Thabiso Scotch Mufambi
Harare – The rapid advances already made in the concerted fight-back against Islamist terrorists in northern Mozambique could lay the foundation for a permanent solution to the problem of insurgents in the SADC member state.
On August 8, Mozambican forces – in a joint operation with Rwandan troops deployed to the restive Cabo Delgado Province last month under a bilateral agreement between Maputo and Kigali – recaptured the strategic port town of Mocimboa da Praia.
The town had been in terrorist hands since August 2020, and its recapture came only a few days after the taking back of another important town, Awasse.
Adding impetus to the fight, the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) on August 9 formally joined the counter-terror effort.
SAMIM, expected to remain deployed in Mozambique for at least three months, includes troops from South Africa (1,495), Botswana (300), Angola (20), and Lesotho (125). Zimbabwe is contributing 304 specialist military instructors, while other SADC members are offering different forms of support to what is the biggest joint military operation in the region since the deployment in the DRC in 1998.
A SADC technical assessment recommended deployment of at least 3,000 troops in Cabo Delgado.
At the SAMIM launch in Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado, Chair of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation, President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana, said the Mozambique mission went beyond fighting the insurgents, and also entailed restoring human rights.
“Therefore (the) presence (of the peacekeeping mission) here must send a strong message of genuine protection and solidarity to the people of Mozambique, particularly in Carbo Delgado,” said President Masisi.
Force Commander Major-General Xolani Mankayi of the South African National Defence Forces, said the SADC Standby Force would collaborate with Mozambican and Rwandan troops to prevent the return of insurgents to liberated territories.
“The SADC mission will strive to facilitate the creation of a secure environment. To ensure that the state authority is in full control of Cabo Delgado’s affected areas, and that normal lives can resume,” Maj-Gen Mankayi said.
While hailing the recapture of the important territories, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi remained cognisant of the need to maintain the momentum, saying it was a “complex challenge” to consolidate gains made.
“The challenge of maintaining and consolidating; the rear has proved to be more complex, hence the need for more attention and rigour,” President Nyusi said. “The control of Mocimboa da Praia town and the gradual return of movement between Palma and Mocimboa da Praia is the product of the bravery and concerted effort of the forces with the aim of quickly returning stability to the region.”
The Rwandan mission is also all too aware of the threat still posed by the insurgents despite the latest victories.
“They have not disappeared completely, but they are in pockets,” Rwanda Defence Forces spokesman Colonel Ronald Rwivanga said this week.
“(Mocimboa da Praia) was essential for the survival of the insurgents, because you could say it is a strategic site – it has the airport, it has a hospital and several buildings that would be important for the insurgents. It was a critical bastion for the insurgents, until we captured it, and it was the place where they were planning their operations.”
The Rwandans have planned a four phased presence in Cabo Delgado, he said, which entailed first conducting combat operations to drive insurgents from captured locations and then rolling out operations to “ensure the consolidation of gains”.
A period of stabilisation, where civilians are given a “certain confidence” in the security of the region, will follow, with the fourth phase being “reform of the security sector.”
“We can start security sector reform simultaneously with other operations, we can even start today. It’s all about training and mental training and leaving the forces with confidence in their operations,” Col Rwivanga said.
And Rwanda’s neighbour and fellow non-SADC country, Uganda, says it too is prepared to lend a helping hand in Mozambique.
President Yoweri Museveni’s Special Envoy Mr Ivan Koreta conveyed the message to President Nyusi in Pemba.
‘Without doubt, we will support each other, in whatever form. We are together. The message is one of co-operation; co-operation between Mozambique and Uganda veterans. This must happen,’ said Mr Koreta.
Not Just Guns
While the military response plays out successfully, at least in these early stages of the operation, voices are beginning to emerge calling for the need to include dialogue as part of the solution to the insurgency.
Last week, former Mozambican President Joaquim Chissano said there were “certain types of terrorism” which ended through negotiations.
“It may be that a leader of this group appears who offers us the opportunity of a dialogue”, he said in an interview with Radio Mozambique.
Mr Chissano was president when Mozambique signed the General Peace Agreement with Renamo rebel leader Mr Afonso Dhlakama in October 1992, ending a civil war that started soon after Independence in 1975.
Ms Jasmine Opperman of the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project said the theatre could quickly move from open battles between regional forces and the rebels.
“Only when foreign forces start gaining similar successes in ‘off the radar’ areas, we can start celebrating an insurgency losing momentum. Let us not forget the broader complexities, ie humanitarian crisis, and a ‘forgotten Cabo Delgado’ legacy that are of equal importance. Neglect these and the insurgency will be awaiting an opportune time to resurface,” she said.
Since 2017, the terrorists have caused the deaths of around 3,000 people and the displacement of more than 817,000 others.
Mr Darren Olivier, director at African Defence Review, said: “Clearing insurgents out from Mocimboa de Praia, Palma, key infrastructure spots, and various strongholds is a good first start, and will help with morale. But it’s not victory, not against an insurgency that’s accustomed to falling back and preserving strength any time it’s challenged.
“Time will tell whether the Mozambican authorities understand this, and provide the resources and socioeconomic reforms for a long-term dissolution of the insurgency, or whether they prematurely declare victory once the main oil and gas areas seem secure, letting ASWJ regroup.”
Northern Mozambique is home to major gas deposits that have seen French firm Total announcing investments worth US$100 billion over the next 25 years. The company has, however, suspended work on the project pending restoration of stability.