Making the Most of the EU’s Integrated Approach in Mozambique
Making the Most of the EU’s Integrated Approach in Mozambique
Commentary / Africa 1 minute

Making the Most of the EU’s Integrated Approach in Mozambique

The Al-Shabab insurgency continues to pose a threat to civilians in northern Mozambique. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2023, Crisis Group explains how the EU and its member states can help stabilise the area.

An Islamist insurgency in Mozambique, locally known as al-Shabab (though it is distinct from the similarly named group in Somalia), has entered its sixth year. Since they began their attacks in October 2017, militants in the country’s resource-rich northern Cabo Delgado province have killed over 4,500 people and displaced over one million, mostly women and children. Troops from Rwanda and countries in the southern Africa region have helped contain the insurgency. Yet the group’s violence against civilians continues, and in May 2022, the Islamic State’s (ISIS) central command recognised al-Shabab as one of its provinces. While weakened to the point where they are not conducting complex attacks, as they have in years past, the insurgents continue to resort to guerrilla tactics and pose a threat not only to Mozambique but to other states in the region.

In a bid to address insecurity in Cabo Delgado, the European Union (EU) has provided support at different levels as part of what it calls an “integrated” approach to countering the insurgency. To help stabilise northern Mozambique, the EU and its member states should:

  • Press Maputo to keep up its end of the relationship by providing more and higher-quality information about the Mozambican military’s activities and performance, with the aim of better assessing the impact of the European training mission for Mozambican forces.
  • Encourage Mozambique and the foreign troop contributors supporting its efforts in Cabo Delgado – Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) regional bloc – to agree to rotations of EU-trained Mozambican soldiers alongside their troops. This step would complement the EU training by providing these soldiers with mentoring and field experience under the supervision of seasoned officers.
  • Seek better access to information from Maputo about al-Shabab’s operations, while also increasing financial support to Mozambican and regional researchers looking into insurgency dynamics. The goal in both cases would be to gain a better understanding of al-Shabab’s grievances and goals, as well as the risks presented by its links to the Islamic State and other transnational networks. 
  • Urge Mozambican authorities to conduct and share thorough security assessments before advising displaced people on whether to go home, so as to ensure that returns are well-informed.
  • In addition to its ongoing support for community-based dialogue and regional peacebuilding initiatives, explore with the Mozambican government options for talks with insurgents, the purpose of which would be to determine the conditions that could persuade them to lay down their arms.
Mozambican marines are seen on the docks of the Total Lng gas plant in Afungi in the Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique, on September 29, 2022. AFP / Camille Laffont

Foreign Intervention and an Adaptable Insurgency

Cabo Delgado’s al-Shabab militants moved to armed revolt in October 2017. The province had long been ripe for conflict. Major sources of frustration included socio-economic exclusion and resentment of the influence of liberation-era generals with business interests in the province. Cabo Delgado has remained one of Mozambique’s poorest provinces, notwithstanding discoveries of minerals and natural gas, which are perceived to benefit elites. Particularly at the rank-and-file level, many of al-Shabab’s members were motivated to join by the desire to share in economic benefits through the seizure of power. The group quickly grew in strength, becoming a threat to national and regional stability. But with an under-resourced and unseasoned army, Maputo struggled to mount a robust response, turning in the first instance to foreign military contractors for support.

That changed in 2021, when Mozambique invited in military support from other African countries following al-Shabab’s damaging high-profile attack on the port city of Palma in April of that year. Within months of the attack, the government of President Filipe Nyusi had agreed to the deployment of troops from Rwanda and the SADC regional bloc to Cabo Delgado. The foreign troops made inroads right away, taking back strategic roads and pushing the insurgents out of most of their bases, reportedly killing hundreds of fighters. But despite being weakened, and seemingly no longer able to conduct complex and high-profile attacks like the one on Palma, al-Shabab adapted quickly. Breaking up into small cells, the militants spread out across a larger area, raiding villages and security posts. Sixteen of Cabo Delgado’s seventeen districts suffered attacks in 2022. Insurgents also appear to be making occasional incursions into neighbouring Niassa and Nampula provinces and across the border with Tanzania. Under military pressure, some al-Shabab fighters also have reportedly blended in with local people, waiting for the right time to regroup. Others appear to have left Mozambique.

The insurgents have also received their own boost from outside, of sorts. In May 2022, the Islamic State leadership named al-Shabab as one of its provinces, and more systematically began claiming the latter’s activities as its own. Since the announcement, ISIS has asserted itself to be the perpetrator of numerous attacks in Mozambique, saying its fighters carried out 156 raids that killed 331 in the remaining months of the year. The claims are made rapidly after the incidents, are geographically very accurate, and appear to correspond to al-Shabab’s activities, suggesting at the very least that the two entities communicate effectively. Events in Mozambique regularly feature in the Islamic State’s al-Naba newsletter and other propaganda outlets. There is little evidence, however, that Mozambican insurgents are receiving more money, weapons or other material support than before from the Islamic State or its affiliates in the Great Lakes and along the Swahili coast.

The deployments from Mozambique’s regional partners remain in place.

The deployments from Mozambique’s regional partners remain in place. At present, about 2,500 Rwandan troops are stationed in the districts of Palma, Ancuabe and Mocímboa da Praia, notably close to the Afungi peninsula, where the French company Total aims to build a multi-billion-dollar onshore gas facility. Concurrently, the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) has about 2,000 soldiers from SADC member states, mainly South Africa, in the Macomia, Nangade, Muidumbe and Mueda districts. The latter mission is struggling to secure sufficient funding, however. On 7 November, the African Union Peace and Security Council said it worried about SAMIM’s “logistical and financial challenges”.

