What Future for Military Intervention in Mozambique?
What Future for Military Intervention in Mozambique?
A mother walking with her daughter.
A mother walks with her daughters in the community of Saul, in the Metuge region, in the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique, on March 26, 2024. Juan Luis Rod / AFP
Q&A / Africa 10 minutes

What Future for Military Intervention in Mozambique?

The southern African mission in Mozambique is slated to wrap up in July, but some troops will remain, as neighbouring countries worry that the jihadist insurgency in Cabo Delgado is rebounding. In this Q&A, Crisis Group experts Meron Elias and Pauline Bax explain the concerns.

What is happening?

Questions swirl around the future of foreign military intervention in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province, which has been roiled by an insurgency linked to the Islamic State. Back in 2021, the sixteen-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) sent a mission, eventually 2,200 strong, to help Maputo fight insurgents from Ahlu Sunna wal-Jama’a, also known as Islamic State Mozambique (ISM).

Over the course of three years, SADC forces helped Mozambique’s army recapture territory once held by militants and stabilise Cabo Delgado. But the insurgency is far from eradicated. The military campaign has failed to deal it a decisive blow, and a recent uptick in attacks throughout the province’s coastal areas suggests that fighters are remobilising.

In January, SADC said it would withdraw the force when its current mandate expires on 15 July. Botswana and Lesotho pulled out in April, while Angola and Namibia are packing up now. South Africa, whose 1,495 soldiers make up two thirds of the mission, had been due to bring them home in the next few weeks. But in a surprise move, Pretoria announced on 23 April that it will keep its defence forces in Cabo Delgado until the end of the year, ostensibly under SADC auspices but not as part of the mission, to combat militants. It will leave behind 200 other personnel until March 2025 to tackle “illegal maritime activities” along the Mozambican coast. Separately in April, Rwanda said it planned to add troops to its 2,500-strong deployment under the terms of a secret bilateral arrangement with Maputo. Sources told Crisis Group that Tanzania also wants to keep between 400 and 500 soldiers in Mozambique, mainly to prevent fighters from crossing the 860km border between the two countries.

These military arrangements being put into place seem intended to compensate for the end of the SADC mission, but uncertainty reigns as to the framework under which foreign troops will operate. South African officials say Pretoria is merely extending its soldiers’ tour of duty to organise an orderly withdrawal later in the year. Tanzanian troops may either stay under a bilateral agreement with Maputo or work under the SADC banner with South Africa until at least December. Either way, observers worry that the withdrawal of southern African troops is coming too soon.

Why did SADC intervene in Mozambique, and how has its campaign fared?

Inspired by the teachings of Salafist Kenyan and Tanzanian clerics, and fuelled by local grievances including underdevelopment, competition over scarce resources and maldistribution of wealth, ISM began staging attacks in Cabo Delgado in 2017. The insurgents, then locally known as al-Shabab (though distinct from the Somali insurgency of the same name), quickly overpowered local security forces and briefly occupied villages and small towns. 

From June 2019 onward, the Islamic State’s central command claimed authorship of the attacks, indicating that the Mozambican insurgency is to some degree intertwined with transnational jihadist networks, with which it shares ideological tenets and recruitment tactics. Maputo briefly hired the Kremlin-linked Wagner Group to crush the militants, but the ill-prepared Russian mercenaries left after suffering heavy losses. In 2020, ISM captured the port town of Mocímboa da Praia. The following year, the insurgents staged a devastating assault on Palma city that forced the French hydrocarbon giant TotalEnergies to halt work on a nearby $20 billion liquefied gas project. At its peak in early 2021, the violence displaced over a million people in Cabo Delgado. Security officials say the group has connections with jihadist cells up and down the Swahili coast and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), notably with the Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel group that emerged in Uganda in the early 1990s and later resurfaced in the DRC as an Islamic State affiliate.

The Mozambican insurgency is to some degree intertwined with transnational jihadist networks.

