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Cabo Ligado Analysis: Mozambique’s negotiations to secure external support for its counterinsurgency effort

It is common wisdom that Maputo needs help to bolster its capacity to fight the insurgents, but the question is whether this will move beyond training, supplies, and logistical support towards the thorny issue of boots on the ground

This article is excerpted from the Cabo Ligado monthly report looking back at May 2021, published on 15 June 2021

European Union (EU) preparations to support Mozambique progressed in May. EU defense ministers met on 6 May and were briefed by EU foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, who is pushing for an EU Training Mission (EUTM) deployment before the end of the year. The EUTMs are essentially technical and training missions, but include soldiers to protect the trainers. The mission would, according to Borrell, resemble the Mali EUTM, which has about 150 personnel deployed. There are some expectations that the mission might act as a pilot under the new European Peace Facility for providing Mozambique’s government with military equipment. Borell told the press on 28 May that a fact finding mission was already on the ground in Mozambique “assessing the possibility and modalities of this mission.”

Mozambique’s Defence Minister Jaime Neto was in Portugal on 10 May and signed a 5-year bilateral security agreement that will see a further 60 Portuguese special force operators deployed to conduct additional training with Mozambican security forces in the coming months. Sixty trainers were deployed in April.

In mid-May, Nyusi was in Paris for a bilateral visit and also attended the Africa Economies Financing summit that brought together 15 African and European leaders, as well as chiefs of international financial institutions to discuss options for managing debt challenges in Africa. On 17 May, he met with President Macron and Total’s chief Jean Pouyanne with a view to convincing both that he can re-establish security in Cabo Delgado. After the Palma debacle, a convincing security plan that persuades Total and the French has become an urgent priority for Maputo, which is understandably keen to get the company’s liquified natural gas project back on track. Total have undertaken to return when the situation is calm. Reaching agreement on what that will now look like and how security will be strengthened is now central. The predictions of a so-called “Iraqification” model (i.e. privileging security of key strategic interests above wider security needs of the population) appear to be unfolding.

Speculation ahead of the summit suggested that Nyusi would accept the support of the French military, even the possibility of a direct deployment, which is most unlikely. France has repeated its offer to help, but what that means in practical terms is unclear. Nyusi has stressed the importance of a formalized agreement between the countries before any deployment can happen; evidently no such agreement is yet in place. A recent rapprochement between France and Rwanda, coupled with Nyusi’s 28 April visit to Kigali and a visit to Cabo Delgado by Rwandan security officers, fuelled speculation that France might even underwrite a Rwandese security intervention. Macron made it clear in his subsequent visits to South Africa on 27-28 May (preceded by a visit to Kigali) that any French support would require both a request from Mozambique and SADC approval. Macron explicitly suggested that French support could involve naval operations based out of French territory in the Indian Ocean. In Paris, Nyusi also met with Portugal’s prime minister, Antonio Costa, who currently holds the EU presidency. Costa reportedly opened the door to developing support for Mozambique for the different branches of the military.

Nyusi also met with South African president Cyril Ramaphosa on 17 May in France and discussed Cabo Delgado. On 21 May, South African Foreign Minister Naledi Pandor, who was also in Paris, announced the delayed SADC Troika meeting would be convened the week of 24 May. She reportedly urged SADC to take military action and wants Mozambique to accept the regional body’s intervention recommendations. This hawkish posture reflects profound frustrations with the ongoing delays in reaching agreement, but has not endeared Pretoria to Maputo. Nevertheless, Mozambique needs to keep Pretoria onside, even if the regional hegemon’s capacity to provide material support is itself constrained.

Meanwhile, developments in Mozambique are slowly nudging the domestic discussion into a more open conversation about regional and international support. Frelimo’s Political Commission officially met on 5 May, the first time since Nyusi’s re-election in October 2019. In its closing statement, no mention was made of Cabo Delgado and only an oblique reference was made to fighting terrorism. The meeting paved the way for a Frelimo Central Committee meeting on 22-23 May, also the first since Nyusi’s re-election victory. Nyusi used the meeting to profile the security situation in Cabo Delgado and repeated a message he had made earlier in the month that Mozambique needed international partners to address the insurgent threat.

At the Central Committee meeting, Nyusi confirmed that the SADC Double Troika would convene the following week, and it did so on 27 May. Yet any hopes of settling on a regional approach to the Cabo Delgado conflict were again dashed, reflecting the lack of resolution over a clear plan of action. The meeting agreed to convene a further discussion within the month, this time with the full meeting of heads of state and government. An initial meeting date for 20 June was subsequently extended to 23 June. This coincides with a SADC Business Forum being held in Maputo. It will be the first time regional leaders have met as a full collective since Mozambique took over as SADC chair, and only two months ahead of it passing on the baton to Malawi. Cabo Delgado will not be the only item on the agenda, which is likely to make the entire affair more palatable for its hosts.

Botswanan President Mokgweetsi Masisi outlined to the media in late May several challenges facing the regional block, acknowledging that Cabo Delgado “was under intense attack from insurgents.” He said the block does not know who the insurgent leadership is and what they want, assertions contested by several local activists and analysts who claim the authorities know very well key elements of the insurgent leadership -- at least the local elements -- and also point to an array of messages, demands and objectives delivered through the course of the conflict to date.  Masisi reiterated SADC’s commitment to assist on the military, as well as humanitarian, front. Regrettably, the May summit chose not to amplify concerns about the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation in Cabo Delgado and the growing challenges faced by both domestic and international actors to address it. How the region will help out in this regard is also unclear.

It is common wisdom that Maputo needs help to bolster its capacity to fight the insurgents. The question is whether this will move beyond training, supplies, and logistical support towards the thorny issue of boots on the ground, as recommended by SADC’s Technical Assessment mission. It is by no means a straightforward question. Some analysts and practitioners point to the poor record of multinational interventions, and argue Mozambique’s reticence and desire to pursue bilateral options is understandable. It may still be possible to develop a framework of bilateral support options that operate under a SADC mandate and satisfy all parties.

Details on how SADC support would be financed also remain unavailable. Several countries have volunteered financial support, including Saudi Arabia, which announced its commitment during its interactions at the Paris Summit. Saudi Arabia has reportedly spent $121 million to fight terrorism in Africa,  but no details on what it would dedicate to the Mozambique project have been forthcoming. As Joseph Hanlon remarked in a recent newsletter, there is a certain irony to this given Saudi Arabia’s role in the genesis of radicalization in Cabo Delgado.