SA must not be an accomplice to the dirty war brewing in Mozambique
Instead of sending troops into Cabo Delgado and getting stuck fighting the insurgents for years, we should be addressing the human catastrophe
The drumbeats of war are growing louder. Islamic State and Al-Shabaab are in the northern province of Cabo Delgado and the Mozambican army is losing. On March 24 insurgents attacked and laid waste to the town of Palma. Total’s $60bn (R870bn) offshore gas project is on indefinite hold, imperilling
Mozambique’s future. And the only thing, as this mainstream narrative goes, that held back the jihadists from sweeping down to Maputo was the South African mercenary outfit Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) — but now the Frelimo government won’t extend its contract.
So the call on the street and social media is for the South African army and other Southern African Development Community (SADC) troops to go in and sort this out. Forget Dyck’s light choppers: bring out Rooivalk attack helicopters and give these beheading fundamentalists one hard klap. Finished and klaar.
Oh, how we have forgotten recent history. George Bush’s war on terror destabilised the Middle East and North Africa. The result? Syria is a smoking ruin and Libya is stuck in a brutal civil war. After nearly 20 years of air strikes on wedding parties, the US has negotiated a peace deal with the Taliban. Once the last American troops are out, the Afghan government will be in a world of trouble unless it also makes peace. Kabul could quite possibly fall.
According to a recent BBC report, American special forces will soon arrive in Mozambique to train government soldiers. On March 10 the US labelled Ansar al-Sunna (also known locally as Al-Shabaab) a terrorist organisation. The Portuguese are also planning to send in military trainers.
Sadc will provide military support of some description or another. South African special forces went in last week to extract contractors at Palma. And with Kenyan and Tanzanian jihadists having already bolstered the insurgents’ ranks, the conflict is becoming internationalised.
More than 670,000 people have fled Cabo Delgado, a quarter of the province’s population, and casualties are estimated at 2,700 and rising. The insurgents have been involved in the kidnapping of women. Unverified reports suggest the recruitment of child soldiers.
Al-Shabaab also taxes the illicit trade in rubies, gold, timber and heroin. The trade is worth about $100m.
But, as Amnesty International points out, the human rights abuses are not limited to the insurgents. It states: “In 53 interviews, local residents said they personally observed DAG helicopters and light aircraft direct machine gun fire at civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, schools and homes.”
DAG, led by a former Rhodesian and later Zimbabwean soldier, Col Lionel Dyck, rejects the charges. Just like the Mozambican government denies allegations of human rights abuses by the
Mozambique Defence Armed Forces (FADM), despite Amnesty collecting video and photographic evidence.
Human Rights Watch concurs, stating that the security forces are “implicated in serious abuses, including arbitrary arrests, abductions, torture, use of excessive force against unarmed civilians, intimidation and extrajudicial executions”.
The Mozambican government isn’t much better. On February 16, it kicked British journalist Tom Bowker out of the country for reporting on the insurgency. Security forces allegedly picked up local reporter Ibrahimo Abu Mbaruco on April 7 last year; he is still missing. And other reporters in Cabo Delgado have been arrested and intimidated.
The situation in Cabo Delgado is a mess and attempts to reduce the war, as the American and Mozambican governments have done and Sadc is doing, to a simple fight against Islamic fundamentalism — in effect another theatre in the global war on terror — will not solve the problem. It also threatens to drag us into a violent quagmire of ethnic and religious divisions that have a history which the mainstream narrative ignores.
In a 2020 study, Eric Morier-Genoud charted the development of Al-Shabaab in Mozambique. From 2007 to 2016 it was an Islamic sect seeking to withdraw from society and distance itself from the state. But starting in 2016, mainstream Muslim organisations started attacking it, destroying mosques, and the police began arresting people for simply being members of the sect. Morier-Genoud states that the organisation in 2017 “probably shifted to armed jihadism as a consequence of the repression”.
When combined with widespread corruption and the general neglect of Cabo Delgado — one of the country’s poorest provinces despite having tremendous natural resources — the Mozambican government has a fair amount of responsibility for creating the conditions for the insurgency. However, the likelihood of the government negotiating a settlement with the insurgents and addressing the underlying socioeconomic conditions is remote.
So what should be done? Senior analysts at risk advisory company IHS Markit have provided three possible scenarios. The first: the insurgency grows and spreads into Tanzania. The second: with foreign powers supplying weapons and other support, the government arms militias, which could end in civil war. A splinter group of Renamo, the Renamo Military Junta, could increase its attacks on government forces. The third scenario: a Sadc intervention force joins the fighting. While the analysts think this will be successful, that is quite an optimistic assessment, especially given the South African National Defence Force’s predilection for violence against civilians. The lockdown firmly proved that.
We could get stuck fighting a war for years, draining what is left of the fiscus, and with neither the prospect of an assured victory nor a viable exit strategy.
Finding peace is the only sure way, but almost no-one is talking about that. What we can do and should do is address the humanitarian catastrophe. In December last year, the UN made a humanitarian appeal for $243m, of which only 10% has been funded.
We should take a lot of the refugees and displaced in. Of course, given the general climate of xenophobia in SA, this is hardly going to be popular. Yet, if we can’t find it in ourselves to host the victims, then we have no business being an accomplice to a dirty war.