Following the assault on Palma, which killed hundreds of locals and foreign contractors, Maputo reluctantly agreed to let in troops from southern Africa to bolster its weak, ill-disciplined army. The SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) was the result. Its 2021 arrival more or less coincided with the separate deployment of Rwandan soldiers, who secured the surroundings of TotalEnergies’ gas project and recaptured Mocímboa da Praia, which they still patrol today. These outside forces later fanned out to the north and west to dismantle the insurgents’ bases and chase fighters from their strongholds in the Quissanga, Muidumbe and Mueda districts. The troops from SADC and Rwanda have each had their own areas of operation: Rwanda is mainly responsible for the north-eastern coastal districts, while southern African troops are stationed in the south east and the western hinterland. But Rwanda also has a garrison in the inland Ancuabe district, where foreign companies are mining high-grade graphite, a coveted mineral used in electric car batteries.

By 2023, the combined campaign had made considerable progress, reducing the number of insurgents from about 3,000 to as few as 300, according to regional diplomats and security analysts in Mozambique. Foreign troops also regained control of enough areas for more than half a million uprooted people to return home. Two senior militant leaders – one Mozambican, the other Tanzanian – have over the course of 2023 reportedly disappeared from the scene. Mozambican authorities, meanwhile, restored limited public services to some areas the insurgents had previously controlled.

Why is the SADC mission due to leave?

One reason is that the bloc’s mission lacked funding. It has relied heavily on member state contributions but perennially run a deficit. South Africa gave the most, approximately $45 million a year. A €15 million contribution from the European Peace Facility for non-lethal equipment, though welcome, was insufficient to sustain large-scale ground operations or peacebuilding projects. The African Union, for its part, provided equipment, but only disbursed around $2 million through the Africa Peace Facility for the mission. Meanwhile, SADC is rolling out an ambitious military operation in the eastern DRC designed to partly replace the departing UN mission there. (The objectives of and available funding for this mission remain murky.) Mozambique’s foreign minister, Veronica Macamo, said in late March the mission was leaving because of “financial problems” generated by the troop contributors’ inability to raise money, adding that the eastern DRC was now the bloc’s priority.

Beyond the financial shortfall, SAMIM faces various other difficulties. Despite early operational successes, its troops have struggled to stamp out small groups of militants scattered over rugged terrain. The mission’s numbers are insufficient to cover its large area of responsibility, which has only a few decent roads. South Africa’s forces have almost no functioning helicopters, leaving them unable to conduct aerial operations. The lack of reliable equipment and spare parts has sapped morale, with troops preferring hunkering down on their bases to hunting down increasingly mobile units of militants. There have also been questions about indiscipline. In late 2022, a video of South African soldiers throwing bodies on burning trash raised concerns about possible war crimes and prompted SADC to announce an investigation. No findings have been published.

South Africa’s forces have almost no functioning helicopters, leaving them unable to conduct aerial operations.

The working relationship with Mozambican forces in Cabo Delgado has posed another challenge. Poorly trained and underpaid, the Mozambicans expected the troops from Rwanda and southern Africa to take the lead in confronting the insurgents. Sources told Crisis Group that SADC officials have complained bitterly about the lack of communication and cooperation from Mozambique’s army, which they say has rendered intelligence sharing all but impossible. SAMIM has encountered similar obstacles in its non-military activities. In September 2022, the mission said it would also undertake peacebuilding efforts – for instance, building facilities for women who have experienced sexual violence – but the work it carried out in this vein was hindered by poor logistics and lack of cooperation from local authorities. When asked about these delays, a member of SAMIM’s civilian department simply replied, “‘What can we do when the host country doesn’t want our help?”

What will happen when foreign troops leave?

While the troops who remain behind following SAMIM’s drawdown will create a buffer, the eventual departure of the multilateral force will leave a security vacuum that the insurgency is likely to exploit. In the past four months, bands of militants have moved southward toward Nampula province, targeting coastal areas on the mainland as well as fisherfolk in the Quirimbas archipelago. Their attacks range from ambushes of military patrols and beheadings of civilians to theft and looting. In some cases, children were abducted, probably to be forcibly conscripted – one of numerous indications that the insurgency is trying to reinforce its ranks. Nampula province has also registered a handful of attacks in recent weeks. Reports from occupied towns like Mucojo in Cabo Delgado’s Macomia district signal that insurgents are attempting to impose a strict version of Islamic law on residents there. Overall, the International Organization for Migration estimates that violence has uprooted almost 113,000 people since December, representing the second-largest wave of displacement in Cabo Delgado since the crisis began in 2017.

