Last week the world witnessed a dramatic attack on the Mozambican town of Palma in the country’s northern Cabo Delgado province. The death toll is still unknown. Many foreigners were also attacked, which has led to heightened international attention to the crisis.
In its recent report detailing the atrocities committed by insurgents in Cabo Delgado, Amnesty International calls on the African Union (AU) to involve itself and help put an end to the human rights abuses.
It asks the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) to meet urgently to discuss ways ‘to assist the government of Mozambique and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to put a stop to the continued violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.’
Regional non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and faith-based organisations have also called on SADC, the AU and Mozambique’s government to respond urgently to save lives and provide humanitarian aid.
However, apart from vague statements at summit meetings, the last of which was three months ago, SADC hasn’t responded. None of the organisation’s 16 member states has made any significant moves to help address the situation either.
The Cabo Delgado crisis has escalated dramatically since the beginning of 2020, with over 2 500 civilians killed and close to 700 000 people internally displaced. Witnesses report grave atrocities by Islamic State-linked insurgents.
Amnesty International says extremists have ‘deliberately killed civilians, burned villages and towns, and committed heinous acts of violence with machetes, including numerous beheadings and desecration of corpses.’ It also accuses Mozambican security forces and private military operators of abuses against civilians. The United Nations (UN) has urged Mozambique to investigate.
The crisis has led multinational companies, such as Total, investing in massive gas projects in Cabo Delgado to withdraw staff from the area temporarily. Further investment in the gas projects and adjacent onshore infrastructure, which could benefit all of Southern Africa, is on hold due to rising insecurity. At best, most of the gas projects will continue but will be moved offshore with little job creation for locals.
The AU and its various organs are bound by the principle of subsidiarity, which compels it to defer to the eight regional economic communities and regional mechanisms in responding to regional conflicts. While this has its advantages, it’s been a major stumbling block to resolving some conflicts with continental efforts. This is especially true when regions are hamstrung by internal dynamics or institutional paralysis.
SADC has insisted on upholding subsidiarity, notably when it comes to issues such as the crises in Lesotho, Zimbabwe and currently Mozambique. The AU has in various instances offered its help but continues to defer to SADC.
Besides holding summit meetings of the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security in May, November and December 2020, SADC has refrained from taking any action. Another summit scheduled for early 2021 in South Africa was postponed indefinitely. Meanwhile, Mozambique has accepted offers from the United States (US) and Portugal to help train troops to fight the insurgents.
On 11 March the US government officially designated the group, which it calls ISIS-Mozambique, as belonging to a Foreign Terrorist Organisation. This designation, which many analysts believe distracts attention from the fact that this is largely a group born out of local grievances, could theoretically help highlight the gravity of the situation and mobilise action in the region.
Despite the challenges posed by subsidiarity, the AU’s hands aren’t completely tied. It has various tools and frameworks, and has established elaborate mechanisms to deal with grave peace and security threats in Africa.
Going forward, the situation must first be tabled for discussion at the PSC level, as noted by Amnesty International. The fact that Mozambique is a council member might be an obstacle, but the issue should be put on the agenda by the rotating chair of the month, given its severity.
The AU chair (currently the Democratic Republic of the Congo) could also request such a tabling, supported by the new Commissioner for Political Affairs, Peace and Security, Bankole Adeoye. Such a PSC meeting should result in a strong statement commensurate with the gravity of the situation, with clarity on the steps to be taken by the AU Commission in managing it.
Second, the PSC could conduct a fact-finding mission to Mozambique. This would highlight the issue and possibly prompt reaction from AU member states. Even if SADC doesn’t favour such a mission, there’s a precedent since the PSC visited Lesotho in 2018 to review the situation there.
Third, the AU could appoint a special envoy for Mozambique or mandate the AU special envoy on women, peace and security to investigate. The situation has had a disproportionate impact on women and vulnerable groups, and the envoy/s could use their good offices to mobilise an international response.
Fourth, the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights could be mandated to launch an investigation into the human rights abuses documented by Amnesty International and others. As happened with Burundi in 2015, the PSC could use the findings to justify stronger action, despite SADC’s reluctance. This could include adopting punitive measures against perpetrators and facilitators of violence against women and children.
Fifth, the AU could use its convening power and mandate to organise joint statements or summit meetings with partners such as the European Union (EU), US and UN to highlight the urgent need to take action. This would lend credibility to humanitarian and political interventions and promote greater African agency in relevant decisions. The AU could also request Mozambique’s government through dialogue and diplomatic channels to allow humanitarian organisations greater access to victims.
Finally, if Mozambique and its neighbours agree on a regional military intervention, the AU could be the lead organisation to coordinate such an action with its partners and the UN.
The threat of terrorism in Mozambique is fairly new, and there’s been hesitation to label the insurgents as terrorists, even though other actors have clearly defined them as such. Any AU action – even if such action demands no funding or organising, such as tabling the issue at the PSC for discussion – would send a signal to the people of Cabo Delgado that they have not been forgotten.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Senior Researcher and Project Leader, Southern Africa, ISS Pretoria
This is an updated version of an article that first appeared in the PSC Report.
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