What can the AU do about the conflict in Mozambique?

In its recent report detailing the atrocities committed by insurgents in the northern Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado, Amnesty International calls on the African Union (AU) to involve itself and help put an end to the human rights abuses.

More specifically, it urges the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) to hold an urgent session 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’.

Similarly, regional non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and faith-based organisations like the Fellowship of Christian Councils in Southern Africa have also called on SADC, the AU and the Mozambican government to respond urgently to save the lives of civilians and provide humanitarian aid to victims of the violence.

However, apart from vague statements at summit meetings, the last of which was three months ago, SADC has not responded. None of the organisation’s 16 member states has made any significant moves to help address the situation either.

The AU, while hampered by the principle of subsidiarity, which dictates deferral to SADC, does have a number of tools it can use as part of its mandate to maintain continental peace and security.

Escalating crisis

The situation in Cabo Delgado has escalated dramatically since the beginning of 2020, with over 2 000 civilians killed and close to 700 000 people internally displaced. This is according to credible reports from the UN, NGOs such as Save the Children and the Armed Conflict & Location Event Data Project (ACLED). Increasingly, eye witness accounts are pointing to grave atrocities by the Islamic State-linked armed insurgents in Cabo Delgado.

According to Amnesty International, the insurgents in Cabo Delgado ‘deliberately killed civilians, burned villages and towns, and committed heinous acts of violence with machetes, including numerous beheadings and desecration of corpses’. It blames the insurgents, the Mozambican security forces and private military operators for abuses against civilians.

The UN had earlier urged Mozambique to investigate the attacks.

The crisis has led multinational companies such as Total that are investing in massive gas projects in Cabo Delgado to temporarily withdraw staff from the area. Further investment in the gas projects and adjacent onshore infrastructure, which could benefit the entire Southern African region, has been put on hold due to the rising insecurity.

At best, most of the gas projects will continue but will be moved offshore with very little job creation for the people of Cabo Delgado.

Hampered by the principle of subsidiarity

The AU and its various organs are bound by the principle of subsidiarity, which compels the AU to defer to the eight regional economic communities (RECs) and regional mechanisms in responding to regional conflicts. While this has its advantages, it has been a major stumbling block to resolving some conflicts with continental efforts. This is especially the case when regions are hamstrung by their own internal dynamics or institutional paralysis.

SADC has been insistent 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 assistance, but continues to defer to SADC.

The AU has in various instances offered its assistance, but continues to defer to SADC

Apart from holding summit meetings of the Organ on Politics, Defence and Security in May, November and December 2020, SADC has refrained from taking any action to intervene in the situation. Another planned summit that was to be held in South Africa in early 2021 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 also officially designated the insurgents, which it calls ISIS-Mozambique, as belonging to a ‘Foreign Terrorist Organisation’. This controversial designation, which many analysts believe does not take the group’s  local roots into account, could, in theory, help highlight the gravity of the situation and mobilise swift action in the region.

Possible entry points for the AU

Despite the challenges posed by the principle of subsidiarity, the AU’s hands are not completely tied. It has various tools and frameworks, and has over the years established elaborate mechanisms to deal with grave peace and security threats on the continent.

Going forward, the situation firstly has to be tabled for discussion at the level of the PSC, as noted by Amnesty International. The fact that Mozambique is a member of the council might be an obstacle, but the issue should be put on the agenda by the rotating chair of the month, given the gravity of the situation.

The chair of the AU (currently the Democratic Republic of 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.

Such a PSC meeting should result in a strong statement commensurate with the gravity of the situation

Secondly, the PSC could conduct a fact-finding mission to Mozambique. This would highlight the issue and likely prompt reaction from AU member states. Even if SADC does not favour such a mission, there is a precedent since the PSC visited Lesotho at the end of 2018 to review the situation there.

Thirdly, 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.

Fourthly, the AU 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 results of such an investigation to justify stronger action, despite the reluctance of SADC. This could include adopting punitive measures against perpetrators and facilitators of violence against women and children.

Fifthly, the AU could use its convening power and mandate to organise joint statements or summit meetings with partners such as the European Union (EU), the US and the 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 can also prevail upon the government of Mozambique through dialogue and diplomatic channels to allow humanitarian organisations greater access to victims of the violence.

Finally, if Mozambique and its neighbours agree on a regional military intervention, the AU could be the lead organisation to coordinate such an action, together with its partners and the UN.

The AU has spearheaded various military interventions, such as the Multi-National Joint Task Force against Boko Haram and the AU Mission in Somalia, and has supported initiatives such as the G5 Sahel.

The threat of terrorism in Mozambique is fairly new and up to now there has been hesitation to label the insurgents as terrorists, even though other actors have clearly defined them as such.

Any action by the AU, even if such an action does not demand any funding or organising, such as tabling the issue at the PSC for discussion, will send a signal to the people of Cabo Delgado that they have not been forgotten.

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