Help is at hand for the country’s fight against an Islamist insurgency, but its president stands in the way.
Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi has finally softened his stiff-necked resistance to foreign assistance in the fight against an Islamist insurgency in the country’s north. Help has been at hand for many months — from other African nations as well as from the U.S. and Europe — but Nyusi would have none of it. Instead, he put his faith in private security firms from Russia and South Africa.
On Thursday, the president finally acknowledged that international assistance would be needed. But the admission comes with a stipulation: Foreign governments must agree their forces will only play a supporting role. Nyusi offered no specifics, saying only: “We know in which areas we need support and which areas are up to us, Mozambicans, to solve.”
The caveat is curious. The Mozambican military, sorely lacking in equipment and training, needs much more than just a little boost. “This is not about pride, it’s about sovereignty,” Nyusi said. But this is hardly the moment to invoke either of those things.
Some of the president’s critics have suggested that his hesitation to accept international support in the north stems from a fear of what foreign troops might find there. Confirmation of reports of war crimes by Mozambican troops and atrocities by mercenaries would embarrass Nyusi. Worse, the outsiders might stumble on the heroin-smuggling networks that operate, some researchers say, with the connivance of senior members of the ruling Frelimo party.
What is certain is that the insurgents, who are linked to the Islamic State, represent a clear and present danger in the northeastern province of Cabo Delgado, despite the government’s claims to have brought matters under control. The day before the president’s TV address, the same station reported that 12 people, possibly foreigners, had been found beheaded in the town of Palma, close to a $20 billion liquefied natural gas project being developed by France’s Total SE.
The insurgency, which began in late 2017, has claimed over 2,500 lives and nearly 600,000 have fled their homes. It has spread to neighboring Tanzania, where the insurgents both recruit fighters and launch attacks. But they have reserved their worst depredations for Cabo Delgado, a region rich in offshore hydrocarbon deposits, where the insurgents routinely terrorize the population with trademark beheadings.
The latest rampage began last month when insurgents assaulted Palma, killing dozens of people. Total stopped work on the gas project, crucial to Mozambique’s hopes of an economic revival, and evacuated workers from the site. This is the second time the company has had to order such an evacuation, and it hasn’t said when work might resume. The project was scheduled to start exporting LNG in 2024.
Mozambique’s neighbors, anxious about the insurgency’s potential to destabilize the region, stand ready to help. After a meeting in the capital of Maputo, the heads of five member-states in the Southern African Development Community called for “a proportionate regional response” to the attacks in Cabo Delgado. The U.S., having recently designated the insurgents a terrorist group, has mobilized a small special-operations contingent to fight them. Another small force is expected from Portugal, the former colonial power in Mozambique.
But beating the insurgents will require far more boots on the ground, and these will have to come from Africa — if and when, according to SADC protocols, Mozambique formally asks for military assistance from other members of the bloc. Even Renamo, the country’s main opposition group, has urged the government to seek international help. (In the 1980s and ‘90s, militants affiliated to Renamo were defeated after the intervention of Zimbabwean troops.)
But the country whose support is vital for Mozambique’s chances of defeating the Islamists is its northern neighbor, Tanzania. Relations between the two have been strained in recent years, as Tanzania’s President John Magufuli led his country into isolation from regional and international affairs. But things have looked up recently, with the two countries pledging to cooperate in the fight against cross-border terrorism.
Magufuli’s death last month may allow Tanzania to end its isolation. His successor, President Samia Suluhu Hassan has signaled an openness to engaging with the wider world. “We don’t want to go alone,” she said in a recent speech.