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Southern African leaders meet to address urgent security threats in Mozambique

Cabo Delgado boundary bridge, north of Mozambique, August 4, 2009. Photo by F. Mira via CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Southern African Development Community (SADC)'s body focused on politics, defense and security met in Harare, Zimbabwe, on May 19, to discuss the security situation in Mozambique, — where insurgents have unleashed a reign of terror, killing civilians and attacking infrastructure in the northern region since 2017.

This meeting comes on the heels of Mozambique’s most recent fight against the insurgency without any regional support.

On May 13, Mozambique’s First Defense and Security Forces (FDS) surprised insurgents when they intercepted three vehicles — allegedly stolen — in the district of Mocímboa da Praia, said Amade Miquidade, in a statement to the press in Maputo. During these clashes, the FDS killed 42 alleged insurgents and destroyed their vehicles. Two days later, an insurgent group tried to invade the district again. FDS forces clashed with insurgents and shot eight insurgents while others were injured.

SADC states have been urged to support Mozambique’s government to fight against terrorists and armed groups attacking civilians and infrastructure in Cabo Delgado Province in the northeast of the country.

Armed groups claiming ties to ISIS have been attacking civilians since 2017 with local police and government workers bearing the brunt of armed attacks. The insurgency has killed more than 1,000 people in Mozambique. The Islamist armed group is known locally as Al-Sunna wa Jama’a (ASWJ).

In an official communique, SADC leaders collectively condemned what it termed “terrorist attacks” and committed unspecified support to Mozambique.

The urgent meeting known as the “Troika Summit” was convened by Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa and attended by Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi, and Zambia President Edgar Lungu, both members of SADC's security body.

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi opened the meeting by briefing attendees on the security situation in his country.

“The extraordinary organ Troika Summit plus Mozambique urged SADC member states to support the government of Mozambique in fighting the terrorists and armed groups in some districts of Cabo Delgado,” read aloud Zimbabwean Foreign Affairs and International Trade Minister Sibusiso Moyo at the meeting.

Mnangagwa expressed pointed out that the threat of terrorism in the past decade had significantly increased. He told the summit that any attack on a SADC member state is an attack on other members.

SADC leaders offered reassurance that the region remains “relatively stable, despite the occurrence of some worrying situations, including the acts of terrorism perpetrated in Cabo Delgado.”

This netizen on Twitter was not so sure:

Mnangagwa said at the meeting:

Regions that previously did not perceive seriousness of the threat, or seemed immune to terrorism, are being targeted by terrorists. The threat is now becoming increasingly complex, blurring boundaries between political, religious and ideological extremism and crime. In addition, the modus operandi of the terrorist groups and their networks are intricate and elaborate.

Mnangagwa had met with Nyusi last month to deliberate on Mozambique’s security situation, amid reports that he had already deployed elite troops to help deal with the insurgency.

Security analysts believe that Tuesday’s urgent SADC summit was meant to rubberstamp Zimbabwe’s reported deployment of troops to Mozambique in retrospect. The Zimbabwean government, however, denied the reported military intervention.

At the meeting, Mnangagwa said:

The possible impact that these developments have on the peace and security of the people of Mozambique and the entire region are indeed dire.

There is no indication yet of whether the security body had briefed other member states on the situation.

South African-based private military contractor Dyck Advisory Group, run by former Rhodesian (Zimbabwean) military officer Lionel Dyck, has provided military assistance to Mozambican security forces by attacking with helicopter gunships.

Although Mozambique has never confirmed the presence of military mercenaries, Russian mercenaries have appeared in combat operations, sparking an active debate. Nyusi’s government has reportedly dismissed the attacks as basic criminal acts but an increase in attacks has forced Maputo to acknowledge the reality of this threat.

Tuesday’s urgent SADC security meeting was driven by this regional threat to place the situation on the agenda. South Africa, Zimbabwe and Tanzania, have urged Nyusi to acknowledge the scale of the threat amid fears of the insurgency spilling over into neighboring countries.

After the Troika Summit, South Africa plans to discuss providing assistance to combat the Islamist insurgency, according to the minister of international relations and cooperation, Naledi Pandor.

Political challenges ahead

The situation in Mozambique could become what Nigeria is today with Boko Haram — the Islamist militant group that has claimed hundreds of terrorist attacks and kidnappings in northern Nigeria, according to British researcher Alex Vines.

The regional bloc has long been criticized for failing to acknowledge the gravity of the situation, more so after the African Union (AU) expressed concern over the insurgency in February.

AU Peace and Security Commissioner Smail Chergui urged the AU to assist Mozambique, but the issue will likely get tabled because the SADC regional bloc is supposed to be the first to intervene, in accordance with AU protocol.

SADC member states may also be unable to intervene because they have already deployed troops and resources to counter COVID-19.

Journalist Marcelo Mosse urged regional leaders to consider an intervention in Mozambique that goes beyond a military approach:

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