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Will Tanzania and Mozambique’s joint efforts stamp out Islamist insurgents?

By Abdul Halim, in Dar es Salaam
Posted on Tuesday, 24 November 2020 20:22

Mozambique soldiers Twitter / PressACP Organisation of African, Caribbean and Pacific States (OACPS)

Following a meeting between Tanzania's police chief and his Mozambican counterpart, it was decided that the two countries would team up to conduct a joint operation against terrorist groups along the shared border. But opposition politicians and rights groups are concerned about how their respective authorities are going about tackling this issue.

Last week Tanzania’s police chief Simon Nyakoro Sirro met with his Mozambican counterpart Bernadino Rafael in the southern town of Mtwara (a region bordering Tanzania and Mozambique) to discuss a wide range of security issues, but with a focus on the growing jihadist insurgency in Northern Mozambique and in Southern Tanzania.

Speaking to the media after their meeting, Sirro said Tanzanians should remain calm, adding that the collaboration between the two police forces will lead to joint patrols and a sharing of intelligence.

“To be honest you can’t kill people and still feel safe and proud. They are deceiving themselves. Tanzanians should be calm, we will work together to ensure that we find criminals at the border and deal with them,” IGP Sirro told the press.

For his part, Rafael urged citizens living in the border areas to report any signs of insecurity adding that they were planning to conduct a joint operations including exchanging information to find perpetrators.

He added he was saddened by the reports of attacks in the Mtwara region where more than 175 houses were set on fire and people killed by the terrorist group that fled to Mozambique.

He promised to work with Tanzania to find the criminals.

“We have come to Tanzania to take training and experience again…We have actually talked about how to work together at the borders to defeat our common enemy,” he added.

Roots of the Islamist uprising

A decade before the violence, there existed a religious sect, Al-Shabaab (not related to al-Shabaab in Somalia), which was active in a few districts of Cabo Delgado. As a religious group, it sought the practice of radical Islam and Sharia law, and opposed all forms of collaboration with the government.

But over time, it began to expand, including military cells along with a tougher discourse as of late 2015, until its members started fighting in 2017; or more specifically on 5 October 2017 when a group of insurgents occupied the district town and port of Mocimboa da Praia for two days.

The town is just 60 kilometres south of the major gas development base at Palma and the port was important to supply the gas project. The insurgents were recognised as local men.

READ MORE Mozambique: Sophistication of Islamic insurgency threatens LNG plans

Since then, the fighting has rapidly expanded, with more than 2000 people killed and an estimated 430,000 people displaced after fleeing their homes. The Mozambican government has lost control of three coastal districts.

Insurgents have occupied Mocimboa da Praia twice more but they recaptured the town on 12 August, despite heavy fighting with government forces.

In the last three decades, the Cabo Delgado province has seen an influx of Christian and Muslim fundamentalists and religious international aid agencies arriving with the aim to convert local residents to their respective religion.

READ MORE Mozambique: Can Cabo Delgado’s Islamist insurgency be stopped?

But a new generation of Islamist preachers, of either of East African or Mozambican origin, were trained abroad. Upon return to the province, they established mosques arguing that the local imams were allied to the ruling party Frelimo which was using them to enrich its pockets from the resource-rich and majority Muslim region.

This new generation of preachers were able to provide money to help locals start business and create jobs. They also argued that a more fair society would be one attained under Islamic sharia law.

On the Tanzanian side, the insurgents carried their first major incursion into the country after they  beheaded more than 20 locals in the border village, Kitaya in October. The gunmen were chanting Allahu Akbar (God is great). This prompted authorities to increase surveillance and the increase number of soldiers to Mtwara.

Earlier in May this year, Tanzania’s then Minister of Defence Hussein Mwinyi said it would be sending troops to its border with Mozambique to contain security threats posed by Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah, a group reportedly affiliated to Islamic State.

Tanzania’s government should declare an emergency

Since insurgents have crossed over into Tanzania, politicians and rights groups have been criticising the government for not taking serious action.

The government should declare a state of emergency in the southern part of the country and put emphasis on saving lives. The lives of villagers in Kitaya matter just as much as those of other Tanzanians” said Zitto Kabwe, leader of the opposition ACT Wazalando party.

A prominent whistle blower’s Twitter account, known as ‘Kigogo’, posted several times the videos of villagers being killed in Kitaya and asked why the government shown little concern for what has been happening in Mtwara.

READ MORE South Africa’s interest in extremist violence in northern Mozambique

“President Magufuli and his dictatorial regime is busy undermining Tanzanians democratic rights while taking less concerns to our brothers and sisters who are being murdered by gunmen in Mtwara, he can’t command security organs to take actions?, “asked

Is mission likely to succeed?

The government insists that it will succeed in its mission because it understands the motives of the insurgents.

“We know this group not only wants to create fear and panic for our citizens but also wants to disturb the development project that is being carried out in southern party of the country,” said Sirro.

But to accomplish this mission, there should be more coordinated assistance between Tanzania, Mozambique and the SADC countries, as indicated by former Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa, who has offered his country’s assistance.