"Hallo Gatete? This is the RDF [Rwanda Defence Forces], be at the airport at 0400hrs, you are deploying to Mozambique with our troops.”
This was all the heads-up I got at 8pm from an unknown caller from the Rwandan army two weeks ago.
“How long are we going for?” I asked. “When are we coming back? What are we going to do there?”
For all these questions, I received evasive answers: "We’ll tell you, we are working on it..."
That is how I, a business lawyer by day and political blogger by night, landed in Cabo Delgado, a province north of Mozambique, four times the size of Rwanda (at 82,625 km²) on the border with Tanzania.
There were other journalists too.
Cabo Delgado has an estimated population of 2,320,261 people. Muidumbi, Palma, Mweda, Nangade and Mocimboa-da-Praia, five of the 13 districts making up the province, had been in the hands of Islamic State-linked militants, locally known as al-Shabaab, for more than five years.
The Rwandan contingent, made up of the army and the police, has just spent a month there, supporting the Mozambican army to fight the Islamist militants.
Had we arrived a day later, we would have wound up like the South African Development Community troops, who had spent the bulk of their time studying their angle of attack 400 kilometres from the battlefield, since their arrival at the end of July.
What did God deny Cabo Delgado? Nothing, it seems. For kilometres along the road you see ripe exotic fruits, bananas, mangoes, oranges, coconuts, guavas, with no one to harvest them.
Underground are huge reserves of natural gas and precious rubies.
Cabo Delgado was made for seaside resorts; with fine white sand beaches as far as the eye can see. The town is deserted. The population fled to neighbouring districts and are sheltered in camps for internally displaced persons.
Here and there, we saw corpses of suspected militants by the roadside after costly clashes with the Rwandan and Mozambican armies.
In two and a half weeks of operations, the Rwandan army liberated all the territories in the hands of the jihadist insurgents, including their headquarters in Moçimboa-da-Praia, an important town of Cabo Delgado Province, with an airfield that served as the supply entry point, and a port – which is used to smuggle wood and drugs.
The insurgents are mostly Mozambicans, but there are Tanzanians, Ugandans, Kenyans, Somalis, Yemenis, Congolese and Rwandans. They are well paid — $200 per attack, a considerable amount, given the conditions of the local population, the majority of whom live below the poverty line.
Their misery is stark, with the oil majors exploiting gas there paying meagre salaries to the local workers, and thousands of dollars to the expatriates who work in the gas plant.
Total, for instance, put in $20 billion in the phase of the investment there.
The saying that nature abhors a vacuum would never been more appropriate in Cabo Delgado. The absence of the State opened the door for Tanzanian Imams to set up madrassa, Koranic schools, with foreign support, to fill an education gap.
The provinces of Awase and Moçimboa-da-Praia have one secondary school each for about 500,000 people – and both opened in 2017.
The opulence of the contractors, enjoying the beautiful beaches, is an island of exoticism in a sea of social misery and only reinforced xenophobic feelings towards the "invaders," and made the business of politically inspired Islamist recruiters a piece of cake.
With a weak army that was quickly put on its back foot by the militants, the Mozambique government called in South African mercenaries, then the Russians. They were all defeated by the fanatical youthful militants with nothing to lose.
After the capture of Moçimboa-da-Praia, Rwandan commander of the joint operations, Brigadier-General Pascal Muhizi hosted us under one of the gigantic trees that abound in the region.
“Kazi ya mwanzo tumemaliza!” he declared in Kiswahili.
The Rwandan and Mozambican forces had accomplished their first and most symbolic mission, which was to recover full territorial sovereignty of the state. All Shabaab-held administrative areas were handed back to the Mozambican government.
The next phase has got underway, as the joint operation moves to flush out the extremists from their last stronghold in Mbao and surrounding forests of Siri 1 and 2.
When we reached the liberated city, we noticed that Brig-Gen Muhizi had removed his stripes, so as not to be a clear target of the enemy. The clashes here were fresh, the smell of gunpowder still in the air. He showed us around the airfield, then we attended a ceremony at the port, where he officially handed over the port of Praia to the local police, whose chief was delighted to regain control of a town where he hadn't set foot for two years.
The next day, the airport received its first planes five years after it was seized by the insurgents. One was carrying the Mozambican Chief of Staff, General Christinão Artur and Rwandan Major-General Innocent Kabandana, head of the Joint Operation Forces. That day, Brig-Gen Muhizi had his stipes back on.
In liberating the five districts controlled by the enemy, Rwandan troops attacked from two axes: The Nothern Axis covering Afungi,Palma, Zambia, Maputo, Tete, Quelimane, Njama and Musimbua de Praia (90km). The Southern Axis covered Mueda, Diaka, Awasse, Ntotue, Mumo, Manilah, Chibanga, Chibao Buji and Musombua da Praia (95km).
The most intense fighting between the insurgents and the Rwandan fighters took place at the junction of Awase and Muçimboa-da-praia. Once the rebels were defeated, the city was captured quickly. Unofficial sources told The EastAfrican that the number of militants, estimated to have been between 2,000 and 3,000, has been halved.
The impression has been that that the operation was a walk in the park, but that view is not shared by the Mozambican army, and the South African and Russian mercenaries who could not rout al-Shabaab fighters totting AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades.
One of the militants’ biggest mistakes, however, was to chase away the population. The battle would have been more complicated for the Rwandan troops if they had to sort civilians from combatants.
Major Ruyonza Denis, an alumnus of the University of Pretoria, my alma mater, is the legal officer of Rwandan troops deployed to Mozambique. His job is to ensure compliance with international law.
I asked him if the Portuguese language has posed a challenge:
“No,” he said. “We use technology in collecting data; we locate the enemy, study his movements and target him with precision at any range.”
“To take Praia we used deception. After hitting him at 1er Maio, he ran towards Mbao, and we pursued him. He thought that was our strategy, but we turned back and raided his headquarters here in Mocimboa da Praia. He’s still waiting for us in Mbao… he won’t be waiting long.”
The insurgents love ambushes. Rwandan troops fell into two of those, coming out with some injuries. The strategy was then changed. With drones, and cutting-edge reconnaissance and targeting technology, the Rwandans took away the ability of the insurgents to exploit ambushes and bush-traps to lethal effect, and tipped the balance in their favour from day one.
In an operation that lasted less than three weeks, both armies managed to dislodge the militants from their base in Moçimboa da Praia, which they had been occupying for two years.
Cabo Delgado had been beset by insurgency that lasted five years, killing at least 2,000 people and displacing just under a million. In two and a half weeks, the dark cloud lifted.
The war isn’t over; far from it. The pursuit of the militants in the forest holds many perils. Plans are underway, to return the residents to their homes.
The author is a former researcher at the Faculty of Human Rights of “Universidade Eduardo Mondlane,” Maputo, Mozambique. He is currently a business lawyer and writer of a popular blog based in Kigali.