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EDITORIAL COMMENT: Caution needed in Mozambique

The SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security meets this week to discuss the growing security problem in north-eastern Mozambique, which last week saw a serious attack on the town of Palma right on the Tanzanian border.

The Troika, as it is commonly known, is chaired by Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi with President Mnangagwa as the last chairman and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa as the next chairman.

Neither the problem, nor the response, is simple and the three presidents have their work cut out to find an effective response that will bring peace to the province of Cabo Delgado without making the problem worse. At the simplistic core are groups of youths claiming allegiance to the Islamic State, a heretical Muslim organisation that caused so much suffering in Iraq and Syria.

While Cabo Delgado is a majority Muslim province, the gangs have attacked local mosques and local Muslim clerics and leaders so it is hardly a “Muslim insurgency”. Muslims are the main target.

In fact, the gangs have gone out of their way not to seek local support, with the local population bearing the brunt of the raids and attacks. Frelimo wins elections in the province by large majorities, although there is some opposition support in the coastal towns, precisely the targets of the largest raids. 

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So the self-styled “al Shabab”, the same name as groups in Somalia although totally unrelated, are outside the political and democratic structures in Mozambique. They attack everyone. The groups have access to modern light arms, assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades and the like. So someone is supplying them with arms and ammunition, but not much else. 

They rob and steal for food and wear a tattered variety of semi-uniform. So obviously one response is to see what can be done to track down and cut off supplies of ammunition and arms.

There is ruby mining in the area, and gemstones are easy to smuggle, so efforts need to be made to make conflict rubies unsaleable.

All of Mozambique’s neighbours are friendly SADC states and anxious to help, so there is nothing like the support that the apartheid regime provided in central Mozambique in the 1980s, in fact quite the opposite. 

But there is that long coastline easily accessible by smugglers in small boats, and Africa’s borders are hardly fenced off. Much is made in the Western press of the poverty in Cabo Delgado and the fact that a huge gas strike off the coast is not providing income to the province.

Well most of Mozambique is poor, with the Portuguese colonialists taking rather than developing and the Renamo insurgency delaying development for the first two decades of independence.

The gas strike is large, but at the moment it is investment money coming in and nothing yet coming out. Production does not start until next year and the Government will not start getting significant revenues until 1928. 

Sometimes the hype over resource discoveries and inward investment fails to stress the time actually needed to develop those resources. By the end of the decade Cabo Delgado will be a fairly rich province, especially by Mozambique standards, and no doubt the Mozambican Government will ensure respectable levels of development. But at the moment investment is in the early stages.

One aim of gangs like those operating in the area is to trigger an overreaction from the authorities and the national military. And that is a serious danger that needs to be considered in any response to the gangs. 

This is how the Islamic State (IS) built up its numbers, although not its support, in Iraq and Syria before a co-ordinated response, that involved a major local backlash against the gangs, finally broke it.

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Mozambique is a poor country wanting to concentrate its limited budget on development rather than building massive armies. It does, of course, have armed forces and has deployed troops and police into the north, but there are limitations. Portugal has now decided to deploy a small training team to help, and those trainers have the advantage of speaking Mozambique’s common second language, so this will be useful. Perhaps in any co-ordinated SADC response Angola could also be asked to assist with training.

The United States has made noises about assistance. This needs great care, considering the heavy-handed response of the American armed forces in so many conflicts. 

Assistance with logistics, supplies and equipment, could well be very useful, but anything more needs serious thought as to whether it might make things worse. But in the end SADC is going to have to do more to help one of its members. The security of part of Mozambique is clearly compromised; we do not want it to spread and certainly do not want it spreading across borders. Ideally we want it to end soon.

West Africa provides some ideas. The Boko Haram gangs, similar although they did attempt to generate local support, were a growing menace in north-eastern Nigeria. 

Two northern neighbours, Niger and Chad, provided some military assistance, for a start securing the northern borders, so cutting off much smuggling of arms, and then deploying some troops.

It was a major help that both countries are overwhelmingly Muslim majority nations, so the religious angle was avoided in a Muslim majority Nigerian state, and with that assistance it was possible to trap many of the gangs.

These, and many other factors, need to be considered by the three Presidents meeting this week. The SADC response needs to be effective, but carefully nuanced and taking into account all the dangers and opportunities.

Mozambique needs help, but the help has to work to end the operations of what amount to a collection of bandit gangs rather than a large organised army let alone a popular insurrection. But the gangs are getting more daring, and seem to be able to combine at times. So they have to be stopped, and soon.

HERALD

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