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Vol 62 No 11

Published 27th May 2021


Nyusi angers the region

Maputo's resistance to a Southern African force to quell the insurgents is poisoning relations with its former allies

Copyright © Africa Confidential 2021

Two months after Islamist militants mounted their spectacular invasion of the town of Palma in Cabo Delgado province, President Filipe Nyusi still does not know where to turn. The longer he waits, however, the more time the militants will have to prepare more strikes, counter-insurgency experts say (AC Vol 62 No 9, Nyusi's breaking point).

This sets the stage for a difficult summit of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) in Maputo on 27-28 May to discuss regional insecurity, focusing on the insurgency in Cabo Delgado and the need for a regional intelligence and military response. South Africa's President Cyril Ramaphosa, who is the incoming chairman of the Troika of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation, is to attend with Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor and Defence Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula.

Diplomats and intelligence officials in the region fear that if Maputo does not get on top of the insurgency soon, it will spread north into Tanzania and south towards Malawi. That could allow so-called Islamic State (IS or Da'ish), which claims the movement often known as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ) as its affiliate, greater opportunities (see Box, What's in a name). 

South Africa is also worried that it could become the target of terrorist attacks. 'There are concerns that South Africa is being used as a base and "safe haven" for logistical planning by terrorist groups,' notes a South African military intelligence report seen by Africa Confidential. It warns of the 'importation of terror risks' from Mozambique. On 21 May Pandor said South Africa would push for an intervention force to go to Cabo Delgado because the insecurity poses 'a threat to the region'. 

Mozambique's neighbours do not want to wait until Cabo Delgado's problem becomes their own. Mozambican officials privately ascribe Nyusi's reluctance to allow the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to send a force to fear it could be bogged down interminably, like the African Union troops fighting Al Shabaab in Somalia. Civil society activists, however, say that the real reason Nyusi does not want foreign boots on the ground is to avoid interfering with the drug-trafficking economy in Cabo Delgado. Frente de Libertação de Moçambique's (Frelimo) Makonde generals have always run the province's various criminal rackets, and Nyusi, who is also Makonde, owes his prominence to that network. 

But the attack on Palma left Nyusi less able to resist some form of intervention. On 8 April at the SADC summit called to consider the issue, he yielded a little, and allowed in a technical team to assess the nature of a SADC force, if it were to be deployed. When Zimbabwe's information ministry tried to push for the force to be 'capacitated immediately so that it can intervene', Maputo pushed back, calling this pre-emptive. 

Signs that Nyusi was finally ready to yield to SADC pressure for a deployment quickly faded. Days after the summit, the technical team's report was leaked, which appeared designed to hinder the plan. The document advocated a force of 3,000 on land, sea and air. Mozambican officials have made various off-the-record objections, saying the force is too heavy, or just a ploy for other states to get money out of the European Union to beef up their own armies, and cited other reasons that made Maputo's continued opposition clear. 

A follow-up meeting set for the 28 April where the technical team's findings would be presented and debated was, to little surprise, cancelled, although some officials said it was because key SADC leaders had other commitments. 

However, that was the day Nyusi flew to Kigali to meet President Paul Kagame. Many diplomats take this as a signal from Nyusi to SADC that he has other options if the regional bloc pushes him too hard. The Rwandan military, regarded as highly professional in the region, has been working with the Central African Republic government on a bilateral basis against rebels there, as well as its role in a UN force. 

Growing closeness between Maputo and Kigali is not something South Africa welcomes. Its relations with Rwanda have not fully recovered from the murders of Rwandan dissidents on South African soil (AC Vol 62 No 5, Nowhere to hide). Tanzania's relations with Rwanda are also cool and it would likely regard Rwandan involvement in Cabo Delgado with displeasure. 

Whatever force may come to Cabo Delgado it is not clear how, if at all, its plans would dovetail with the government's plan to deploy up to US$1 billion in World Bank-managed funds on its Agência do Desenvolvimento Integrado do Norte (ADIN – integrated development fund) projects designed to calm tensions and pull the rug from under the feet of the insurgency. 

Many in Maputo are nervous about the fact that ADIN is overseen by the Minister of Land, Environment and Rural Development, Celso Correia. Correia was Nyusi's election campaign manager in 2014 and in the campaign of 2019, which was widely viewed as grossly fraudulent (AC Vol 62 No 1, Nyusi running out of road). Before he was Nyusi's right-hand man Correia performed the same role for ex-President Armando Guebuza. He has also been linked to Mohamed Bashir Suleiman, reputed to be one of the country's biggest drugs importers, who was labelled a 'drugs kingpin' by the US government (AC Vol 55 No 23, Kingpin kidnap chaos). Concern that ADIN could become Cabo Delgado's latest machine for enriching the local elite runs high. 

The sacking of Armando Panguene, a former governor of Cabo Delgado, as head of ADIN was seen as a bad sign. Panguene was well regarded by Cabo Delgado's civil society. 

Nyusi has appointed Armindo Ngunga, previously the State Secretary of the province, in place of Panguene. International aid workers say that Ngunga opposed the delivery of Cyclone Idai emergency aid to some remote areas of the province because he thought insurgents would steal it. He favours spending the money on new infrastructure and resettlement facilities for the displaced in areas that are currently outside the conflict zone.

What's in a name 

To many of those familiar with the Cabo Delgado insurgency, the formal naming of the rebel group as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah (ASWJ) is problematic. It does not issue communiqués under the name and has never formally adopted a title. 

Locally, they are known as Al Shabaab, a popular local shorthand for Islamist militants, although the title properly belongs to the militia of that name in Somalia, to which it is not related. Locally, fighters refer to themselves in their conversations with civilians as Al Shabaab, pronounced by many locals as 'mashabobos'.

'Ahlu Sunna Wal Jammah' was never a name popular among the militants themselves, according to local security sources. The phrase means 'the community of the devout', and was used loosely for a time by militant youth to emphasise they were true believers. Yet as a branding identity for the group, it never took hold, the sources say.

That naming the group formally has never been a priority is another indicator of its decentralised character, analysts say. It does not have a unitary command, and likes to keep vague the nature of its real connection to so-called Islamic State (IS or Da'ish) in the Middle East. The Middle Eastern IS is only too happy to claim the Mozambican Islamist group as its own, but most experts agree there is no command and control from that quarter, and that the Cabo Delgado rebels have used IS's sanguinary reputation – and its notorious tactic of decapitation – to inspire terror far more than it has used any orders, supplies or training.

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