Now that the problem poses a threat to the regional peace and security of the southern African region, the onus is on all regional governments to become part of the solution.
The AU will expect the SADC to come up with a co-ordinated effort to defeat the Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique the way West African nations joined forces to fight the Islamist insurgency in Mali.
Just how the SADC is going to do this is the question bedevilling regional leaders as SADC lacks the capacity and resources to put boots on the ground in the form of an effective counterinsurgency campaign.
We have only to look at the shocking failure of mercenaries from the Russian Wagner Group to neutralise the insurgency late last year to understand that this will be no walk in the park. It was reported that the Russians had agreed to help quell the insurgency in return for gas concessions.
The Wagner Group, dubbed by some media as “Putin’s private army”, has been active in counterinsurgency warfare in Libya, Syria, Central African Republic, and has battled Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon.
The group was well resourced when it entered Mozambique in September last year with state-of-the-art infantry fighting vehicles, drones and helicopter gunships – and had secured air supremacy over the affected areas in northern Mozambique at the behest of the Mozambican government.
But for all that military hardware and air supremacy, their mission was a dismal failure, and they pulled out of Mozambique with a number of their operatives ambushed, killed, and some even beheaded. Within a week seven Wagner mercenaries had been killed. The group pulled out of Mozambique in October last year.
Air supremacy proved to be irrelevant in this type of insurgency war given the dense jungle canopy, harsh environment, frequent ambushes and even lack of fuel given logistical challenges. It was difficult to get intelligence as the locals, who are primarily Muslim, saw foreigners as intruders and became more sympathetic to the Muslim insurgents who were battling government troops – which had often used repressive tactics against the civilian population.
The poorly paid Mozambican troops, many of whom do not always receive their salaries, did not prove to be a motivated and effective fighting force which the mercenaries could rely on in joint offensives. There was also the problem of Mozambique’s long and unpatrolled coastline of 2400km, which the Mozambican navy is unable to properly monitor, which enables insurgents to launch offensives from the coast in speedboats.
Then there was the involvement of Erik Prince, the owner of the now defunct and notorious Blackwater group that operated in Iraq, and an adviser to the de facto ruler of the UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, known as MBZ, for more than a decade. Prince, who is the brother of Trump Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, is also an unofficial adviser to the Trump administration. Prince is co-chair of the Frontier Services Group, a Hong Kong company. Prince had promised to eliminate the insurgency in Mozambique within three months in return for a share of Mozambique’s oil and gas revenues.
In mid-2019 Prince had supplied the Mozambique military with two helicopters before the arrival of the 170 Russian mercenaries. Prince had allegedly sent a proposal to Wagner offering to supply a ground force as well as aviation-based surveillance, which was allegedly turned down.
With the Russians and Prince’s Group sidelined, the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), made up of South African mercenaries, made their entry, operating at the behest of the Mozambican government. The group is headed by Zimbabwean Max Dyck, the son of former Rhodesian Colonel Lionel Dyck.
The presence of the South African mercenaries in Mozambique is illegal under South African law, which controls and governs the provision of military services by private individuals in foreign countries, and the mercenaries risk being detained when they return to South Africa.
Footage of DAG mercenaries bombing villages in Northern Mozambique from low-flying helicopter gunships has put the South African government in a difficult position. The missiles fired from DAG helicopters are being fired indiscriminately into the houses and villages of those suspected to be supporting the insurgents, but the victims are mostly women and children.
This type of offensive against the insurgents has backfired as the insurgents have regrouped into smaller cells, captured weaponry including mortars from Mozambican army bases, and staged increasingly sophisticated large-scale attacks. What has been significant is the amount of support the insurgents have received from locals, given the repressive tactics of the government forces and the mercenaries they have colluded with.
Mozambique has allegedly asked for air and naval support from South Africa in fighting the insurgency.
But this week the Islamic State threatened that if South Africa puts forces on the ground in Mozambique then it would open fighting fronts within the borders of South Africa. This makes military involvement by South Africa in the counter-insurgency campaign a huge risk.
There will be no quick-fix to this problem given that the conflict is complex, multilayered and asymmetrical. The region needs to devise a co-ordinated response and a common front. This necessitates that the leadership of Mozambique and Tanzania overcome their differences and work together on a common strategy.
Relations between the two countries have been frosty, and Tanzanian President John Magafuli did not attend President Filipe Nyusi’s inauguration in January. The need for intelligence sharing has never been greater, as the jihadist networks extend deep into Tanzania and all the way up the East African coast. In the absence of the long-promised African Standby Force that was supposed to have the capacity to intervene in such situations, the SADC region will have little choice but to mobilise an intervention force, as this is not a war that will be won from the air.
In order to defeat the insurgency, the region will have to have a clear understanding of who they are fighting against and what is driving them. The insurgency has gained in strength and confidence since it pledged allegiance to Islamic State last year, which started taking responsibility for attacks.
While material deprivation, marginalisation and poverty remain root causes of the restiveness, religion has been a key factor. Muslims have been radicalised by extremist preachers from Kenya and Tanzania over many years. Kenyan Islamist militants had sought refuge in Tanzania, and when they were repressed there, they moved on and settled in Northern Mozambique.
The movement began in 2007 as a religious sect which locals called al-Shabaab, which rejected the secular state and wanted to impose Sharia rule. They tore down Christian crosses and statues of Mozambique’s independence leaders Eduardo Mondlane and Samora Machel. The adherents wanted their children to go to religious schools, women had to wear the burka and were not allowed to work outside the home. Their interpretation of Islam differed from other Sunni Muslims in that they wore shoes in their mosques and prayed three times a day.
The early movement had attempted to withdraw from society, but shifted to a violent approach in 2015 in response to state repression against them. In 2016, many al-Shabaab members were jailed and their mosques destroyed, which is when they began attacking the state.
Now that the group has pledged allegiance to Islamic State and is formally part of the Islamic State of Central Africa Province, these outside forces will heavily influence the group’s strategy, tactics and targeting. This has hugely complicated the trajectory of the conflict, and a regional force will have to carefully strategise on how best such a motivated fighting force can be defeated with Mozambique’s porous borders and an unpatrolled coastline.
But time is against the SADC and Mozambique, as the longer the insurgents have to mobilise forces, from within the region and to attract foreign fighters, and the more finances and weaponry they are able to accrue, the harder it will be to defeat them.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media’s foreign editor.