Maputo insists that the situation is largely under control. As part of efforts to portray Cabo Delgado as safe for foreign investment, authorities are encouraging those displaced by earlier fighting to come back to the province. At least 70,000 residents – many more, according to Mozambican authorities – have reportedly travelled back either to their homes or to district headquarters in Mocímboa da Praia, waiting for security to improve before they return to their rural dwellings. Observers, meanwhile, say the government is either overly optimistic or deliberately concealing the full extent of the crisis. Militants have already attacked returnees, threatening others with violence if they stay in their home villages.

The humanitarian situation also remains dire. Though al-Shabab appears to have lost capacity to mount big, high-profile attacks, and despite the government’s efforts to suggest that life in parts of Cabo Delgado is returning to normal, attacks by insurgents continue to displace people. The total number of persons internally displaced since the start of the insurgency has recently passed the million mark. Most of the places sheltering the displaced, in Cabo Delgado’s Pemba and Metuge districts, and in Nampula province to the south, are impoverished themselves, with limited food stores, water, medicine and sanitation facilities.  

What the EU Can Do: Maximising the Partnership

The EU has stepped in at different levels to help Maputo respond to the instability in northern Mozambique, working in an “integrated approach” that combines humanitarian, development, peacebuilding and security assistance (which includes the provision of military training and non-lethal equipment) as well as political and diplomatic engagement, among other things. Within this framework, the EU finances and conducts training for about 1,600 Mozambican soldiers, with the aim of protecting the civilian population, helping restore security in the Cabo Delgado region, and eventually seeing the national army take over from the foreign troops in northern Mozambique. To complement this effort, the EU has earmarked €89 million in non-lethal equipment and supplies for the units its mission trains. In the second half of 2022, the EU additionally mobilised €15 million for SAMIM and €20 million for Rwanda’s counter-insurgent forces.

The EU has also provided support to regional and local peacebuilding efforts. It gave €1.9 million to a SAMIM Peacebuilding Support initiative for the period March-September 2022, which focused on building capacity among police and correctional services officers, empowering women and youth, and fostering dialogue among civic leaders. It is also supporting peacebuilding and dialogue efforts (including inter-faith discussions) at the community level in Cabo Delgado. The EU additionally gave €28 million in 2022 to support humanitarian efforts in Mozambique.

The scale of its assistance has helped the EU to obtain greater collaboration from Mozambican authorities, notably around supporting humanitarian access and logistics, which are areas where Maputo had previously been reluctant to cooperate. Yet Brussels could go further in making use of its diplomatic and political weight to remind Maputo of where greater cooperation is needed.

Military training ... has been difficult for Brussels to do as effectively as it would like.

Military training, in particular, has been difficult for Brussels to do as effectively as it would like. For one thing, Mozambican authorities are reluctant to share important information about the military’s activities in Cabo Delgado and to grant EU military instructors access to the region. As a result, the instructors know little about the effectiveness of the troops they have trained once they are deployed on the ground. European officials should negotiate development of an efficient means of assessing the training mission through better access to the Mozambican command structure. In particular, they should push to station EU military observers in the Mozambican operational command centre in Cabo Delgado. This type of collaboration would allow the EU to better tailor its training program to needs in the field and to follow up with trainees.

Another useful measure would be for the EU to push for a system of rotations whereby soldiers trained by EU instructors are integrated into Rwandan or SAMIM units in Cabo Delgado on a temporary basis. In light of the Mozambican army’s state of disrepair following decades of under-investment, and the fact it will need years of better funding and reform to be fully functional, such integration would improve the mentoring new trainees get on the battlefield. There would be practical challenges (military doctrines differ from one force to the next), and the rotation concept may be a tough sell politically in Rwanda and the SADC countries as well as Mozambique, meaning that the EU may need to do some coaxing. But it is worth exploring, as it could go a long way toward deepening the impact and long-term sustainability of the EU’s training mission. By improving the quality of its troops, a rotation system along these lines could also help facilitate the eventual takeover of operations by Mozambique’s military. The EU is in a particularly good position to push for this measure given that it is contributing financially to all three military interventions in Cabo Delgado.

In parallel, EU officials (along with other external actors) should press Maputo to help fill gaps in the information at their disposal about al-Shabab, which they complain is insufficient. Increased knowledge of the insurgency in Mozambique, its aims and its transnational links, notably with militant groups along the Swahili coast, in the Great Lakes and beyond, would be of particular help in assessing the risk it poses and allowing the EU and others to adjust their response. Beyond seeking assistance from the authorities, one way to attain this knowledge could be for the EU to step up financial support to regional and local researchers who are trying to better understand the insurgency.

The EU should also use its influence to help ensure that internally displaced persons (IDPs) are not pressed to return to their places of origin in a manner that is unsafe. In particular, the EU should urge Mozambican authorities to conduct thorough security assessments of the IDPs’ places of origin and share the results candidly in advising people whether it is safe for them to return to their homes. This practice could save lives. It could also limit the risks of gender-based violence, including abductions by insurgents and sexual slavery, and of exploitation of vulnerable people deprived of livelihoods in unsafe areas.

The EU should explore with Mozambican authorities whether talks with militants might be feasible, at least for information-gathering purposes. Though Mozambican authorities acknowledge that military responses alone are insufficient to stem the insurgency, they have thus far shown little appetite for engagement. Yet such contacts could go some way toward determining under what conditions insurgents (or some of them) could be persuaded to demobilise.

Finally, the EU should work with Maputo to begin addressing the longstanding discontent in Cabo Delgado, notably around socio-economic exclusion, that has helped give rise to the insurgency. In particular, the EU could push Maputo to acknowledge more frankly that Cabo Delgado’s economically disadvantaged population (many of whom are youth) have legitimate historical grievances, in what has long been one of Mozambique’s poorest province, something Mozambican authorities have so far been reluctant to do.

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