Opinionista Fredson Guilengue 12 April 2021

Mozambique’s reluctance to accept foreign military aid reflects Frelimo’s paranoia about losing power

Frelimo has never aspired to an independent army. Its full control over the army and police has been essential for maintaining its grip on power. Hence its reluctance to accept foreign — even SADC — military help in combating the Cabo Delgado insurgency, and instead relying on mercenaries.

“Much ado about nothing” is the best way to describe the outcome of the recent Extraordinary Double Troika Summit of Heads of State and Government of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), held in Maputo, Mozambique, on 8 April 2021. There is no doubt that this is the real sentiment of the direct victims of the conflict and the international community. There had been high hopes that concrete regional steps could finally stop the advancing insurgency in Cabo Delgado.

Apart from the usual expressions of condolences, sympathies and solidarity to both the victims of the conflict and to the government, SADC will send a fact-finding mission to Mozambique. The mission will investigate what kind of military support SADC can provide, including the possibility of direct intervention. When exactly this team will be deployed on the ground and what the composition of this technical deployment will be, remain unknown.

But why did a meeting surrounded by so much urgency and expectation, domestically and globally, take five months, from the November 2020 Troika meeting, to reach this decision?

First, it’s apparent that Mozambique is clear about the kind of support it expects from its neighbours and the international community, and it has stressed it numerous times. The Mozambicans primarily want specialised anti-terrorist training for their defence and security forces and armaments and military equipment. Simply put, Mozambique wants to rebuild its army.

Additionally, it would like humanitarian and financial aid to support victims of the conflict and its newly designed strategy for integrated development of Northern Mozambique. The strategy aims to create jobs locally to reduce the appetite of local marginalised young people for joining the insurgency.

Mozambique’s desires are nothing new. The November 2020 Troika meeting discussed a regional response to the conflict. SADC understood Mozambique’s presentation to be a “shopping list” instead of a concrete plan to address this conflict, to the complete disappointment of Mozambique’s regional peers.

In a January 2021 meeting in Maputo, Mozambique president Filipe Nyusi also discussed military support with the Portuguese foreign minister Augusto Santos Silva as the head of the European Union’s mission to Mozambique. Silva was dispatched to Mozambique to discuss EU support in the fight against the insurgency. However, Silva said Nyusi was “peremptory” when he stated that “it is the primary responsibility of the Mozambicans themselves to fight for their country”.

The “hidden debts” corruption case involved state-guaranteed loans totalling roughly $2-billion. Of this, $500-million is nowhere to be found.

While few would disagree with Mozambique’s position in relation to external support for reasons related to protecting its sovereignty, the question is, why did Mozambique hire foreign private military companies (PMCs) such as the Russian Wagner Group and the South African Dyck Advisory Group? Why didn’t it rely on its own army and security personnel?

Mozambique might have believed that because PMCs generally do not exhibit any specific flag, they could be deployed under Mozambique’s flag, therefore not revealing their foreign identity either domestically or internationally.

This would give the false impression that Mozambique is capable of dealing with the insurgency by its “own” means, had the PMCs succeeded. Unfortunately, the Russians left prematurely after consecutive defeats on the battlefield. Dyck’s contract expired on 2 April 2021 and wasn’t extended.  

But to understand Maputo’s position towards any kind of support in this conflict, one needs to understand the regime’s internal dynamics. The peace agreement signed in 1992 between the government of Mozambique and the then rebel movement Renamo, established a 30,000-strong army with both Renamo and Frelimo each providing 15,000 soldiers.

The remaining troops from both sides who were not incorporated were to be disarmed, demobilised and socially reintegrated. Due to financial limitations, only a 15,000-soldier target was reached.

While this is partially true in a country heavily dependent on foreign support to run its affairs, one also needs to understand the dynamics of Maputo’s regime in order to understand the full picture. The regime might be seeking to rebuild the army not just to defeat the insurgency, and herein lies the dilemma.

Traditionally, Frelimo has never aspired to an independent army. Its full control over the army and police has been essential for maintaining its grip on power. Frelimo uses the army and the police forces to suppress opposition parties and independent civil society. Simple demonstrations against the government on issues such as corruption or the need for transparent elections are responded to with brutal and sometimes deadly violence by the police. 

There have been numerous reports of former Renamo soldiers being unfairly demobilised and disintegrated from the joint army. This led to Renamo reverting to military violence in 2012 with the objective of forcing the regime to reintegrate Renamo fighters in accordance with the 1992 general peace agreement.

Former Renamo soldiers who either managed to remain in or were reintegrated into the army, do not play any significant (de facto) role in command and control decisions.

Frelimo’s fear of a coup and, more importantly, its desire to remain in power at all costs, both explain the need to have totally subservient security and defence forces.

Maputo’s reluctance to allow foreign troops to fight on its territory also needs to be put into a wider economic and political context. Economically, the “war on terror” in Cabo Delgado certainly provides the regime with a great opportunity to re-engage with the international community. Donors have frozen needed direct budget support to the country since the so-called “hidden debts” were discovered in 2016.

The “hidden debts” corruption case involved state-guaranteed loans totalling roughly $2-billion. Of this, $500-million is nowhere to be found.

US and local investigations have revealed that beneficiaries of these corrupt loans include the president, the son of the former president, the party itself and many of its cadres. Domestically and internationally, the regime continues to do its best to prevent real justice from being done.

Politically, the war on terror fought by Mozambicans and not foreign troops is the best chance ever to benefit from easy foreign resources to expand its defence capacities. But as history shows, defence can also mean attack.

And here the dilemma is clear: how can one be sure that while strengthening Frelimo’s capacity to fight against terror, one will also not be strengthening its capacity to inflict terror upon its own people? DM

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