Mozambique Can’t Contain Its Insurgency Alone

Without a coherent counterterrorism strategy or regional assistance, the odds are stacked against the Mozambican military.

By Tonderayi Mukeredzi, an independent journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe.
Soldiers from the Mozambican army in Mocímboa da Praia in 2018
Soldiers from the Mozambican army patrol the streets after security in the area was increased, following a two-day attack from suspected Islamists in 2017, on March 7, 2018, in Mocímboa da Praia, Mozambique. Adrien Barbier/AFP via Getty Images

On Aug. 11, militants with links to the Islamic State captured the port of Mocímboa da Praia in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province. The extremists have so far managed to hold the port city, signaling that the national government may have lost control over the conflict in its resource-rich north that began with a few attacks in 2017.

The capture of Mocímboa da Praia, the gateway to a $20 billion offshore liquified natural gas project led by the French multinational Total, shows that the insurgency is growing in size and sophistication, mutating into a force that may be difficult to contain. Mozambique’s security forces are ill equipped to deal with the militants. Many soldiers sent to Cabo Delgado are inexperienced in combat, poorly trained, and suffer from low morale. During the initial battle in Mocímboa da Praia, government troops reportedly ran out of ammunition.

Mozambique needs urgent assistance from its neighbors to stop the extremist insurgency in Cabo Delgado. President Filipe Nyusi has solicited the support of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the 16-member regional organization over which Mozambique assumed chairmanship in August. But the SADC still appears apathetic regarding the conflict, which has killed an estimated 1,495 people since October 2017.

Despite increasing concern that the violence could spread to other countries in the region, a virtual SADC summit on Aug. 17—barely a week after the capture of Mocímboa da Praia—concluded with no practical resolution. The SADC drew up a regional counterterrorism strategy in 2015, but it has yet to apply it to the growing insurgency in northern Mozambique.

Instead, Mozambique’s government has taken a haphazard approach to the conflict on its own. Given the poor showing of its military, its lack of financial resources, and its ill-defined strategy, The odds appear stacked against Mozambique. the odds appear stacked against Mozambique. The absence of coordinated external assistance has given the insurgency the opportunity to take Mocímboa da Praia and perhaps to spread into southern Africa.

The government long denied the existence of extremists in Cabo Delgado, only publicly acknowledging the insurgency in April after the violence spiked. If it had sought regional assistance earlier, Mozambique could have possibly curtailed the insurgency. Likewise, after the seizure of Mocímboa da Praia, the government confirmed the attacks but initially denied that the militants controlled the port.

While deploying ineffective military force against the extremist militants, Mozambique’s government has used heavy-handed tactics against its citizens, including arbitrary detention and extrajudicial killings.

Finally, Mozambique has not addressed the poverty and marginalization of Cabo Delgado province that have in part fueled the insurgency there, preventing a long-term solution to the conflict. Martin Ewi and Liesl Louw-Vaudran, with the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies, recently argued that Mozambique needs a better national strategy to counter radicalization, violent extremism, and transnational organized crime.

“Along with security and justice interventions, combating extremism also requires inclusive approaches to improving governance, democracy, development and education,” Ewi and Louw-Vaudran wrote.

While Mozambique has now realized that it cannot contain Islamist extremism by itself, the SADC seems content to sit on the sidelines as the conflict in Cabo Delgado intensifies. Mozambican Defense Minister Jaime Neto said in August that Mozambique had requested surveillance at its borders to prevent more insurgents from entering its territory from neighboring states. But so far only Tanzania has agreed to help by coordinating efforts to stop border incursions. (Zimbabwe has refused to offer bilateral support.)

In the face of this regional paralysis, Mozambique relies mostly on private international support to fight the militants—particularly the Wagner Group, the Russian military security contractor, and the Dyck Advisory Group, a South African security company. If the quick capture of Mocímboa da Praia by militants is anything to go by, the use of mercenaries has proved to be little more than an added expense.

Nonmilitary solutions, such as negotiating with the militants or investing in socioeconomic development in Cabo Delgado, have remained largely unexplored. In a rare shift, Nyusi said in August that the response to the violence in Cabo Delgado could not be a purely a military one, highlighting government efforts to promote youth employment in northern Mozambique.

Without regional military support, it does not appear that Mozambique can end the conflict in Cabo Delgado.Bayano Valy, a Mozambican journalist, argues that the seemingly random nature of the government response has led people to believe that it does not have a clear strategy. “Most of the soldiers are hardly combat-ready … many of the soldiers are trained for just six months and then shipped to Cabo Delgado,” he said.

Without regional military support, it does not appear that Mozambique can end the conflict in Cabo Delgado, at least not in the immediate future. Between January and June, the country’s defense sector spent 95.5 percent of its budget, largely on fighting the insurgency. The lack of remaining resources will compromise any future military response.

Furthermore, the port attack could jeopardize foreign investment in the region. To protect its $20 billion project, Total signed a security agreement with the Mozambican government on Aug. 24. Under the agreement, Total will provide logistical support to a newly established joint task force to guarantee the protection of its planned onshore liquified natural gas project.

Meanwhile, the SADC does not appear to have a coordinated response to the insurgency in Cabo Delgado. But the longer Mozambique struggles on its own, the more likely it becomes that extremism will spread beyond its borders.

Tonderayi Mukeredzi is an independent journalist based in Harare, Zimbabwe. Twitter: @tonderamu