The conflict in Cabo Delgado province has taken a dramatic turn since the start of 2024. After a year of minimal activity, Islamic State-backed insurgents went on the offensive in January, launching coordinated attacks on the N380 highway and even seizing strategic territory on the Macomia district coast. Despite escalating violence, the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) is set to end in July, raising critical questions about the prospects of Cabo Delgado’s security just as TotalEnergies’ $20bn liquified natural gas (LNG) project is about to return.
The withdrawal of SAMIM was officially confirmed on 28 January, when a SAMIM statement acknowledged that the Executive Secretary of the Southern African Development Community (SADC), Elias Magosi, visited Cabo Delgado to oversee the drawdown of troops. However, the end of SAMIM had been signalled since last July, when a leaked document from a meeting of SADC heads of state revealed that a decision had been taken to conclude the mission by July 2024.
In December, Botswana President Dr. Mokgweetsi E.K Masisi told his army in Cabo Delgado that SAMIM “should have every reason to come to an end” by July. Then, on 22 January, General Jacob Mkunda, Tanzania’s Chief of Defence Force, stated that the SAMIM withdrawal would begin in March, with the last troops leaving in July.
SAMIM’s force consists of around 1,900 personnel, of whom just under 1,500 are from the South African National Defense Force, based in the embattled district of Macomia. The most significant consequence of the SAMIM withdrawal will be that it will force the Mozambican Armed Defense Forces (FADM) to fill the security vacuum these troops leave behind, but its performance so far has been far from encouraging. On 18 January, FADM abandoned the strategic village of Mucojo, effectively handing the insurgents unbridled access to the Macomia coast. Mozambican security forces are known to be suffering from a shortage of food and many soldiers have not been paid in months. If the Mozambican military is struggling to fulfil its current responsibilities, it is hard to imagine it coping with an expanded role when SAMIM departs.
To offset the low morale of the rank and file infantry, the European Union has trained just over 1,000 members of a special forces unit, known as the Quick Reaction Force (QRF), since September 2022. The QRF should, in theory, be capable of carrying out offensive operations without the support of international forces. The effectiveness of this training will be put to the test once SAMIM ends, but it has already suffered a notable humiliation, losing at least eight men in an ambush in July, which was widely exploited by Islamic State propagandists. Five more European Union-trained marines were also ambushed and killed at Lake Nguri in Muidumbe district on 7 December.
SAMIM’s record has also been mixed. From the start, the mission was plagued by funding shortages and tensions with Mozambican forces, who have accused SAMIM of lacking initiative and failing to take the fight to the enemy. SAMIM’s stated mission was to support FADM by “neutralising” the “terrorist threat” and “restoring law and order.” Given the capture of the Macomia coastline, which SADC troops were responsible for defending, this mission has hardly been fulfilled. Indeed, the start of the drawdown may have been partly responsible for making the capture of the coastline possible in the first place. Despite SAMIM’s imminent departure, it has not yet provided an assessment of its impact, but the statement on 28 January did acknowledge “continued acts of terrorism perpetrated on innocent civilians, women and children in some districts of [Cabo Delgado].”
Nonetheless, the loss of almost 2,000 troops from the field will still be felt as FADM will have to hold and patrol more territory on its own. Rwanda has indicated that it could expand its own mission and take on some of the security burden, but this would involve incurring additional costs and there is no way of telling what President Paul Kagame might expect in return. President Filipe Nyusi’s surprise visit to Kigali on 25 January likely concerned the future of the Rwandan intervention.
Amid this uncertainty, the resumption of TotalEnergies’s LNG project in northern Cabo Delgado risks adding another element of unpredictability to the conflict. The project will create an obvious target for the insurgents to attack, or at least disrupt, and the highest standards of protection will be needed to avoid a repeat of the catastrophic attack at Palma in March 2021. In short, demand for security is expected to grow enormously this year while the supply of security resources is set to diminish. The insurgents are no doubt aware of this reality. The people of Cabo Delgado can only hope that the security forces are taking it seriously as well.