The port city of Mocímboa da praia, a major stronghold of the insurgency for more than two years, has been captured by Rwandan and Mozambican security forces. The city holds the district headquarters and airport.”
This tweet was posted on the Twitter platform of the Rwanda Defence Force (RDF) on 8 August at 14:08pm. It was accompanied by three photos of triumphant Rwandan forces and two aerial pictures of the town which had become the headquarters of the Jihadists since August last year.
While the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) has now deployed some military contingent on the ground, it has been Rwanda that has stolen the show with a performance that has not only helped to push back the militants, but expose the lethargy and ineptitude of regional leaders and their security system.
Sadc leaders held meetings in Harare, Gaborone and Maputo — a number of meetings, both physically and virtually — since May last year to work an intervention strategy, but internal divisions, suspicions and lethargy stalled the move. After endless meetings, Sadc agreed to deploy in April.
Regional leaders said the Sadc Standby Force should deploy to help Mozambique, which needed help with logistics and intelligence, as well as boots on the ground, to retake territory, particularly the strategic port of Mocimboa da Praia. It recommended that 2 916 personnel be deployed, the bulk of which should be ground forces, and including 140 special force members.
The special forces would go in first to “conduct targeted operations”, in parallel with naval assets to “eliminate maritime crime in the area of operation”.
It also recommended that 100 members of a logistics company go in to support the operations, by setting up a field hospital and field recovery, and another 100 members be deployed to help with air support, including four air intelligence personnel.
It called on the Sadc to deploy six helicopters, four transport aircraft, two maritime surveillance aircraft and two “unmanned aerial vehicles”, or drones.
However, Sadc stalled on quick deployment. It took a long while for South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe to send troops to Mozambique.
Yet the bilateral arrangement between Rwanda and Mozambique led to fast deployment and turning of the tide against the terrorist insurgents.
The militants had on 12 August last year seized the heavily-defended port in Mozambique after days of fighting.
Mozambican forces that were in the far northern town of Mocimboa da Praia fled, many by boat, after Islamists stormed the port.
The town is near the site of natural gas projects worth US$60 billion.
Hence, it has been at the centre of Mozambique’s war against jihadists.
For years the town has been home to aggrieved Muslims from the Mwani ethnic group, angry at how the mostly Catholic Makonde elite dominate politics and business.
The conflict has politics, economic and social causes sharpened by the discovery of world class deposits in the region.
Given its location, the town became the cauldron of Islamic militancy, fundamentalism and, later, money and guns. Militants from East Africa converged there.
In October 2017, the militants upped the ante and the first battle of a conflict raged there. The strife has left in its wake at least 3 200 dead and over 800 000 people displaced.
From there, the insurgents surged. They seized Mocímboa da Praia in August last year.
As they grew in aggression and confidence, the insurgents launched a daring attack on Palma, 80km along the coast, in March, which led to the shelving of a nearby gas project that the government had hoped would transform the economy.
A research paper done by Zimbabwean researcher Dr Linos Mapfumo, who was at the time with the University of KwaZulu-Natal, although he now works for the state, titled The nexus between violent extremism and the illicit economy in northern Mozambique: is Mozambique under siege from international organised crime?, shed some light on the nature and dynamics of the conflict.
“Since October 2017, Mozambique’s northernmost province of Cabo Delgado has been under sustained militant attacks from the Islamist extremist group, Alu Sunna Wa-Jama (ASWJ), resulting in thousands of people either being killed, kidnapped or displaced, while their properties have been destroyed,” it said.
“These incidents have reportedly escalated every year, with the group’s changing tactics from night-time attacks on isolated targets to more nuanced and well-coordinated daylight attacks.
These attacks have mainly targeted installations and employees of multinational companies such as the American oil company, Anadarko (now Total), and government security departments such as the Policia da Republica da Mocambique.
“The growing popularity of ASWJ among the people of Cabo Delgado indicates worrying social cleavages and the growing rift between the general populace and the ruling elite. This social alienation and disillusionment is happening at the same time that northern Mozambique is quickly emerging as a hub and transit route for an illicit economy dominated by drug trafficking, poaching and illegal trading in timber, rubies and ivory.
“In fact, the towns and ports of Pemba, Nacala, Mocímboa da Praia and their surrounding environs have become nerve centres of illicit trading, organised crime and transit points for illicit consignments into southern Africa and beyond. The same ports and towns are also used to export illicit timber and wildlife products such as ivory to Asia. Indications are that the ASWJ is financing its operations through proceeds derived from this illicit trade.
“As a result, the Cabo Delgado province has now evolved into a melting pot for violent extremism and a major illicit trading and transit hub due to its neglect by the central government.”
Mapfumo said that marginalisation and alienation were also behind the conflict.
“A general assessment of the conflict situation within the province shows that grievances are primarily driven by feelings of exclusion among the local population in the exploitation of the state’s natural resources. Despite their resource abundance, Cabo Delgado is the least developed province in Mozambique. The province is dominated by dilapidated infrastructure, high poverty rates and a lack of access to social services,” the study said.
“The situation is further compounded by the complicated series of underlying factors such as conflict over land, controversy over a resettlement programme, as well as communities’ distrust of their local political actors.
“Moreover, while the region is awash with rich mineral resources, locals are at the economic periphery in terms of both employment opportunities and profit sharing. Instead, the process of awarding concessions is murky.
“For instance, in several cases where natural resources have been found, the indigenous population has been unilaterally driven off their land without fair and just compensation. Meanwhile, only a small percentage of profits from resource extraction find their way back to the province as successive (Frelimo) governments have structurally weakened local governance structures. This has led to a widespread perception that the Mozambican government and multinational companies are not only exploiting the north’s resource base, but are also causing insecurity within the region — as shall be highlighted later in this chapter.
“The security situation in northern Mozambique suggests a need for the Sadc to intervene, in particular, and the international community, in general. This assistance would aim to come up with speedy and extensive counter measures that not only address the conflict situation, but help the local populace to participate in the exploitation of natural resources. The growing insecurity has hampered development and service delivery to the province, leading to further underdevelopment. It has also affected food security in the province as locals now have restricted access to their crops and livelihoods. If not well managed, the constellation of violent extremism and the illicit economy could result in regional insecurity with serious consequences.”
So when Rwanda and Mozambican forces capture Mocímboa da Praia on 8 August, there was jubilation.
A 1 000-strong Rwandan force has hit the ground running.
In two weeks, the troops — the first foreign force to be deployed against the insurgents — took a key road junction held by the militants for the past year, before launching an assault on Mocímboa da Praia.
In four years the insurgents have taken control of most of five districts in Cabo Delgado province in the north east of Mozambique.
When in March the insurgents captured Palma, the gas boom town adjoining Total’s US$20 billion development of the second largest gas field in Africa, the French oil giant abandoned the massive construction site.
Mozambique’s defence forces are widely regarded as corrupt, poorly-trained and ill-equipped, hence no match for a growing yet still rag-tag band of insurgents.
While Sadc forces, including Zimbabwe, are now on the ground, they are playing second fiddle to Rwanda’s efficient army, which swiftly moved in and took control after Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi met his Rwandan counterpart Paul Kagame in April.
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