Can and Will the SADC Help Contain Violence in Mozambique?

Brian M. Perkins, Terrorism Monitor, Jamestown Foundation, June 26, 2020 Volume XVIII, Issue 13

The insurgency in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province has continued to escalate over the past several months, prompting the South African Development Community (SADC)—a regional inter-governmental organization—to convene an emergency meeting of the Organ Troika on Politics, Defense and Security (consisting of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana) plus Mozambique in Harare, Zimbabwe on May 19 (SADC, May 19). The meeting was the first regionally organized gathering and collective acknowledgement of the increasingly dire situation in Mozambique. However, no concrete plans resulted from the meeting, and instead only underscored internal challenges within the SADC and the trouble emanating from the principle of subsidiarity that governs relations between the African Union (AU) and Regional Economic Communities (REC), such as SADC. Further, its timing underscored the mistakes already made by the Mozambican government.

Much of the blame for the exceptionally slow external response to the insurgency in Mozambique, which has resulted in an estimated death toll of over 1,000 people, lies squarely on the Mozambican government for mischaracterizing and underestimating the culprits and downplaying the levels of violence. The rebranding of the local Ansar al-Sunna as part of Islamic State Central Africa Province (IS-CAP) as well as the increased tempo and scale of attacks has now made the situation impossible to ignore. Neighboring countries, however, were also slow to acknowledge the severity, with the AU acknowledging the situation and confirming its willingness to help in February, despite being hamstrung by the principle of subsidiarity—in which the AU only plays a secondary role after RECs attempt but are unable to correct an issue—and the fact the SADC had yet to make any attempt to address the matter (ISS Africa, February 13).

Tanzania is not a current member of the Organ Troika, but as the country most affected by the violence in Mozambique and with Tanzanian President John Magufuli being the current SADC chairperson, it is curious that he did not take part in the meeting. Tanzania has so far been reticent to provide much support beyond one-off security operations and tightening its border security, despite being an origin and transit point of militants fighting in Mozambique. Surprisingly, it is not Tanzania, the country closest to the center of the violence, that is seemingly most concerned about its spread. Instead, it is South Africa—current chair of the AU—that has been among the most open in its willingness to help, despite being the furthest from the center of the violence out of all the countries that border Mozambique (Africa Report, June 23). In addition to South Africa, Angola has also reportedly offered to provide troops and assistance.

For regional support to provide any real value, Mozambique would first need to begin not only addressing the underlying root causes of the insurgency, but also the fundamental deficiencies within its security apparatus. A key problem thus far has been that before engaging its own citizens in the affected regions or engaging neighbouring states for meaningful support, the government brought in Private Military Companies (PMCs) from Russia and, more recently, South Africa. The PMC approach was taken quickly instead of utilizing any meaningful localized response that could have combined community engagement, economic development projects, and localized security operations.

Furthermore, military reforms or tightened control have likewise not been prioritized. As mistrust and corruption within the Mozambican military has grown increasingly apparent, the specialized Rapid Intervention Unit of the Mozambican police has become one of the primary units conducting operations against the militants, causing a serious rift between the two sides (Bulawayo 24, June 26).

Despite vague offers of assistance from SADC members, it is unclear if any concrete plans will materialize, or if the SADC members are even currently in a place to assist given many of their poor economic conditions, as well as their respective militaries’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Further, the most meaningful external response would come from the Tanzanian government. Similarly, without meaningful efforts by the Mozambican government to address the region’s dire social and economic woes or reform its security apparatus, external intervention will likely do little more than exacerbate the problem.