the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) with a glimmer of hope to achieve a long-cherished dream to set up shop in Southern Africa.
The possibility, analysts say, of external interests capitalising on local discontent and escalating it into general instability is real.
According to the AFRICOM spokesperson John Manley, the US has 27 military’s bases in 15 countries/territories in East, West and North Africa. Southern Africa remains the last region where the US military does not have a physical footprint, though around 2009 the Seychelles provided facilities for America to launch Reaper drone attacks on Somalia.
In all the areas where the US military has established itself, it has entered on the premise of either “assisting” governments to quell insurgencies, or to protect international economic interest – a euphemism for American interests.
Control of the vast natural resources in Southern Africa, particularly the DRC’s untapped mineral value worth an estimated US$20 trillion and Mozambique’s recently discovered oil and gas fields, remain plum prizes.
Internal instability in the DRC - as well as on the borders with Rwanda and more recently with Zambia - mean SADC’s largest country is a massive hotbed of unrest.
Compounding matters for the region is a growing insurgency in Mozambique that has been linked to Islamic State and has claimed an estimated 2,000 lives and displaced countless others.
In addition, the self-proclaimed Islamist militants say they will “open a fighting front inside South African borders” if Tshwane deploys troops to assist Maputo quell the terror threat.
Instability in Mozambique
Insiders tell The Southern Times that the Mozambique issue is particularly worrying for regional leaders as authorities in Maputo believe at least one other SADC member is indirectly abetting the insurgency by opting not to clamp down on rebel supply lines through its territory.
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 gas fields.
Prior to 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.
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, the terrorists inscribed graffiti in which they identified themselves as “Mujaahid of Mozambique”, “Islamic State” and “Al Shabab”.
Analysts noted that most of the graffiti was in English, a language that is very rarely used in Cabo Delgado.
However, opinion largely remains divided between two extremes – the insurgency being a home-grown affair caused by discontent with the government, or the insurgency being a foreign-sponsored project.
Some analysts believe the truth, as if often the case, lies somewhere between the two: external interest groups taking advantage of internal dissent, meaning Southern African leaders must not only work to end the conflict, but must also do more to prevent domestic conditions from deteriorating to such exploitable levels.
And Southern African leaders are scrambling to respond to a level of threat the region has not seen before.
In May, the Chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation, President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe, told fellow regional leaders that the situation in Mozambique was deteriorating.
“The threat is now becoming increasingly complex, blurring boundaries between political, religious and ideological extremism and crime. In addition, the modus operandi of the terrorist groups are intricate and elaborate.
“The possible impact that these developments have on the peace and security of the people of Mozambique and the entire region are indeed dire," he said.
Researchers at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project say Mozambique will be a big test for Southern Africa.
“It may not be long until the power of the ISIS threat toward other countries in the region is tested,” ACLED said.
The roots of the insurgency were planted more than a decade ago, and researchers such as Eric Morier-Genoud in the Journal of Eastern African Studies (July 6, 2020) say it can be traced to the activities of extreme Islamists in Cabo Delgado in 2007.
Analysts indicate Mozambique may have been slow to come alive to the magnitude of the problem, and now SADC is responding just as slowly as countries also have to contend with their own internal issues as well as those occasioned by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Zambia- DRC Dispute
While SADC ponders what to do about Mozambique, regional leaders also have their work cut-out in trying to resolve an on and off dispute between the DRC and Zambia over control of a 13km stretch of land.
Since the 1960s, the DRC has not known any prolonged period of peace and stability as internal and external interest groups tussle for control of its vast mineral wealth.
Among the stability issues it has faced has been control of a small territory on the border with Zambia, which recently saw the two countries make offensive troop movements, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of people.
Pweto falls in the mineral-rich Haut-Katanga Province.
In March this year, the DRC accused Zambian soldiers of invading the village of Kibanwa on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, in addition to allegedly moving to occupy its territories in Petwo and Moba.
Reports indicate the Congolese military may have shot dead two Zambian soldiers who had allegedly taken control of the village on March 15. The following day, the Zambian Air Force reportedly retaliated by killing an undisclosed number of Congolese soldiers.
Both countries then very quickly moved troops to the border, though Zambia’s Foreign Minister Joseph Malanji has Lusaka has no interest in annexing any DRC territory.
Minister Malanji went on to say uniformed men who may or may not have been Congolese soldiers had entered Zambian territory, attacking villages and looting food.
SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation Chair President Mnangagwa has since tasked the bloc’s Secretariat to assemble a team of experts to deal with the issue.
The Technical Experts Border Issue team was dispatched on July 23 and is led by Ambassador Raphael Faranisi from Zimbabwe, with other members drawn from Botswana, the DRC and Zambia.
The team will be deployed to Chibanga and Kibanga, Kalubamba, Musosa, Luchinda and Pweto - areas that are in both the DRC and Zambia.
According to a report released by Zimbabwe's Foreign Affairs Ministry, “The mission is expected to end on July 29, 2020, and a detailed report will be submitted to President Mnangagwa …”
The dispute dates back to the colonial era when state boundaries were arbitrarily drawn at the whim of European powers.
There was an attempt to settle the issue in 1989 when a treaty was signed between then Zambia President Kenneth Kaunda and DRC's Mobutu Sese Seko, and beacons were placed along the border as markers.
However, border clashes continue and the situation threatens to become a donnybrook where the most powerful local forces have their way in what could easily feed into a larger attempt to balkanise the DRC.
Reporting by David Muchagoneyi in Harare and Thando Mnkandhla in Windhoek