As March 24 approached, in the coastal town of Palma, in Mozambique’s troubled Cabo Delgado Province, people were shaking in their boots.
On March 24 last year, al Shabaab rebels, aka Islamic State-Mozambique, who had controlled and spread mayhem in many parts of Cabo Delgado for over three years, attacked Palma.
The jitters were because many people feared the militants would stage an attack as homage to their 2021 raid because, for al Shabaab, it was a jewel in their crown.
The attack grabbed international headlines, partly because of the drama at the Amarula Palma Hotel, where 220 civilians had sought refuge. Dozens of people were killed at the hotel, and most were saved in heroic rescues that followed, but it was marred by accusations that the white contractors – and their pets – were prioritised during evacuation over black nationals.
Al Shabaab trashed the town, cleaned out banks and left many dead. But perhaps its biggest political pay-off was the wider impact on the Mozambique economy. It forced French energy giant TotalEnergies to put on ice its liquefied natural gas (LNG) operations in nearby Afungi. At $22 billion, it is the largest foreign direct investment in Africa and would have given the struggling Mozambique economy a massive shot in the arm.
The scale of the Total LNG adventure on the ground is head-turning. It is being built in a zone nearing 40 square kilometres that the company bought and fenced off, and where it had started erecting the gas plant, has set up a new airport, a port, two floating hotels at the edge of the Indian Ocean that can house 1,800 people; and already constructed a worker’s compound, now only sparsely lived in, that can house 2,000.
Other campuses in various stages of development would eventually accommodate 20,000. The project is expected to create 15,000 direct jobs. All that froze in Total’s flight.
Before the attack, Palma was a wannabe tourist town. It was beginning to boom, and for an otherwise provincial town, quite cosmopolitan. Two of its most popular pubs were owned and run by Burundians.
The leading wood and furniture operator is Somali — he was an early returnee to open shop.
The Amarula and Palma Residences would hold their own if they were in Mombasa. To al Shabaab, it must have been its biggest takedown of an infidel and consumerist symbol.
The road to Palma starts at a fork in Afungi that leads to the port town of Mocímboa da Praia, which was the insurgents’ headquarters, and they would have liked to make a counterpoint to the events that started there in July.
On his back foot, and after nearly four years of humiliation at the hands of al Shabaab and foot-dragging by the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi flew to Rwanda and asked Kigali to help stem the rebel advance.
At the end of July 2021, Rwanda sent in its first troops, who made a quick dash and set up a short distance off the fork, as soon as they were dropped at Afungi Airport. Within two months, they beat al Shabaab out of most of Cabo Delgado and, for good measure, seized Mocímboa da Praia and made it their operational headquarters.
A March 24 anniversary attack would also have enabled IS-Mozambique to highlight the fact that it is down, but not out. After Rwandans entered the fight, SADC’s wheels got moving, and it sent in an intervention force, the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM).
The SADC countries contributing troops to SAMIM are South Africa, Botswana, Tanzania, Angola, Lesotho, Namibia, Malawi, DR Congo and Zimbabwe. Stretching from Lake Kivu to the Cape, on paper it looked like a dream pan-African harambee to protect an endangered nation and, finally, IS-Mozambique’s obituary could be written.
As is standard practice, the Rwandan and SAMIM rescue forces have divided Cabo Delgado into operational zones. Squeezed from the north and centre of Cabo Delgado by the RDF, IS-Mozambique escaped south to the district of Macomia, which is South Africa’s zone of responsibility. And, perhaps not wanting to be too far off from Tanzania, where some of its leadership, including its spiritual and political leader Abu Yasir Hassan, hail from, they also scattered northwestward to Nangade, which is under the Tanzanians.
In recent weeks, the rebels have upped attacks in Nangade and Chai in Macomia, where they have relocated their headquarters. Their ruthless military leader, Bonomade Machude Omar, also known as Abu Sulayfa Muhammad and Ibn Omar, is thought to be based there.
South Africa, which announced it is increasing its troops, has so far not thrown everything it has at the rebels. The rebels are exploiting its hesitation and killing civilians a few hundred metres from their bases.
In Nangade, the insurgents are also running rings around Tanzania, and are on a killing spree. The UN refugee agency UNHCR says the violence displaced 24,000 people within Nangade district alone, between January and March. They join nearly 800,000 other displaced in the region.
Tanzania’s military anaemia in Mozambique is more puzzling than South Africa’s. In the DRC peacekeeping intervention, its forces have given as good as they get.
Analysts and observers think its lackadaisical attitude is because helping stabilise Cabo Delgado is a secondary goal, and its strategic aim is to prevent IS-Mozambique from spilling into southern Tanzania’s Mtwara region, where fears are it could take hold.
Cabo Delgado is Swahili-speaking and is more East African than southern African.
The Makonde, a major national group in the region, are spread in southeast Tanzania and Kenya too. The Makua, the largest community in Mozambique, also live on Tanzania’s southern border regions. Al Shabaab has smelt the opportunity all these present.
These developments have left President Nyusi and his Rwandan allies in a spot of bother. Nyusi is treading a fine line as a man who can’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
The SAMIM mission is critical and has offered a small but important regional security umbrella. But to say it is inadequate at just more than 1,000, would be a great understatement.
Angola, once one of the mightiest armies in Africa, has only sent eight military officials. Malawi has contributed two, and DRC and Zimbabwe one each.
By contrast Rwanda has 2,000 troops, and 500 Police.
Nevertheless, Nyusi can’t complain too much, because his government has barely managed to build back the capacity to replace the Rwandans and SAMIM, and this is primarily supposed to be Mozambique’s business.
Nyusi, however, is able to play the “you helped kick these guys out, why let it all go to waste” card with Rwanda, and is pressing Kigali to send troops to the SAMIM areas. Rwanda finds itself unable to say no, or stand by, but going into SAMIM areas could kick off a stink with SADC.
Sources in Kigali confirm that so wary is it of ruffling SADC feathers that when Nyusi called for help in 2021, it insisted it wouldn’t move a muscle until it had a piece of paper greenlighting it from SADC. A few days later, a letter arrived from SADC’s Organ on Politics, Defence and Security.
Meanwhile, the clock is running down on Nyusi and his long-ruling Frelimo party. He’s serving his last term, and elections to usher in his successor are scheduled for 2025.
At the personal level, the insurgency is a lot of egg on his face, because he is from Mueda in Cabo Delgado, the first northern Mozambican to be president of the country. His legacy “back home” will be covered in shame if he left with the region not pacified.
Additionally, with the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and sanctions and cutbacks on Western purchases of its gas, Maputo is facing renewed pressure to pump gas — the largest reserves in Africa — into the world market. This means creating conditions for Total to get back up and running in Afungi, to make for the Russian gas shortfall.
Nyusi didn’t help that cause and himself much, when at the start of March Mozambique abstained in the United Nations vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The security sector reforms to get the Mozambique forces back in form to fight al Shabaab and hold the “liberated” zones is to be funded by the European Union. When Mozambique abstained, the EU reportedly asked, “so why should we pay for your security when you can’t support Europe’s?”
All is not lost, but a long-standing solution to the IS-Mozambique’s crisis can’t be simply a security one or forever depend on other African partners. Something fundamental broke in Mozambique, and the fix has to start at the source.
When the insurgents first came at the Mozambican army, they didn’t do so with guns. They had machetes and swords. With those, they overwhelmed the army, seized weapons, even armoured personnel carriers, and built up their arsenal. It is alleged that sometimes their spirited shouts of “allahu akbar!” as they charged were enough, and the Mozambican army would drop their weapons and take off to the bushes.
That kind of collapse comes from a deep place.