Mozambique on the brink as Jihadi advance sparks calls for end to ‘Iron Fist’ approach

By Michael Maitland-Jones


MOZAMBIQUE’S regional conflict could spill over into bordering countries if the current “heavy handed” government approach continues, an Amnesty International researcher has said.

The conflict made international headlines again last month after a raid by jihadists in the coastal town of Palma left dozens dead. Among the dead was a British man employed by a firm that built accommodation for workers at the nearby gas projects.

Since 2017 the Mozambican government has found itself consumed in a struggle against the growing Islamic insurgency Al-Shabab (separate from the group of the same name in Somalia). The militia group is believed to have been born largely out of local economic and social grievances.

The Amnesty report details multiple atrocities committed by Al-Shebab, but also by government security forces and the privately hired South African defence firm the ‘Dyck advisory group’ (DAG). The firm is the second to be brought in by the government to try and assist with security following the Russian Wagner group in 2019.

Speaking to Redaction Politics, Amnesty reporter David Matinshe described the government’s failure in dealing with the local insurgency being due to what he described as a strategy of ‘militarism’ that has failed to win the confidence of the population.

“They have aggravated the situation because they are heavy handed, they have used an iron fist to deal with the problem,” he said.

“They have conducted acts of violence against villages simply because they suspect them of providing aid and comfort to the insurgents.

“The government has shown itself unprepared to deal with this kind of insurgency.

“(Government) forces have often fled along with the population, they have taken off their military uniform, they have thrown away their weapons and put on civilian clothes and blended in with the population to avoid confrontation with the insurgents”

“A reliance on military intervention exclusively is not going to help the situation, instead it’s going to worsen the conflict and we may see a domino effect with the fall of Cabo Delgado and eventually the whole country which may also result in the fall of other member states (of the African Union) in the region.”

Fighting has seen over 670,000 people displaced in Cabo Delgado according to data from the UN. The many multinational companies looking to muscle in on the region’s off-shore natural gas reserves are also demanding the government improves the security situation.

The Amnesty report also includes eyewitness accounts of insurgent suspects being tortured and ‘disappeared’ by government forces as well as scenes of mass-execution.  The Mozambique government has denied these claims, despite photo and video evidence presented in the report.  

“This kind of conduct is counterproductive if the government wants to win the hearts of the local population,” says Mr Matinshe.

“War is not won on the physical space alone, it is also won in the heart, in the mind”.

A possible solution to the region’s woes has been suggested in the form of economic support. Despite a wealth of rubies and natural gas deposits, standards of living in Cabo Delgado are low and youth unemployment high; factors that play into that hands of an insurgency movement hungry for recruits.

The researcher said: “We are calling for intensive investments in economic or social projects; public infrastructure, schools, a proper education system that will equip young people with skills so they are absorbed into the growing mining and gas industry.”

These investments have been recommended by Amnesty in conjunction with an international intervention from “authorised, legal bodies”. The African Union and South African development community being suggested as potential organisations.

Todd Helmus, a former advisor to US forces in Afghanistan and Iraq and now a counter-terrorism specialist at the RAND corporation, says that beefing up security forces in Mozambique could also be an important factor in bringing about short term stability. He compared this to Nigeria’s struggle with Boko Haram.

“Nigeria really pushed a security heavy approach to address the problem which actually helped in the short term helped pacify things,” he told Redaction Politics.

“International support played a role in helping Nigeria improve it’s international security posture”.

He further stresses that investment is part of removing the influence Jihadists have in these regions.

“The economics would start to address the popular support that these organisations have,” he added.

Global attention is becoming increasingly focused around Mozambique, with the US state department announcing on March 10 it had evidence linking Mozambique’s jihadists with ISIS’ core leadership in Iraq and Syria.

The newly designated ‘ISIS Mozambique’ has prompted much of the US military support in the region.

Amnesty’s David Matsinhe is wary however of the conflict being portrayed in the usual blunt terms of religious extremism.

He stated: “this risks a one sided exaggeration of a single element of the conflict, at the neglect of the larger aspect which is economic and social exclusion”.

With Mozambique’s current government facing flak over the conduct of it’s own forces and attacks such as the sort seen in Palma still an alarmingly frequent occurrence, a resolution to the crisis seems far from realisation.

An intervening body, according to Mr Matsinhe, will have the unenviable task of addressing not just the region’s immediate conflict but also the underlying social inequalities that have led to it.

The Mozambique government has so far refused entry to many humanitarian organisations as well as the UN and even declined offers of help from the UK and Europe.

Mr Matinshe stresses that an international intervention, ideally by an authorised legal body, is the only way to prevent the situation from worsening. 


Featured Image: Pixabay

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