What next for the insurgency in Cabo Delgado?

There is no military solution to the insurgency in Mozambique. Dialogue, development, and opportunity are needed to drain the support for a radicalized core.

Expert comment Published 7 April 2021 Updated 7 July 2021 3 minute READ

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) will hold a two-day extraordinary Troika Summit in Maputo on 8-9 April to deliberate on measures to address the armed militancy in northern Mozambique.

Countering the armed militants known locally as al-Shabab is an urgent regional and international priority following their attacks on Palma since 24 March and the devastation caused in deaths, displaced, and destruction and damage to property. The government recaptured the town on 5 April but it is too soon to assess the total death count in Palma, likely to be in the dozens with thousands newly-displaced.

Since 2017, some 2,500 have been killed and nearly 700,000 internally displaced by this insurgency, but the Palma attack is a new morbid watershed. Exactly one year ago, a Mozambican government on the back foot commissioned South African private security company, the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), to support its counter-insurgency operations after disappointing results from the Russian Wagner private military company in late 2019.

Private military support not enough

Dialogue, disarmament, and development can help end insurgency but only when coupled with better trained, equipped, and deployed Mozambican defence and security forces, respecting human rights

Paramount and the associated Burnham Global have also now entered the fray. Without DAG and other privateer involvement the insurgency would have spread further but the current situation is grave and Palma demonstrates again that the Mozambican armed and security forces need more than private military support. They urgently need counter-insurgency training, coupled with better logistics and tactical and strategic leadership.

The Palma attack was close to Afungi, the multi-billion dollar gas project of French fuel giant Total. Early on 3 April, Total concluded its Afungi facilities were vulnerable and evacuated all remaining staff and contractors. Previously it suspended operations in January following an insurgent attack on the Quitunda resettlement village related to the project, and had just signalled it was restarting operations when the attack on Palma occurred.

Afungi is untouched and remains well-protected by elite government forces, but Palma falls within a 25 km security zone set up to protect the project and insurgents had triggered further alarm by sending scouts into the much closer Quitunda, near Afungi, on 2 April.

Total remains committed to the project but is strongly signalling the government needs to improve its security guarantee and expects this to take time, possibly years. Total will honour its security MoU with the government for its Defence and Security Forces (FDS) protecting Afungi, ensuring they are well-supplied and obliged to undergo additional training, including for the Voluntary Principles for Security and Human Rights. Afungi is now fully under FDS control and may become a first-world base for the government’s counter-offensive against the militants.

To its credit the Mozambican government has gradually become more accepting of international military training and advice beyond listening to private military advisers and, in early March, also replaced senior military and security leadership. In Maputo, a working group for foreign assistance partners to co-ordinate their COVID-19 support with the government has been replicated to also focus on Cabo Delgado security but broadened to include key regional stakeholders such as South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, and ex-colonial power Portugal.

This has helped build up trust and advisers are now embedded in the Mozambican armed forces from several neighbours and beyond, military training packages from Portugal, the US, and the UK have been accepted, and a two-month deployment of US special forces to train Mozambique’s marines has started. The Portuguese have brought forward and increased their planned engagement by announcing they will send 60 military trainers to Mozambique shortly.

The government rarely chooses any state security offer solely on merit, but also uses a non-alignment prism to avoid becoming pigeonholed, the FRELIMO default position since the early 1980s. Maputo is allergic to any full external foreign intervention, and to have this become a UN Security Council issue, but accepts it needs to look beyond private contractors to provide international training for effective counter-insurgency operations.

The Mozambican army, since its creation in 1994 following the end of the civil war, was never designed to combat this type of insurgency and has for years been in direct rivalry of the elite paramilitary police units. To make progress, these rivalries will need to be better managed. Training, and restructuring of the armed forces, will take time.

In the short-term, private security and the use of local militias will continue to be the prime response to try and contain this virulent insurgency. SADC could provide niche support, such as embedded intelligence, along with other specialists especially from Tanzania, airlift logistical assistance from Angola, and naval patrol support from South Africa.

South Africa’s defence company Paramount has imported a fleet of Gazelle helicopters, a few upgraded Mi17s and a Mi-24. The DAG contract with the Interior Ministry expired on 6 April although some in the government wanted a three-month contract extension to smooth over the transition to Paramount fully taking over air support under a Defence Ministry contract, but this was vetoed by the presidency.

The pulling out of the DAG in the short-term punches a hole in the Mozambican government’s counter-insurgency capabilities but shortages of fuel and ammunition had impacted DAG’s operations and they have been stung by allegations of human rights abuses by Amnesty International which they strongly deny.

The violent, calculated raid on Palma broke a three-month hiatus in militant attacks widely attributed to counter-insurgency tactics and the January-March rainy season. The conflict dynamics are changing and the Mozambican armed forces are restructuring, drawing increasingly on a network of local militias and displacement, while more maritime patrols has pressurized support networks for the insurgents resulting in supply shortages to reward its supporters.

The attack on Palma was a response to these pressures but was clearly well-planned and co-ordinated, using insurgent infiltration with weapons into the town before a three-pronged attack timed to capitalize on the rotation of government armed forces stationed in the town. Some 150 militants engaged in the offensive, including some foreign fighters – mostly Tanzanians but possibly also a handful of South Africans.

Maputo is allergic to any full external foreign intervention, and to have this become a UN Security Council issue, but accepts it needs to look beyond private contractors to provide international training for effective counter-insurgency operations

Since 2017, there has been a gradual regionalization of this conflict, mostly Tanzanians but also training of some cadres in eastern Congo and informal connections with Uganda and Somalia. There had been some informal contacts with sympathisers in South Africa by the insurgents for some time and if the insurgency has drawn in some radicalized nationals, this will be a significant worry for Pretoria.

If true, this internationalizes the Cabo Delgado crisis further, adding pressure on the Mozambican government to respond to the crisis more effectively. On 29 March, Islamic State (IS) via its Amaq news agency claimed responsibility for the Palma attack and reported they had killed 55, taken control of buildings, and seized vehicles, although some of the images used are actually taken in 2020 during the capture of Mocimboa de Praia.

Much of the Cabo Delgado insurgency is about local issues and the Islamic State affiliation since 2019 acts mostly as a flag of convenience for the aggrieved but, as this conflict worsens, it draws in foreign fighters and the dynamics get more complex. The US designation earlier in March of this insurgency as a Foreign Terrorist Organisation (FTO) makes peeling away supporters more difficult.

It is apparent to all, including the Mozambican government, there is no military solution to this insurgency and that dialogue, development, and opportunity are equally important to draw away supporters from a radicalized and excessively violent core.

It can be done. President Nyusi is making significant progress in finally ending armed confrontation with opposition party RENAMO – 2,307 out of 5,211 ex-combatants have demobilized and reintegrated in central Mozambique despite COVID-19, and there has been only a single armed incident in 2021 by a splinter group.

Dialogue, disarmament, and development can help end insurgency but only when coupled with better trained, equipped, and deployed Mozambican defence and security forces, respecting human rights.

This is a version of an article originally published in the Mail & Guardian.