Persistent reports of brutal killings of civilians, including of children, by radical insurgents in Mozambique’s northern province of Cabo Delgado are sufficient reason for SADC to take decisive action against the terrorists.
The fighters, calling themselves Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama/Ansar al-Sunna (ASWJ), which translates to “Supporters of Tradition”, have been scaling up their attacks on civilians in recent weeks.
Aid agency Save the Children told BBC about a fortnight ago that the terrorists have been beheading children, some as young as 11 years old.
Chance Briggs, Save the Children’s Country Director in Mozambique, says: “Reports of attacks on children sicken us to our core. Our staff have been brought to tears when hearing the stories of suffering told by mothers in displacement camps. This violence has to stop, and displaced families need to be supported as they find their bearings and recover from the trauma.
“A major concern for us is that the needs of displaced children and their families in Cabo Delgado far outweigh the resources available to support them. Nearly a million people are facing severe hunger as a direct result of this conflict, including displaced people and host communities. While the world was focused on Covid-19, the Cabo Delgado crisis ballooned but has been grossly overlooked. Humanitarian aid is desperately required, but not enough donors have prioritised assistance for those who have lost everything, even their children.
“Critically, all parties to this conflict must ensure that children are never targets. They must respect international humanitarian and human rights laws and take all necessary actions to minimise incidental civilian harm, including ending indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks against children.”
Mozambique has been battling to contain the Islamic State-linked insurgency since 2017, and in the intervening years more than 2 500 people have died. This week, the UN rights agency, the UNHCR, said the number of internally displaced people had risen from 70 000 a year ago to 700 000 today – and the figure could reach one million by June.
Many reasons have been proffered for the rise of militant radicalism in general and in the Mozambique case in particular, but an underlying element pervading the narrative in the SADC member state has been that of hunger and poverty in a region that is home to Africa’s largest natural gas projects.
After a visit to Cabo Delgado’s capital Pemba last year, the South African Bishop’s Conference said: “Almost everyone spoken to agrees that the war is about multinational corporations gaining control of the province’s mineral and gas resources, by depopulating the coastal areas.”
As with every place where abundant natural resources have been discovered, the vultures are homing in with single-minded intent.
On March 10, Washington designated al-Shabab in Mozambique as a “foreign terrorist organisation” and called it an Islamic State affiliate, signalling that the US was about to move into the SADC member state in a significant way. Five days later, the US announced that its Special Troops would spend at least two months in the country to provide “medical” and “communications” support to Mozambique’s marines.
“On March 15, the US Government and the Government of Mozambique launched a two-month Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) training programme. US Special Operations Forces will train Mozambican Marines for two months to support Mozambique’s efforts to prevent the spread of terrorism and violent extremism,” the US Embassy in Mozambique said in a statement the other week.
US Special Operations Command Africa deputy commander Colonel Richard Schmidt represented the US Department of Defence at the ceremony, while Major-General Ramiro Ramos Tulcidás represented the Government of Mozambique.
The EU, both as a bloc and through its individual members, as well as the United Kingdom, have been reaching out to authorities in Maputo to be allowed to provide support against the rebels.
Former colonial power Portugal has said, “We will send a staff of approximately 60 trainers to Mozambique to train marines and commandos.”
Analysts have long warned that should SADC allow Western countries to take the initiative in Mozambique, they should not cry foul when in coming years the region benefits little to nothing from the huge gas reserves being developed in that country.
Jasmine Opperman, an analyst with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, this week told BBC that, “Clearly, the US is trying to extend its influence.”
She added that “the US is framing the insurgency in a very over-simplified manner by referring to (the militants) as an extension of the Islamic State”.
SADC has been accused of being largely silent, even as the Islamic State Central Africa Province (ISCAP), which is based in the DRC, has been making inroads into Southern Africa amidst indications of a coming together with ASWJ in Mozambique. The rebels’ idea is to establish caliphate of East and Southern Africa.
An Extraordinary Summit of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Co-operation in Gaborone last December resolved to deal decisively with the security threat in Mozambique and the DRC but there has been little visible movement in implementation of those resolutions.
Researcher David Brewster writing for The Interpreter (“The Mozambique Channel is the next security hotspot”) contextualises the growing problem and sounds a dire warning if decisive action is not taken soon.
“The insurgency in Mozambique has the potential to destabilise Southern Africa and embolden Islamists throughout the region. It threatens security in the Mozambique Channel, the 1 800 kilometre long waterway between Madagascar and East Africa that carries some 30 percent of global tanker traffic. It is also the location of some of the world’s largest gas reserves,” he says.
He also points out that there is a concomitant drug problem that has been largely underplayed throughout the terrorism plaguing Mozambique.
“Maritime drug smuggling is a key source of funds for insurgents. The so-called ‘Smack Track’ has long brought heroin grown in Afghanistan down the East African coast, where a substantial portion is now landed in northern Mozambique before being transported to Europe and elsewhere. Heroin is also increasingly supplemented by crystal meth, produced in Afghanistan from local shrubs.”
Brewster concludes with the chilling warning: “Failure to contain the conflict will leave a vacuum for other actors to fill.”