MS Risk Blog

The Mozambican Crisis and the Issue of Foreign Intervention

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An armed group named regionally as al-Shaabab attacked Palma on 24 March in what appeared to be a coordinated assault from several directions. According to the Human Rights Watch, attackers shot people in their homes and on the streets indiscriminately. Witnesses reported seeing bodies in the streets, some of which had been beheaded.

Since October 2017, attacks by the armed group have increased significantly in the Cabo Delgado province. They are thought to be affiliated with the Islamic State and are a separate organisation from the Somali Al Shabaab. Little is known about the group, but it is believed that  figures from Tanzania and Mozambique are likely to be at the helm of the insurgency. The US claims to have “assessed with a high degree of confidence” that the group is led by a single person, Abu Yasir Hassan (a Tanzanian national). Before the conflict, a religious figure by that name had lived in Cabo Delgado, however, Tanzanian police say he is dead. The origin of the conflict is thought to be linked to a local community that hasn’t reaped the benefits of the region’s natural resource boom, local elite feuds, and drug trafficking, as well as the ISIL links.

Palma is a northern town at the heart of Mozambique’s vast oil and natural gas prospects and a key port in the province of Cabo Delgado in north-eastern Mozambique, near Tanzania. Cabo Delgado’s value to the government, as well as a source of local resentment, stems from the rich offshore natural gas reserves being explored in partnership with multinational energy firms.

While the province has long been unstable, an insurgency led by Islamist militants exacerbated the instability. The fighters have pillaged towns and taken hold of major highways. They have kidnapped and beheaded people, including young women and children. They demolished infrastructure and have extended their sphere of influence into Tanzania to the north. They have had possession of the important Mozambican port town of Mocímboa da Praia since August 2020. Cumulatively, the group has killed 2,500 people and displaced nearly 700,000 people.

In the first week of this current conflict, and according to the Mozambican government, hundreds of civilians were killed in an assault, including seven people whose convoy of vehicles was attacked as they tried to escape. The government stated that the Palma attack also killed many foreigners, but that the town was reclaimed in the second week of March after a “significant” amount of insurgents were killed.

Mozambican news sources have reported that many residents fled the violence by escaping into the thick tropical forests that surrounded the area. However, hundreds of foreign workers from South Africa, the United Kingdom, and France gathered at hotels that were easily targeted by the rebels. Specifically at the Hotel Amarula, it is estimated that there were 200 foreign workers. According to local sources, a number of them in vehicles rode together on 27 March [Saturday] to try to reach the beach, where they hoped to reach safety and be rescued, however their convoy came under heavy fire from the militants.

This attack presented further challenges for the French energy giant Total, as Palma is close to the multibillion-dollar Afungi gas project, in which the company is investing. Palma is inside the 25-kilometer security zone set up to secure the project. Total had just announced that it was resuming operations after an insurgent assault in January, and had just announced that it was resuming operations when the attack on Palma occurred. Afungi remains untouched and well-protected by government forces. The government units tasked with protecting Afungi are well-equipped and receive additional training, which includes the Voluntary Principles for Security and Human Rights initiative.

Foreign Intervention.

The takeover in Palma prompted international – and especially regional – pressure to put an end to the violence. The new dramatic offensive has shone a harsh light on al-Shabaab’s violent tactics, prompting Mozambique’s government to appeal to the international community for help in combating the extremist group’s insurgency.

The assault on Palma demonstrates the insurgents’ growing capabilities as well as a security failure by Mozambique’s poorly trained and equipped security forces. The government has promised to retake Palma, but how much it will depend on its own forces is uncertain.

Analysts have long expressed concern that Mozambique’s security forces are unprepared to deal with the escalating crisis. In the past, it has used mercenary helicopters to fight wars. In a sign of improved coordination, President Filipe Nyusi recently gave the army more control over policy. Soldiers, on the other hand, are often sent into combat with antiquated AK-47s and low morale.

The assault has placed significant pressure on the Mozambican government to accept support from Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Western powers. However, the Mozambican government is very protective of its sovereignty; it does not want foreign troops on the ground in the country, and it wants to maintain authority and command over all other interventions, whether military or humanitarian. Foreign intervention could exacerbate the situation, similar to international interference in other parts of the world.

Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a senior analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, said analysts also believe that the government does not want international powers to intervene in Cabo Delgado because “then all eyes will be on the scale of illicit trafficking” that occurs in the province, and a lot of other problems will come to light.

Following a special summit in Maputo on April 8, SADC, which is currently chaired by Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi, called for an urgent deployment to Mozambique. The deployment’s specifics were not available immediately. However, the change is seen as signalling a shift in what has been a sort of security stalemate between Mozambique, regional and Western governments.

Prior to the attack on Palma, the US declared a two-month training mission of US Special Operations Forces to “support Mozambique’s efforts to prevent the spread of terrorism and violent extremism”. Mozambique made the decision shortly after accepting training from their former colonial power, Portugal, and following an increase in Western official visits to the country in December 2020. More preparation and intelligence assistance from the US and Portugal, the former colonial force, seem to be on the cards, but this is yet to be started. Given the threat to gas projects and the possibility that the insurgency will spread beyond its borders, Mozambique has no shortage of offers.

However, it seems to be encouraging to see them agree to even this minimal training from two separate partners. It appeared to be an acknowledgment that their security forces are not up to the challenge, and that they would need some help going forward. This could just be Mozambique testing the waters, however with time it will become apparent as to how far the government is willing to go in securing foreign help.