Cabo Delgado threat identified a decade ago – Did government listen?

Rwandan soldiers patrol in Afungi near the Total complex, Cabo Delgado. Image: Getty, Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP
Rwandan soldiers patrol in Afungi near the Total complex, Cabo Delgado. Image: Getty, Simon Wohlfahrt/AFP

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) launched a military initiative in July 2021 in response to violent extremism and terrorist activity in Mozambique, marking the second time in its history that the regional bloc opted for military intervention, and the first time such an operation has been launched in response to the threat of terrorism.

 At the January 2022 SADC summit in Malawi, leaders of the regional bloc agreed to extend the mandate of the SADC Mission in Mozambique for a second time.

The mission was deployed in response to the growing threat posed by insurgents of the Al-Sunnah wa-l-Jama’ah (ASWJ) group, internationally referred to as the Islamic State Mozambique. The violence in Mozambique, however, is not only a reflection of the growing continental threat of terrorism, but links to deeper issues with the country’s governance. Several, including the threat of violent extremism, have been identified through the African Peer Review Mechanism (APRM). Previous research on the APRM country reviews of Mozambique reveal that warning signs were identified roughly 10 years ago.

Mozambique’s APRM process

The APRM, established in 2003, was designed as a comprehensive tool to identify areas of progress and concern within a country to enhance governance and development across African member states. Following a self-assessment, a Country Review Mission is fielded in the participating country and an official APRM Country Review Report is produced. Conflict prevention and addressing the root causes of violence are high on its agenda.

Mozambique joined the APRM at its inception and is one of only three African states to undergo review by the APRM twice, in 2009 and 2018 respectively. Armed conflict, as is the case in Mozambique, has often been identified as a cross-cutting issue.

In the second country review report on Mozambique, the insurgency in Cabo Delgado is mentioned, albeit briefly, as a threat to lasting peace in the country. And while the review mission acknowledges that the violence cannot be attributed to any one factor, it advised swift action to prevent the conflict escalating. While it does not instruct the government of Mozambique on how to execute this, it acknowledges that “Sustainable peacebuilding requires the country to address the main sources of conflicts in order to protect its population”.

To say that the government of Mozambique did not heed the warning of the APRM would be unfair. After signs of violent extremism first emerged in 2017 following a decade-long build-up, the Unidade Intervenção Rapida, a special police unit, was deployed in the area. Over time, the government response also included the national military, agreements to allow in Rwandan and SADC mission forces, and even – controversially – private military contractors. But the violence in Cabo Delgado has been a threat to good governance in Mozambique long before ASWJ made international headlines in 2020. Formed as an Islamist sect, ASWJ emerged in 2007 and immediately butted heads with local communities. The first signs of violent extremism by ASWJ in 2017 were linked to the discovery of natural gas in Cabo Delgado.

To fully evaluate the level to which the government of Mozambique acted on its APRM reviews, the terrorist threat should not be viewed in isolation but linked to other areas of concern, especially democratic and political governance, and socio-economic development. Reviews indicate that Mozambique has progressed in these APRM thematic areas since the early 1990s, but socio-economic challenges have persisted – driving the unrest and preventing an efficient government response to the initial violence. According to the 2020 Ibrahim Index of African Governance, Mozambique received an overall governance score of only 49 out of 100. For security and the rule of law, the country scored 47.1 out of 100. Prospects for human development and economic opportunity are also low, with the country only scoring 45.7 and 51.1 out of 100 respectively.

High levels of youth unemployment, poverty, ethnic tensions and illegal drug trafficking have all been linked to the Cabo Delgado conflict. These were pointed out in the first and second APRM reviews. In fact, Mozambique’s first country review report explicitly states that the “level of poverty in Mozambique is a threat to the maintenance of peace, law and order”. It reports that while poverty decreased at the national level in the decade before the first review, it increased significantly in Cabo Delgado, Maputo Province and Maputo City. The second country review a decade later still mentions poverty as a destabilising factor in Cabo Delgado. While international expectations for increased government spending on economic development in the country are high, corruption is one of the biggest hurdles to enhancing socio-economic development.

Intra-state conflict a layered phenomenon

A dangerous mixture of ideology, desperation, dissatisfaction and opportunism have come together in Mozambique to create a serious threat to national and regional security. Responding to the findings of the second country review report, the Mozambique government expressed its concerned about the criminal attacks in Cabo Delgado and committed to end it. Furthermore, it emphasised that the violence in Cabo Delgado is ‘a transnational phenomenon and cooperation between States is crucial’. This is an important observation. Although the APRM has a country-specific focus, the regional impact of certain phenomena (such as conflict) cannot be ignored. Apart from being a tool to enhance governance on the continent, the APRM also fits into a continental early warning system for conflict prevention.

In January this year South African president and head of the SADC Organ on Politics, Defence and Security Cooperation Cyril Ramaphosa emphasised that terrorism “cannot be permitted to continue to thrive in any part of [the] region”. As part of the regional response to the conflict, Malawi’s President Lazarus Chakwera encouraged SADC states to back the reconstruction plan for Cabo Delgado. The plan aims to address governance shortcomings exacerbating the conflict and will require substantial financial commitments from member states. This may be a case of too little, too late, though.

Most significantly, the APRM illustrates that conflict is not something to be viewed in isolation, but rather as part of a greater whole. Addressing terrorism in Mozambique and indeed the SADC region should therefore begin with tackling underlying socio-economic and political governance challenges. In almost every country, APRM reports have illuminated conflict-prone national fault lines, but warnings have been routinely ignored. The APRM needs to be more assertive and articulate on these early warning signs, and states should demonstrate that they take the APRM seriously.