Mozambique: Can international military support make up for the army’s failures?

By Achraf Tijani

Posted on Friday, 9 July 2021 19:30
A Dyck Advisory Group helicopter lands in Palma, Mozambique. Dyck Advisory Group/Handout via REUTERS

The government of Rwanda and the heads of state of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) have decided to intervene militarily in Mozambique's security crisis. But will this external support be enough to turn the tide?

Weakened by the security crisis in Cabo Delgado, his home region, Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi has finally changed his mind and agreed to accept a foreign military intervention.

Since 2017, the north-east of Mozambique has been a new jihadist stronghold in Africa, and the Nysui government had previously refused foreign assistance.

“It’s not a question of pride, it’s a question of sovereignty,” he boasted in early April, a few days after the capture of the strategic port of Palma by jihadists from Al-Shabaab, a group affiliated with the Islamic State rebels. Nyusi said he could rely on his own armed forces and the services of private security companies.

But the Russian mercenaries Wagner and the South African Dyck Advisory Group, recruited by Maputo, have not improved the security situation. In three years, the conflict has left more than 2,800 people dead and 800,000 displaced, some of whom have found refuge in Tanzania. Under strong pressure from his supporters, worried about seeing a new point of instability develop, Mozambique’s head of state finally gave in.

On 23 June, at the end of the SADC extraordinary summit in Maputo, the heads of state “approved the mission of the SADC Standby Force to support Mozambique in its fight against terrorism and extremist violence in Cabo Delgado”, announced Stergomena Tax, the organisation’s executive secretary. The SADC mission is set to begin on 15 July.

Rwandan resources

On 7 July, the Rwandan government announced it is going to rapidly send 1,000 troops to Mozambique to bolster the international missions there. The Kigali administration says the Maputo government asked for its help.

With French energy company TotalEnergies backing major Mozambican gas projects, the contribution from President Paul Kagame’s government also seems to be a sign of the rapprochement between Kigali and Paris.

The use of Rwandan troops could also help to counterbalance the influence of Mozambique’s SADC neighbours in the fighting force.

Fuel and ammunition shortages

Nyusi had done everything to avoid this outcome, but without success. He has now reluctantly agreed to enter into military partnerships with foreign powers. The United States announced that it would send a contingent of trainers for a two-month period in mid-March as part of the Joint Combined Exchange Training programme. The aim is to train marines in counter-guerrilla techniques in an attempt to retake the north-east.

“The government has increased the defence budget in recent years, but this financial effort has not yet translated into action on the ground. The army is facing fuel and ammunition shortages, and the issue persists,” says Nathan Hayes, an analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit. “Solving these problems will take time. External support is therefore essential,” he says.

The best evidence of the need for foreign involvement came on the very day that SADC announced it would send troops. During a clash with the Al-Shabaab militia, an army helicopter transporting troops suffered a technical failure that forced it to make an emergency landing near the Afungi site. This is one of the many offshore extraction sites off the coast of Mozambique, whose gas wealth has earned it the nickname “Africa’s Qatar”.

“The lack of air assets – planes, helicopters and drones – is one of the main problems facing the Mozambique army,” says Eric Morier-Genoud, a professor at Queen’s University Belfast and a Mozambique expert. The Mozambican security response is also undermined by conflicts within the chain of command between the various actors on the ground.

“The forces fighting in Cabo Delgado are made up of the army and the police. And this complicates matters,” explains Morier-Genoud. “And this is especially true since the rivalries between the ministry of the interior and the police on the one hand, and the ministry of defence and the army, on the other, are detrimental to the fight against the Al-Shaabab militias,” adds Hayes.

In this context, Morier-Genoud defends Maputo’s recourse to private security companies. “They have the advantage of being less dependent on political powers, which allows them more independence, and they are relatively discreet,” he says.

Fear of endless conflict

But the fact remains that with some 12,000 men, the Mozambican army has not managed to defeat the Al-Shaabab jihadists, who number between 1,500 and 4,000 fighters, according to estimates that are still difficult to establish. And that was even with the support of private security forces.

Will the SADC military support make up for the failings of Mozambique’s army? While the details about the scale and other elements of the deployment promised by SADC are not yet known, there is room for doubt.

“The SADC members want an intervention but are worried about getting bogged down in an endless internal conflict. On the other hand, the Mozambique authorities will do their best to limit the coalition’s support to the protection of key gas installations, which represent a financial windfall for the country,” says Hayes.

“It takes three years to launch a guerrilla war and at least 10 years to put an end to it,” says Morier-Genoud. And, in this region, the terrain is extremely difficult, with very dense forests. There is not too much hope of a quick resolution after the SADC’s promised intervention. Morier-Genoud is all the more cautious as this intervention looks set to be reasonably small, “probably less than 3,000 troops”, he estimates.

External interventions do not come without ulterior motives. “Nyusi eventually admitted that Al-Shabaab posed a serious threat only after meeting with [France’s] President Emmanuel Macron and the CEO of Total, Patrick Pouyanné,” says Hayes.

Initially planned for 2021, “the resumption of work on Total’s Area 1 site is scheduled for 2023,” adds the analyst. It is only a short step from there to considering that France has been working to have the European Union send military trainers, as announced on 30 June. In any case, this additional support will not be too much for Maputo.

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