Cabo Delgado: two years since the Palma invasion

The attack prompted nations and security companies to help fight one of Africa’s most rapidly evolving terrorist hotspots.

For nearly two years, Mozambique resisted the call for foreign military intervention in Cabo Delgado to help fight the insurgency that started in 2017. But when militants stormed the town of Palma in March 2021, forcing construction on the US$20 billion liquefied natural gas project to stop, Maputo had to accept foreign boots on the ground.

President Filipe Nyusi said in December 2020 that offers of help had been received from many countries, highlighting the need to carefully manage this mix of interventions. But two years on, domestic and international security forces in Mozambique are still fragmented.

Rwanda has the largest military and police contingent in Cabo Delgado – about 2 800 personnel. The Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) has about 1 900. These forces technically ‘support’ Mozambique’s security forces. Local militia and several private military companies have helped restore stability, mainly around gas exploration and liquefaction projects.

The relative calm in Palma and neighbouring Mocímboa da Praia districts has enabled global investors to return to Cabo Delgado, particularly to the natural gas project. TotalEnergies, which suspended operations at its billion-dollar plant in April 2021, is preparing to restart. Some construction work is already underway.

Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique

Cabo Delgado province in Mozambique
(click on the map for the full size image)

Major international players, including the World Bank, are committed to supporting the province’s gas exploration. Its importance for future global energy supply options has increased since Russia invaded Ukraine. ‘We are seeing that already most of Mozambique’s gas is being exported to Europe, so Europe is benefitting from Mozambique’s gas and this keeps Europe also from reverting to less clean energy sources,’ said Victoria Kwakwa, World Bank Regional Vice-President for Eastern and Southern Africa.

Despite these developments, the insurgency has not been defeated. Stability in the province’s north-east contrasts with a volatile situation in the north, central and southern districts. Insurgents displaced from Palma, Mocímboa da Praia and their bases on the Messalo River have split into smaller cells. They have adapted to new conditions, carrying out coordinated attacks in several districts.

Troops deployed in Cabo Delgado haven’t shown effective operational coordination, at times even competing with each other. In Palma district, where most are concentrated, there have been several friendly fire incidents, anonymous sources told ISS Today. Rwandan forces recently shot down two drones belonging to True North, one of several companies collecting intelligence and providing security to TotalEnergies. True North flew the drones without informing Rwanda’s forces, who shot them down. The resulting crisis required Mozambique government intervention.

Two years on, domestic and international security forces in Cabo Delgado are still fragmented

Rwandan forces prefer to act unilaterally rather than coordinate with Mozambique’s military and police. Mozambique complains that Rwanda doesn’t share intelligence and operational information, often taking unilateral decisions. SAMIM sources have shared similar concerns about Rwanda. These sources also say that Mozambique has failed to actively lead the coordination effort as the host country.

Like many multilateral deployments, there are tensions within SAMIM, which has nationality-based geographical operational areas of responsibility. The recent deployment of 300 more Tanzanian security personnel outside the SAMIM framework as part of a bilateral agreement may further complicate matters.

Rwandan forces use Mozambique Air Force helicopters flown by Mozambican pilots in their counter-terrorism operations. But according to a Mozambique defence force source, ‘only when [the] pilots are in the air, are they informed about the mission.’ This atypical approach reflects the lack of trust among forces on the ground. Mozambican troops are long suspected of leaking operational information. Mistrust, poor coordination and even competition undermine the joint effort and benefit the insurgents.

The European Union Training Mission in Mozambique (EUTM) expects to finish training 1 500 Mozambican soldiers from the Naval Forces and Special Forces in September 2024. However, they won’t be able to replace the international forces currently deployed.

Mistrust, poor coordination and even competition undermine the joint effort and benefit the insurgents

The Mozambican Defence Armed Forces will remain dependent on foreign troops until it has adequate security capacity. This raises the challenge of sustaining the presence of SAMIM and the Rwanda Defence Force, both of which received US$35 million in 2022 from the European Peace Facility fund. With EUTM support, Mozambique is the EU’s biggest Peace Facility fund spend outside Ukraine.

The humanitarian situation also remains critical. Although over 850 000 of Cabo Delgado’s population remain displaced, about 350 000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) had returned home by the end of March. However IDPs returning to resume their lives face a lack of basic public services and state help to allow decent human resettlement. Almost 100 humanitarian organisations in the province are trying to assist, but the situation remains dire.

Food insecurity is highest in the three northern provinces – Cabo Delgado, Niassa and Nampula – where over 900 000 people face crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity. These provinces are directly targeted by insurgents and are reportedly key recruitment hotbeds for terrorists. As long as the humanitarian situation remains unaddressed, efforts to tackle the insurgency will be undermined.

Unless the humanitarian situation is addressed, any efforts to tackle the insurgency will be undermined

The fragmented response extends beyond the realm of hard security, with a stovepipe approach preventing links between humanitarian, development and peacebuilding priorities. For example, organisations helping victims of gender-based violence haven’t been able to aid women and girls rescued by the military from insurgent bases.

While funds for emergency help to IDPs remain scarce, some development partners are holding back their project finance until the war ends. Better coordination between humanitarian and development initiatives could help allocate some of these funds to emergency humanitarian relief.

The current hard security resources in Cabo Delgado do not match the type and size of terrain the insurgents are operating in. Lack of air assets, fire-force and hot-pursuit assets are major factors. SAMIM contributes to containment but does not maximise the military options. The unhealthy reliance on local forces (militia) to provide security for many communities is also a problem.

As the Institute for Security Studies has suggested, the African Union (AU) and its Peace and Security Council could help develop a regional force and stabilisation strategy that goes beyond military approaches.

SADC should approach the AU to help coordinate Mozambique, SAMIM and Rwanda’s security forces. SAMIM’s nascent peacebuilding efforts piloted in 2022 could also be supported with EU funds channelled through the AU. This would tackle the fragmented nature of current interventions and help stabilise Cabo Delgado.

Borges Nhamirre, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

Image: © ADF Magazine

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