MS Risk Blog

Mozambique’s Insurgency: Fighting Back

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In July, South African and Botswana military teams began to deploy to northern Mozambique to assist Mozambican government forces in combating a developing Islamist insurgency. They joined Rwandan soldiers as well as European and American military training forces in the area. With the foreign military help, Mocímboa da Praia, which has been at the centre of the conflict with the jihadist, has been reclaimed. Yet, It is unknown whether this is the start of the end for the group known as al-Shabab. What is evident is that the operation conducted by the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) represents the internationalisation of a locally embedded insurgency.

Mozambique seemed unable to contain the intensifying violence within its borders. The battle began with an attack on Mocímboa da Praia in 2017 and grew in intensity when young people seized firearms from soldiers and won local support. The insurgents known as ‘al-Shabab’ have no association with the Somalia-based group of the same name. The US has designated them as a terrorist group and named them “ISIS Mozambique.” The radicals took control of major areas of the country’s northern regions in the previous year, securing large towns from Mozambican forces on various occasions, notably Palma in the Cabo Delgado Province. The conflict, according to the United Nations, has displaced around 1 million individuals.

Mozambique’s neighbours, particularly South Africa, the regional leader, have grown increasingly concerned in recent months about the conflict’s potential to expand and impact more parts of the region through forced migration and the propagation of extreme views. Countries thousands of miles away, such as France, are equally concerned. France has significant holdings in Mozambique. Its oil giant – Total – which invested $20 billion in Mozambique’s vast natural gas projects, was forced to shut down all on-shore operations due to the escalation of violence in the area. As a result, the global community stepped in with military help because the Mozambique government appeared incapable of suppressing the rebellion.

Despite its initial reluctance to seek outside military assistance, Mozambique has now realised that it cannot win the war on its own. Rwandan forces, comprised of 1,000 troops, have already commenced operations in Cabo Delgado. The EU announced the creation of a European Union Training Mission (EUTM), which will most certainly be made up of Portuguese and French troops. The United States military is also assisting with training in counter-insurgency. Additionally, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), a regional inter-governmental organisation, will provide troops led by South Africa. It’s uncertain how Rwandans and Mozambicans will collaborate with a SADC force that includes Angolans, Batswana, and Zimbabweans. Despite the fact that Mozambique claims to be in command, the RDF has taken the helm.

Moreover, Mozambique’s slow embrace of outside assistance was notably due to South Africa, its greatest and most militarily competent neighbour. This could be due to fears that South Africa will utilise its military presence for selfish gains. The latest arrests of South African spies working in Cabo Delgado has not eased the neighbours tense relationship. Many would believe that South Africa is southern Africa’s natural provider of security. However, its economy is in crisis, and it has serious domestic security concerns, notably the riots in July that  resulted in over 300 fatalities and the mobilisation of thousands of soldiers. The presence of South African troops has been approved only until October 2021, thus, a lengthy counter-insurgency war in Mozambique could be unsustainable for South Africa, or it could wear out their already fragile welcome in Mozambique.

Nonetheless, foreign military has so far proved to be valuable. Within two weeks of their deployment, Rwandan forces – the first foreign force to confront the terrorists – had retaken a vital road junction controlled by the extremists for the past year and reached the coastal town of Mocímboa da Praia. Mozambican and Rwandan forces then retook this key town from the militants, their last stronghold. The Rwandan Defence Force then tweeted that “The port city of Mocímboa da Praia , a major stronghold of the insurgency for more than two years has been captured by Rwandan and Mozambican security forces.”

Rwandan forces barely arrived in Mozambique, yet they already appear to be influencing the conflict’s trajectory. These forces seem to have done more for Mozambique than its own troops have done since the start of the insurgency. President Filipe Nyusi’s objective, based on the way the operation has developed, appears to be to resurrect the natural gas project as Rwandan troops have reclaimed important towns and secured routes leading to gas infrastructure. After all, Mozambique hopes Total could resume work in Mozambique in 2022.

However, with the efficiency with which Rwandan forces advanced into Mocímboa da Praia, which suggests that rather than fighting, the jihadists retired to the jungle, some believe that there is little reason to be optimistic. Mozambique is coming to resemble other African countries afflicted by insurgencies as a result of the influx of foreign forces.  There are some important lessons to be learned. Problems have arisen due to a lack of coordination between numerous foreign and regional forces combatting militants in Somalia, or the Sahel region. Military triumphs that appear to be substantial can be deceiving. The mere fact that extremists have been pushed out of cities and other critical regions does not imply that they have been crushed. They can fracture into smaller fragments, alter strategies, and shelter among civilians, slowly disappear into the territories they know better than anybody else – ready to emerge when they are stronger or when the foreign powers have departed. This is already happening. The insurgents have already abandoned their positions and dispersed into smaller units, as insurgents do when under duress. Parts of the fighting zone are densely forested, providing excellent cover. Analysts believe the militants plans may evolve now, with the group possibly extending across northern Mozambique and employing guerrilla tactics.

There is also the worry that the heavy emphasis on the gas project may fail to address the conflict’s core causes. Grievances will persist as long as the people of Cabo Delgado see minimal benefits from the development of local natural resources, and as long as they see a state incapable of providing medical care, schooling, job opportunities, and security. Thus, many believe that there is a strong possibility that present regional support for Mozambique will fall short of its goals, necessitating the formation of a broader international military alliance to combat the conflict’s numerous risks and stop the violence. However, civil conflicts rarely culminate with a military victory. Military action alone will not tackle the political and economic marginalisation that fuels the insurgency, and therefore, wider grievances must be resolved as well.