Meanwhile, despite pledges to the contrary, Maputo has made little progress strengthening its own army. Foreign militaries had established calm in Mucujo, for instance, before handing it over to Mozambican forces, who reportedly fled without a fight when the insurgents returned. The Mozambican army also continues to grapple with shortages of materiel and difficulties supplying forward-deployed units. The government has requested more military equipment from the European Union, but Brussels is reluctant to agree because some of the supplies it has already donated are currently sitting in a Maputo warehouse. Since 2022, the U.S. and the EU have trained quick reaction forces (QRFs) in the army, navy and air force. The QRFs are meant to assume a prominent role in battling the insurgents from December onward, but the army’s poor record in planning and logistics mean that these special forces could suffer from a lack of critical support and supplies once they become operational.

Even so, the Maputo government seems fairly satisfied with the state of affairs in Cabo Delgado, being more confident than neighbouring countries that it can fend off a jihadist resurgence with the help of Rwanda and, to a lesser extent, community policing. The decision to keep Rwandan troops in commercially vibrant Palma and Mocímboa da Praia, as well as near the graphite mines in Ancuabe, suggests that the government has made safeguarding its revenue sources a priority. Over the past year, TotalEnergies has been weighing whether to reopen the gas project. Early reports and satellite imagery indicate that work has tentatively resumed. But the company’s own assessment of the security situation in the province is bleak. It knows that the gas project could once again become a target for the insurgency. Furthermore, with national elections due in October, it is unclear how much attention authorities in Maputo will spare for a simmering conflict more than 2,000km to the north.

Much now depends on Rwanda, which claims it can fill SAMIM’s shoes by training Mozambican soldiers and deploying them to areas previously secured by southern African troops. Rwanda appears to be counting on fresh EU funds to continue the intervention. It previously got a €20 million contribution from the European Peace Facility to this end, which is up for renewal, but EU member states are at odds with one another over the request, given Kigali’s backing for the M23 rebel movement in the eastern DRC. Rwanda’s mission in Mozambique has itself elicited little criticism, as the Rwandan troops are well disciplined and have a good rapport with civilians. Yet regional officials remain concerned that Kigali is intervening in Cabo Delgado not only to stabilise the province but also to advance its own economic interests. Rwanda, through Crystal Ventures – the ruling party’s investment arm – is involved in an array of businesses in Mozambique, including mining, construction and private security.

Other troop contributors are mulling over their next moves. Tanzanian officials say they want their soldiers to stay as well, regardless of the cost. Young, radicalised Tanzanians were some of the insurgency’s instigators, and national authorities do not want them back. The country is also determined to protect its own gas facilities in and near Mtwara, just 20km from the Mozambican border, which supply the commercial capital Dar es Salaam with electricity. Yet it remains unclear under what framework Tanzania would continue its deployment.

What steps could Mozambique take next?

The first order of business in charting the future of intervention in Cabo Delgado is to clarify Rwanda’s role. Its deployment should be in line with the overall aim of quelling the insurgency across the province rather than merely protecting gas and mining sites. Unlike the invitation to SADC to intervene, the agreement between Kigali and Maputo remains opaque, its terms known only to Rwandan President Paul Kagame and his Mozambican counterpart Filipe Nyusi. With Nyusi expected to step down in October after two terms in office, providing more transparency about the arrangement through parliamentary approval in Maputo could strengthen the Rwandan deployment’s sustainability. It will also assuage concerns that Rwanda is taking advantage of the insurgency to further its own economic interests in the north of the country.

Secondly, Maputo should take army reform more seriously if it wants its security forces eventually to take over from Rwanda. The U.S. and EU-trained QRFs will likely play a bigger role in Cabo Delgado in the near future, but they will still need backup from regular ground forces. Authorities should set aside funds to ensure its soldiers in the north are adequately remunerated and provided with basic equipment such as helmets, boots and functioning vehicles, all of which have been lacking at times. Mozambique’s many foreign partners should continue to provide training and funding in a coordinated manner, and strive to prevent further delays in the delivery of military equipment.

Over the long run, Maputo will need to address the drivers of the conflict, including the province’s enduring socio-economic problems, which Crisis Group has discussed elsewhere. Beyond relying on immediate humanitarian relief by aid agencies, Mozambique should step up the provision of basic services in Cabo Delgado and initiate genuine peacebuilding measures to handle the difficult post-conflict conditions in areas it has recaptured from the insurgents.


East and Southern Africa Analyst
Deputy Program Director, Africa

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