As we look ahead to 2022, three trends from the previous year stand out as being particularly important for understanding the medium-term future of the conflict in northern Mozambique. Each represents a thread that analysts should be tracking, as they will play major roles in determining how the conflict will unfold going forward.
The Struggle to Feed IDPs
As addressed in detail elsewhere in this report, despite its military successes in the latter half of 2021, the Mozambican government has failed to accomplish much in the way of returning civilians displaced by the conflict to their home communities. There had been hope that many people would be able to return and begin growing crops in order to take the burden of preventing widespread hunger off of an overstretched international food aid program. Indeed, even as the vast majority of displaced civilians remained in resettlement camps and in host communities rather than returning home, the Mozambican government embarked on a plan to provide many of them with agricultural inputs in the hopes that they would begin cultivation around their temporary residences. Now that Cabo Delgado is fully in the midst of the rainy season, the season for planting is over and the demand for food aid will remain high at least until the rains end, in April.
Thankfully, international humanitarian groups say that they will be able to provide full rations to IDPs through March, thereby averting what could have been a major hunger crisis through the lean season. By April, however, the danger of a “pipeline break” in food rations returns, due to the uncertain humanitarian funding situation. If significant IDP returns are not possible by then, the Mozambican government will likely face two major problems simultaneously: the renewed threat of hunger, and the question of the long-term disposition of agricultural land on the outskirts of the conflict zone. Tensions between host communities without enough land and other resources to go around, IDPs being forced to choose where to live going forward if they cannot return to their homes, and a food aid distribution apparatus beset by funding problems at the top and corruption concerns on the ground could become the major story of the conflict in 2022.
Cycles of Violence Around SAMIM Extensions
Since pro-government forces regained control of Mocímboa da Praia, insurgents have avoided offering battle to Rwandan troops – the combat capacity of the Rwanda Defence Force appears to be too high for them to contend with. SAMIM, however, covers a wider territory in Cabo Delgado with fewer troops and more supply concerns, making troops from the regional force more vulnerable to insurgent action. What’s more, the mission itself is vulnerable – as detailed elsewhere in this report, it must contend with coalition politics and funding struggles in a way that the Rwandan deployment does not. Insurgent offensives in recent months have focused almost exclusively on areas of SAMIM responsibility, and violence in those zones picked up in the run-up to the most recent discussion about extending the SAMIM mandate, in January.
That trend, of insurgents targeting SAMIM areas in a cycle that peaks around extension discussions, is likely to continue. Insurgents are not unaware of the regional politics at play, and they understand how massively it would change the state of play if SAMIM were to exit Cabo Delgado. On the ground, it would return the conflict in Nangade, Macomia, Muidumbe, and Quissanga districts to being between insurgents and Mozambican forces – a fight insurgents have good reason to believe they can win. What’s more, it would spread pro-government forces even thinner at a time when IDPs are trying to return to the conflict zone, allowing for much greater predation of civilians than insurgents are currently able to accomplish. In the political realm, a withdrawal would allow the insurgency to claim that it had defeated SADC, and that its will to affect the politics of Cabo Delgado is greater than its opponents’ will to prevent them from doing so. If SADC cannot come up with clear benchmarks that it seeks to achieve before a SAMIM withdrawal, it risks being caught up in a quagmire in which leaving is unacceptable but the insurgency is driving the cost of staying ever upward.
Decline of Relations Between FDS and Civilians
One small silver lining to the horrifying displacement crisis that the conflict has brought to northern Mozambique is that civilians who have left the conflict zone are much less likely to interact with frontline Mozambican security force units than they were when they were in their homes. It may be difficult for outside observers to remember, given the substantial military progress made by Mozambican government forces and their foreign allies in recent months, but when Mozambican forces were interacting with civilians in the conflict zone regularly, their human rights record was atrocious.
In 2022, it is likely that more civilians will return to the conflict zone, either as part of sanctioned returns for IDPs or in an attempt to escape bad conditions in resettlement areas. An important trend to watch will be the extent to which Mozambican military and police forces (and, now, government-backed local militias) can rein in human rights abuses against those returnees. Success would be both a positive development on the merits and an indication of growing professionalism among Mozambican forces. Failure, however, creates an even greater risk for the Mozambican government than it did before. Along with further harming an already traumatised civilian population, and further alienating them from government forces, public abuses would pose a major reputational risk for the various international training efforts ongoing in Mozambique. Though the EU has no law against training units that engage in human rights abuses, for example, the EU Training Mission in Mozambique would face serious questions in the European Parliament if its graduates – who are expected to make up a significant proportion of the Mozambican military when all is said and done – were found to be abusing civilians. At a time when the long-term structures of foreign support for the Mozambican counterinsurgency effort are still being formed, the behaviour of Mozambican forces toward their civilian compatriots will play an important role in determining future outcomes.