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Lack of understanding of origins of war in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado bedevils SADC’s strategy

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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.

The Southern African Development Community, the Mozambican government and the Rwandan armed forces need to understand the motivations behind some segments of Mozambique’s society having to constantly revert to arms to communicate with the state.

The leaders of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional bloc on 12 January 2022 decided on and approved of an extension of its military mission in Mozambique, Samim, for another three months. This is the second extension after the first deployment of military personnel on 15 July 2021. 

Samim’s first deployment followed its approval by the extraordinary SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government held in Maputo on 23 June 2021. This second extension was approved by the extraordinary SADC Summit of Heads of State and Government held in Lilongwe, Malawi, on 12 January 2022.

Behind this extension of the SADC military presence in Mozambique’s territory is the need to expand and in effect consolidate the gains on the ground and to completely eliminate the threat posed by the insurgents. 

What do these extensions actually denote? What informs the three-month timeframe? Will another three months be enough to meet all the objectives set out by Samim in the struggle against terror in Mozambique? How can this, and possibly other conflicts taking place in Mozambique, be effectively dealt with by both the SADC and Mozambique?

Samim has lacked an effective sustainable strategy of permanence in, and exit from, Mozambique from its very beginning. This is clearly shown first by the SADC establishing a three-month period for the objectives of Samim to be accomplished. Neutralising terrorist threats and restoration of security is hard to be achieved in a mere three months. 

I believe this lack of strategy is primarily based on the poor knowledge of the real causes and, ultimately, the real nature of the conflict in Cabo Delgado (and now in Niassa) by both the SADC and Mozambique. This is made worse by Mozambique’s own strategy, which clearly favours a more bilateral, and not multilateral military, support in fighting the rebels. And I will argue why.

Despite almost five years of war, thousands of deaths and almost one million people displaced, a number of members of the insurgents, including relevant leaders captured and appearing in courts in Mozambique, and relevant documents seized from the group, the government of Mozambique has continuously failed to establish the real nature of the conflict. 

The same failure can now also be extended to Samim, after having operated on the ground for six months now.

For example, the Mozambique government’s characterisation of the group has been inconsistent, having started out portraying it as mere bandits, moving into classifying them as foreign conspirators against Mozambique’s development and, more recently, describing the acts of the insurgents as part of mostly foreign Islamic State elements operating on Mozambique’s soil.

What becomes clear when one looks at all these characterisations of the group is the persistence of Mozambique to continuously fail to ascribe a domestic nature to the group (or groups), known by the locals as “Al-Shabaab”. The origins of the conflict, its emergence in Cabo Delgado in particular, the brutality of the killings and the role of the religious element in driving and/or legitimising it are yet to be established properly.

Meanwhile, President Filipe Nyusi has rejected poverty as the motivating factor behind the insurgency, although he is yet to indicate clearly what is driving the conflict.  

Nyusi’s rejection makes sense considering the widespread presence of poverty in Mozambique. But failing to ascribe an endogenous nature to the conflict can also be seen as a strategy of the governing party since 1975 not to be regarded as part of the problem of recurring conflicts in Mozambique in general. 

SADC and Mozambique need to question and, ultimately, address the triggers of constant military conflicts in post-1975 Mozambique. It is important to understand the motivations behind some segments of Mozambique’s society having to constantly revert to arms to communicate with the state.

What is it that these segments of Mozambican society have been trying to communicate that they cannot do peacefully? Are there any effective dialogue mechanisms in place in Mozambique to be used by the people? Does the government of Mozambique listen to its people and try to provide answers to their questions? Do all different segments of the country’s society feel part of the project of state and nation-building? Is this project inclusive enough?

These questions demand immediate answers and their answers may provide crucial elements to understand Cabo Delgado as well.       

High- and low-scale military conflicts have dominated Mozambican history since it gained its independence from Portugal in 1975. The group Al-Shabaab is not the first or only threat in Mozambique currently. Any effective strategy for combating the threat that this group or groups represents to peace in Mozambique and in the region must be informed by a clear understanding of the context and the nature of grievances which are driving conflicts in Mozambique. 

Without this understanding, Samim will be extended for another three months, indefinitely, or merely fade away in bureaucratic jargon. 

From the very beginning of the insurgency, although unclear to some analysts, Mozambique has been very clear on how it wished to deal with the threat represented by Al-Shabaab.

First, like any other country would do, Mozambique expected to deal with the conflict on its own. Its first analysis, which lasted relatively long, was that it was facing a small group of bandits that could be dealt with through a rapid intervention of the police force alone. As a result, Mozambique deployed its police forces and gave them command of the operations on the ground.

Seeing the conflict was escalating, later on the army was involved and gained control over the operations locally. Second, Mozambique engaged private military companies: initially, the Russian Wagner Group, and then the South Africa-based private security firm, Dyck Advisory Group, were brought on to the operational theatre. When these two strategies failed dismally, Mozambique then engaged bilaterally with the Rwandan government. All these contacts and engagements were taking place already under SADC’s continuous request to be allowed by Mozambique to get involved in the conflict.

After enormous domestic and regional pressure, Mozambique finally relented and agreed to having SADC troops involved in the conflict. 

However, it was the Rwandan troops who first arrived and began engaging on the battlefield. Mozambique’s delay in signing the Status of Forces Agreement with SADC was the reason given for the Samim forces to have been deployed after the Rwandans.    

While Samim, which consists of forces from eight countries (Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, South Africa, United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia) is 3,000 strong and was first planned to stay for only three months, the Rwandan military contingent alone is made up of 2,000 personnel and, in the words of President Paul Kagame, how long its troops will stay in Mozambique “comes out naturally as progress is made”: that is, the agreement between Rwanda and Mozambique allows for the RDF to stay for as long as the mission demands.

In fact, rumours point to better coordination and information-sharing between the RDF and Mozambique’s FADM than between the Samim and FADM. All these facts point to clear favouritism for the RDF by Mozambique. Clarity on the mission of the RDF is essential for a good permanence and exit strategy for SADC, and strict coordination between all parties involved is urgently required for the success of the different missions.

Without a clear strategy based on proper understanding of the drivers of the conflict, any so-called gains will be temporary. DM       

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  • A Politicsweb article by RW Johnson is a must-read.
    Drugs smuggling and the Frelimo government is exposed as a core reason behind this bizarre situation.
    Not to mention that Frelimo government has systematically raped the whole of Mozambique to fill the pockets of the leaders
    in Maputo. They don’t give a damn about the rest of the country or the people of Mozambique. They obviously have allies in the ANC in SA in this regard. All rotten to the core – so much for the liberation movements.

  • After reading the article I know that the government and SADC member states don’t know the real causes of the conflict, but I am no wiser than I was at the beginning. I was expecting a revelation regarding the real underlying causes.