The Rwandan armed forces and police deployed to the Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique have made impressive gains combatting the Islamic State-affiliated al-Shabaab militants that have devastated the area. These 1,000 or so forces secured the key port city of Mocimboa da Praia in August, and the militants — who have committed grave atrocities, killed thousands and driven nearly a million people from their homes — have been forced to retreat from several areas of this natural resource-rich region. 

Mozambique's flag is pictured in the capital city of Maputo. September 30, 2005. (Henner Frankenfeld/The New York Times)
Mozambique's flag is pictured in the capital city of Maputo. September 30, 2005. (Henner Frankenfeld/The New York Times)

While to be welcomed, the accomplishments of the Rwandan troops, Mozambican security forces and Southern African Development Community (SADC)-authorized troops, including from South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Lesotho, are just the beginning of a long and challenging process to bring peace and security to Cabo Delgado.

Foreign Troops Arrive

Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi was criticized for accepting Rwandan troops outside of the SADC framework. The political opposition accused him of not being transparent in his actions. Some charge that the Rwandans are in Cabo Delgado only to protect the multi-billion-dollar French and U.S. liquified natural gas investments.

Cabo Delgado was burning, with al-Shabaab terrorizing its population and spreading mayhem to neighboring provinces. These several thousand militant fighters have been improving their tactics and weaponry, as documented by a recent International Crisis Group report, growing in lethality.

After downplaying the crisis since it began in 2017, the Mozambican government has shown an overdue sense of urgency by accepting foreign troops. The Rwandan forces arrived in July at the request of the Mozambican government. They have led in taking on the militants, and done so effectively. In fact, the Rwandan presence has been well received by civilians in Nangade and Palma districts in Cabo Delgado.

Challenges to Peace

Building peace and security in Cabo Delgado demands a long-term and varied effort, going far beyond today’s security operations. The roots of the conflict are complex, but certainly include a long-standing sense among Cabo Delgado residents of being mistreated by the central government in Maputo, a grievance that the militants have exploited. Mistrust has been intensified by the recent large-scale development of natural resources, including major natural gas investments, that are seen as not benefitting the people of the province. Corruption is rampant in Cabo Delgado, further inflaming resentment.

Mozambique badly needs more decentralized, participatory and transparent governance that better addresses the economic and social needs of Cabo Delgado. Hopefully, the up to $800 million World Bank commitment to northern Mozambique and other international efforts will be impactful. In the best case though, these efforts represent a generational project.

More immediately, the grave humanitarian crisis must be addressed, as one in three people in Cabo Delgado, nearly one million, are displaced. Many more Mozambicans are adversely impacted as displaced people disrupt their home areas. This makes Cabo Delgado and its neighboring provinces one of the fastest growing displacement crises in the world. International efforts to provide desperately needed food, water and sanitation to displaced people have fallen short because of insecurity, access challenges and under-funding. The United States has been the largest donor to Mozambique, providing some $30 million a year to relief efforts. With people dying, there can be no tolerance for delays by the Mozambican government in approving relief efforts, as has been reported.

Improved security in Cabo Delgado has allowed some displaced Mozambicans to return home, but this is just a start. The longer Mozambicans remain displaced, the more social tensions will worsen, as locals are adversely impacted by refugee flows and resettlement camps, building resentments. To the extent possible, humanitarian aid should be used to encourage those displaced to return home. For security operations to be most successful, they should be linked to addressing the suffering of Mozambicans, with international aid efforts taking quick advantage of improved security conditions to address emergency needs and build momentum and conditions for refugees to return home.

Fact-Based Local Engagements

Building upon security gains will require better communications, including the free flow of information. There has been little reliable information about the insurgency since its beginning, which arguably led to a delay in international attention and being seriously addressed. The Mozambican government has contributed to this lack of attention and understanding by blocking access to the region by reporters, human rights monitors and others. Regardless of why the government has acted this way, it is now essential to have a greater common understanding of the developments and challenges impacting Cabo Delgado.

