Islamic State is entrenching itself in Southern Africa, with an insurgency in northern Mozambique that has killed and displaced thousands of people
Source: Financial Mail
The blazing heat of an Islamist insurgency in northern Mozambique threatens to destabilise the entire region at a time when one of the largest investments in the southern hemisphere kicks into gear on its doorstep.
The largely unchecked and expanding insurgency has not directly turned its attention to the sprawling onshore gas infrastructure that is being constructed a few kilometres south of the town of Palma, near the border with Tanzania.
But the vicious campaign — which has finally caught the attention of the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) — has already resulted in the deaths of over 1,400 civilians and the internal displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.
This all comes at a time when billions of dollars are being committed by local and international banks to the construction of onshore and offshore gas infrastructure.
The three major liquefied natural gas projects either planned or under way — Mozambique, Rovuma, and Coral South — come at a combined cost of $62bn. Virtually all of SA’s major banks are playing a part in financing the investments for, among others, Total, ExxonMobil, Qatar Petroleum and Eni.
The discovery of natural gas off Mozambique’s northern coast coincided with the beginning of an Islamist insurgency that is now considered to be the second theatre of the Islamic State Central Africa Province (Iscap).
Like its Middle Eastern parent, Iscap demands the implementation of Sharia law under the auspices of an Islamic state. This has led to an influx of foreigners from places like Beni in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (where Iscap started) to support the group’s activities in Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province.
“How much they are directing activity is a topic of speculation, but their presence is undeniable,” says Jasmine Opperman, an analyst with the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project who has tracked the insurgency for several years. “There is still no recognised leadership. We think there are multiple [autonomous] groups working … in concert.”
The reasons for the growing influence of the extremists are varied and complex. Traditionally peaceful Muslim populations in the northern stretches of Mozambique have been persistently neglected by the powers that be in Maputo, says Daniel Ribeiro, Mozambique technical co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth.
“The main issue is that conditions have created a breeding ground for extremist ideologies — there is a high level of illiteracy, and poor educational outcomes have not allowed the development of the labour force, so they cannot take advantage of the jobs being created,” he says.
While no direct attacks have been made on the huge gas infrastructure in and around Palma just yet, its construction by Western companies could lead to the “Iraqification” of the area, says Opperman, with the infrastructure becoming a focal point for Iscap.
To counter the threat, the government last year hired the Wagner Group, a shady Russian private military contractor with ties to the Kremlin. This ended in ignominy earlier this year, after more than two dozen men were killed by insurgents.
The Mozambicans then called on an old ally in the form of the Dyck Advisory Group, led by Lionel Dyck, a former Rhodesian army officer.
Dyck has an established relationship with the government after de-mining areas of Mozambique after its civil war, which left hundreds of thousands of undetonated landmines throughout the countryside.
Dyck’s most recent contract with the government followed the withdrawal of Wagner in April. The outfit bought and modified two older French-made Gazelle helicopters and hired at least one SA pilot in an effort to repel the insurgents.
The group has had some success, but is nowhere near changing the balance of power.
“The insurgents still have the momentum — they are still directing the battlefield — and the government is still on the back foot and responding reactively to attacks,” says Opperman.
Conditions have created a breeding ground for extremist ideologies — there is a high level of illiteracy, and poor educational outcomes have not allowed the development of the labour force, so they cannot take advantage of the jobs being created
She notes concerns that the insurgents have obtained information from the government forces, giving them advance knowledge of deployments and the time it will take security forces to respond to incidents.
“The fact that they can mount attacks on district capitals demonstrates that the situation is not under control and the situation is not improving,” she says.
The expanding nature of the insurgency and the determination to find a regional solution received a “catalytic push” following a Sadc meeting in Harare last month, according to SA international relations & co-operation minister Naledi Pandor.
The summit heard representations on the situation in Cabo Delgado from Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi, who put in a formal request for assistance. Sadc endorsed the request and encouraged all member states to support him.
Given SA’s relatively larger and more sophisticated military, Pandor says several high-level bilateral engagements have taken place around possible solutions.
“The ministries of defence of the two countries are working together in that regard,” she says, adding that “all possible solutions within our means are being explored with the view of bringing lasting peace and stability”.
The military agreement between the two countries, which was renewed in June 2011, represents a fairly standard template for matters of co-operation between two neighbouring states. But it includes specific provisions that allow the SA Navy to conduct maritime patrols in the Mozambique Channel.
Shortly after the agreement was renewed, Operation Copper kicked into action. Under the mission, a variety of navy vessels sporadically patrol Mozambique’s vast coastline to discourage piracy such as that taking place off the coast of Somalia.
In April President Cyril Ramaphosa extended the operation for another year.
Defence analysts think the resumption of a sustained maritime presence could help detect and counter the insurgents’ increasing maritime attacks. In March, for example, insurgents simultaneously attacked the town of Mocímboa da Praia from land and sea, using four speedboats to spring the surprise.
A vicious insurgency in northern Mozambique threatens to destabilise the entire region
But could this also mean SA boots on the ground?
An analyst who declined to be named says the likelihood of putting a joint regional force together is low, and no single country will be likely to commit ground forces because, with a violent guerrilla-style insurgency such as this one, it’s sure to become “a body-bag issue”.
“In the short term, the Mozambican forces have an urgent need for air support — both in terms of attack helicopters that can hunt and repel the insurgents, as well as the ability to move small teams of men like special forces operators to hotspots quickly,” he says.
Of course, capacity allowing, SA’s highly capable Rooivalk attack helicopter would be ideal.
However, the analyst says: “You can’t put the Rooivalk there without putting a substantial land team in place to service, arm and maintain the things. Then you still have the problems relating to co-ordination [with the Mozambican ground forces], language, and who will pay for all of this.”
So the situation continues to simmer — and will do so until a large multinational force steps in. Right now, few countries can afford such action. But with so much at stake, does SA really have a choice?