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South Africa’s dangerous silence on terror in northern Mozambique


Fredson Guilengue works for the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS) regional office in Johannesburg. He has published extensively on Mozambique’s politics. His work also extends to areas such as social movements, land, agrarian issues and climate change. He is currently enrolled for his PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand.

South Africa, and President Cyril Ramaphosa, have so far – in public anyway – remained silent about the escalating conflict in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province as Islamic State-aligned insurgents tighten their grip. The conflict poses a serious threat to regional stability.

On 24 April 2020, a prominent Mozambican online investigative publication, A Carta (The Letter), citing Africa Intelligence (AI) as its primary source, published a piece alleging that President Cyril Ramaphosa was surprised and irritated with his Mozambican counterpart, Filipe Jacinto Nyusi.

Apparently, the Mozambican authorities have been running private negotiations with the South African private security company Duck Advisory Group (DAG), without the South African authorities’ official knowledge and consent. The secret agreement involves deployment of DAG services to help Mozambique fight back against attacks from a terrorist group linked to Islamic State (IS). The terrorist attacks in the gas-rich northern province of Cabo Delgado have been ongoing and rapidly expanding since October 2017.

What seems to have irritated Ramaphosa the most was the use of DAG military technology and equipment, such as helicopters, in Mozambican territory in a two-month agreement between DAG and Mozambique and implemented without Pretoria’s consent. This is in a context where South Africa has yet to respond to Mozambique’s official request for support in dealing with this conflict.

Islamic State’s terror in Mozambique, less than a year after it started, exhibited horrendous proportions: on 29 May 2018, 10 people, including children, of Montane village were beheaded. This brutal tactic was a very clear sign of how fast and deep the local branch of the Islamic State, known as Ansar al-Sunna (Prophets of the Tradition), but named Al-Shabaab by the local people, had radicalised its tactics. 

At the time, the Southern Africa Regional Office of the think-tank organisation, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung (RLS), in an analysis of the political and socio-economic situation in Mozambique, urged SADC countries to immediately help Mozambique contain this extremely dangerous threat to regional stability. It pointed to the risk of Mozambique becoming the regional hub of Islamic radicalism. 

It has been reported that the conflict has claimed more than 500 lives, creating more than 1,000 internal refugees amid allegations of numerous and constant violations of human rights by the government and the armed group forces alike.

The Mozambican government has shown limited capacity to adequately deal with this conflict, although managing to confine it to Cabo Delgado province. 

The support of 200 well-equipped Russian mercenaries was only capable of sporadic victories, but not enough to totally defeat the terrorist group. The Russian Wagner Group, which was contracted by the Mozambican authorities and got involved in the conflict in 2019, was forced to abandon it early this year after reporting a number of casualties on the ground. Some sources now refer to the presence of Zimbabwean soldiers on the battlefield after Mozambique’s president and his Zimbabwean counterpart, Emmerson Mnangagwa, met in Chimoio, Mozambique, on 30 April 2020. 

However, for a number of political, historical, geographical, and socioeconomic reasons, South Africa should be the most interested of all Mozambique’s neighbours in supporting that country in pushing the Islamic State out of the region. 

Historically, Mozambique is the country that suffered the most in the region for having provided solidarity support to South Africa during the struggle against apartheid. As a result, the apartheid regime did everything it could to destabilise Mozambique, politically and economically. Its support of Renamo after Zimbabwe gained its independence in 1980 allowed for the guerrilla movement to expand its military operations, exacerbating the war and turning Mozambique into a failed state by the end of the brutal civil war in 1992.

Geographically, Mozambique and South Africa share a 491km terrestrial border. Though the border is along southern Mozambique, nearly 1,600km from the epicentre of the terrorist attacks, and apart from the human rights perspective, it is cross-border drug trafficking, weapons trafficking, illegal animal poaching and other illegal activities that generally sustain terrorist groups financially, and which pose a very serious threat to both countries. 

Several investigations have already classified Mozambique as a corridor for criminal activities including cocaine smuggling, human trafficking and smuggling weapons to Europe, which pass through South African ports. Coupled to this is the danger of Mozambique becoming a sanctuary of radicalisation for some of South Africa’s marginalised youth. This would possibly prompt them to conduct terrorist attacks also in South Africa, if the terrorist threat is not immediately and finally eliminated in Mozambique.

Ramaphosa is the chairperson of the African Union. The AU has been running a campaign aimed at “Silencing the Guns in Africa by 2020”. Eliminating terrorism on the African continent is one of the objectives of this campaign. Thus, Ramaphosa’s capacity at AU level should entail him playing a more proactive role in this and other conflicts on the African continent.

From a geostrategic viewpoint, the presence of Islamic State terrorist forces in a gas-rich territory, where significant Western economic interests (eg, France, Italy and the US) converge, may attract a Western military presence to the region, affecting significantly the regional balance of power with potential negative consequences for South Africa.

But Ramaphosa’s “delay” in coming to the rescue of Mozambique, from a more pessimistic viewpoint, might well have to do with Frelimo’s quasi-totalitarian approach to power being the main cause of political conflict in Mozambique. 

From a regional perspective, Frelimo’s behaviour lacks parallel in its unwillingness to democratise, de facto, the political and economic space in the country. Frelimo’s absolute unwillingness to put in place real democratic institutions in Mozambique may be discouraging Ramaphosa and other democrats from intervening, as while war might be bad, constantly negotiating peace agreements in the context of an undemocratic incumbent like Frelimo might be politically challenging. 

Ramaphosa’s challenge may reside on how to intervene in a context where his main counterpart fails systematically to address the real roots of conflict.                  

However, while nobody knows the real content of Mozambique’s request which is awaiting a response from South Africa, it is adequate intelligence that Mozambique seems to be lacking the most. 

After two years and seven months, the Mozambican authorities have not managed to properly identify the enemy. Mozambique’s government has so far used a number of vague designations to classify the group, including terms like bandits, insurgents, criminals, evildoers, and more recently, foreign terrorists.

While all these uncertainties and calls for support from the Mozambican authorities continue to await positive feedback from some of its neighbours, including South Africa, the situation on the ground shows no significant signs of improvement, with the terrorist group gaining some local support and expanding its acts of terror. DM


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