Progress building trust and reconciliation among key actors — community leaders, local and national government officials, security forces and others — cannot be made based on rumors. To date, the activities of the Rwandan security forces have been reported mainly by Rwandan, government-controlled press. Mozambican voices too must explain what is occurring in Cabo Delgado, contributing to the needed national debate on the crisis.

The communities of Cabo Delgado that have been impacted by the conflict must be given a voice. This is especially important considering their perception of being marginalized and exploited by the central government. As Cidia Chissungo, founder of the National Solidarity Campaign for Cabo Delgado, told a U.S. Institute of Peace forum in May, “It is important for people to feel that their lives matter.” Otherwise, resentment simmers, easing militant recruitment.

The Mozambican government needs to engage local communities, as soon as possible, with the aim of building a rapport and trust.

The government is right that the insurgency has a foreign jihadist component, including in its leadership. The spread of jihadism along the east coast of Africa is a threatening development. But these foreign forces are feeding off local grievances regarding government displacement of people from land, the inequitable sharing of natural resource revenues and the poor provision of social services. Security permitting, government officials must engage with local leaders, including the political opposition, to address legitimate political and economic concerns from the ground up. A top-down, grand counterinsurgency strategy that ignores local conditions will fail in Mozambique, as it has failed in Somalia and elsewhere.

Productive Security Assistance

Some nations have responded to the Cabo Delgado crisis by aiding Mozambican security forces. In August, the United States launched a second Joint Combined Exchange Training military program that will have U.S. Special Operations Forces training with Mozambican commandos and rangers to improve their battlefield capabilities while also providing medical and communications equipment. Portugal sent 60 soldiers to its former colony in May to provide counterinsurgency training. The European Union announced in July that it would be establishing a military training mission in Mozambique to help combat the insurgency and protect civilians, with 200-300 personnel to be deployed by the end of the year. This training and equipping should help the resource-poor Mozambican Armed Defense Forces secure newly liberated areas.

While Mozambican security forces require foreign assistance and training, these efforts must guard against creating unsustainable capacities, a common mistake made by outside actors. Recent history in Iraq and Afghanistan, among other historical examples, has proven that outside actors fail when they design security forces in their own images. Training and equipping must be designed to create Mozambican self-reliance. This requires making Mozambicans full partners in all planning, training and execution of military actions. A failure to properly design assistance, including equipment and training, aligned with local social and economic conditions has the potential to help the adversary regain dominance.

Mozambican Autonomy

Ultimately, Mozambican forces must assume full responsibility for security in their country. Neighboring countries have limited resources to commit to the security of Mozambique. Zimbabwe, with troops doing training in Mozambique, and Tanzania need to focus on securing their borders with Mozambique and preventing this insurgency from spilling over. While foreign troops appear to be welcomed by those in Cabo Delgado now, it is almost inevitable that their popularity will fade. There surely will be abuses, and foreign military presences almost always wear thin among local populations, no matter where in the world. Moreover, a successful foreign security presence runs the risk of allowing the Mozambican government to delay fixing its shortcomings in Cabo Delgado.

The Road Ahead

The international community, particularly Rwanda, has given cause for hope in a desperate Cabo Delgado. A brutal militant movement has been set back militarily. While there are legitimate concerns about this intervention, it was needed, as steps toward peace cannot be made with militant violence raging.

This region has plentiful natural resources to be developed to improve the social and economic well-being of its people. It will be tempting for the Mozambican government to take comfort in security gains and ignore the difficult, long-term work of addressing the legitimate grievances of Cabo Delgado and its neighboring provinces. Without this work, no number of troops can bring peace and stability. Far more difficult will be mustering the political will to chart this path. This is where the international community — besides providing military aid — can press the Mozambican government to build upon these security gains against this brutal insurgency.

The first step on this long road will be for the Mozambican government to open meaningful and transparent political dialogue with the people of Cabo Delgado based upon on-the-ground facts as they can best be understood. There is no time to waste.

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