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Lessons from SADC Mission in Mozambique

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SAMIM was deployed on July 15, 2021, to stabilise Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province, plagued by Islamic insurgents terrorising the region since 2017. In early April 2024, it was announced that the Rwandan Defence Force presence in Mozambique would be expanded to replace SAMIM, the writer says. – Picture: GCIS

By Thomas Mandrup

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) will draw down and complete its withdrawal by June 2024. The first troops have already left Mozambique, and it is time to take stock of the impact of the mission.

SAMIM was deployed on July 15, 2021. Its objective was to stabilise the northern Cabo Delgado province that was plagued by Islamic insurgents terrorising the region since 2017. In early April 2024, it was announced that the Rwandan Defence Force (RDF) presence in Mozambique would be expanded to replace SAMIM, as the Mozambican security force seems unable to take over the responsibility for security provision in Cabo Delgado.

The RDF deployment is being conducted in partnership with the European Union (EU), which funds the deployment expenses. The decision by the Mozambican government to expand its bilateral support agreement with Rwanda is controversial since it accentuates a range of challenges that have faced the SAMIM deployment from the outset. The lack of sufficient co-operation between SADC and the Mozambicans has made operations difficult, and it was one of the key reasons the SADC member states ultimately opted to close the mission.

Why did SADC intervene in Mozambique?

The Jihadist insurgency spread rapidly in the Cabo Delgado province from its nascent outset in 2017. In 2019, major attacks occurred, and the insurgents took control of sections of land, including the port city of Mocimboa da Praia.

The region and the African Union (AU) pressured the Mozambican government to allow a regional military intervention to prevent the insurgency from spreading. They feared that the Islamic State in Central Africa (ISCA), to which the extremists are affiliated, would create a bridgehead from which to expand its presence.

In early 2021, the attack on the strategically important town of Palma caused the suspension of the major liquefied natural gas projects run by multinational energy giants TotalEnergies, ENI and Exxon, bringing them to a stand-still. The economic consequences of the delay could be devastating to the Mozambican economy and development. In July 2021, SADC deployed a South African-dominated force of 2,210 troops. The strategic objectives of the mission were three-fold:

  • neutralise the extremists, i.e. the Al-Sunnah insurgents;
  • assist the Mozambique Defence Armed Forces in planning and undertaking operations; and
  • train and advise the Mozambique forces.

What has SAMIM achieved?

SADC wanted to ensure the sustainability of SAMIM’s military gains by securing the livelihoods of the returnees. The SAMIM was able to create an environment that allowed humanitarian aid and even development projects to operate and to safeguard the possible return of most of the 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDP).

In July 2023, an internal SADC assessment report was presented to the SADC troika leadership (Zambia, Namibia and South Africa). The conclusion was that SAMIM had successfully reduced the insurgents’ capacity and assisted the Mozambican military. Consequently, more than 570,000 IDPs were able to return to their homes by August 2023.

However, SAMIM has not achieved its objective of training the Mozambican security forces since the host nation could not identify its training needs. The Mozambican government also receives training and support from a range of other actors, including the EU, the US and the private security company Benham, which, it can be argued, reduced SAMIM’s requirement to provide training.

In terms of creating a sustainable foundation for the livelihoods of the returning IDPs, the mission, and especially the SADC member states, wanted to achieve more, but the available resources were limited. International donors and UN agencies were the main humanitarian and development assistance actors.

A stabilisation mission like SAMIM can create space for a while for other actors, humanitarian and political, to take to the field and find lasting solutions to the conflict. However, if this opportunity is not used the stability gained will be lost again. Since the second half of 2023, the number of attacks has increased, leading to a rise in IDPs once again.

The rise of attacks stresses that the capacity of the Al-Sunnah might have been depleted, but the insurgency has not been defeated. As is well described in the conflict literature, an insurgency movement has time on its side and can wait. It can afford to lose battles and territorial control if not defeated. North-East Nigeria (Boko Haram), Somalia, Mali, DRC and Afghanistan are just a few recent examples of this phenomenon.

If the host government does not, or cannot, take the lead in solving the political and developmental problems driving a conflict, the conflict is likely to resurface. Recent developments in Cabo Delgado illustrate this, making the Rwandan decision to fill the security vacuum left by SAMIM extremely important.

Since insurgency activities are once again on the rise in Cabo Delgado, the risk is that the extremists will once again take a stronger foothold. The issues that led to the conflict in the first place remain largely unresolved. The local security forces are yet to show the will and capacity to match the Al-Sunnah insurgents.

As an informant said recently, the insurgents fear and avoid confrontation with the RDF but not the Mozambican security forces.

SAMIM was able to create an environment that allowed humanitarian aid and even development projects to operate and to safeguard the return of internally displaced persons

Lessons for future SADC missions

While SAMIM is being withdrawn, SADC is deploying a military force to the Eastern DRC (SAMDRC), a mission that has already suffered from significant casualties and a delay in the deployment of necessary capabilities. At the outset of deploying the two missions, overlapping issues can be identified.

The July 2023 assessment report concluded that SAMIM had suffered due to a discrepancy between capabilities outlined in the initial SADC pre-mission report of April 2021 as a requirement for a successful operation and the capabilities and force numbers deployed to the mission.

The SAMDRC suffers from a severe lack of capabilities and pledged force numbers by member states to be deployed. The two forces lack the air assets needed, especially the air cover required to conduct offensive military operations. Logistical support, camp protection and extraction capabilities are limited or even absent. The DRC mission suffers from a shortage of ammunition, limited food supplies, and a lack of camp protection.

These shortfalls have resulted in a hampering of operational effectiveness and casualties amongst the SADC forces. The SAMIM did not experience the same camp-security-related casualties. However, the security in and around Pemba was flawed or absent, and SAMIM was fortunate that Al-Sunnah did not revert to a direct asymmetric style of attacks against the SAMIM installations.

SAMIM has suffered from insufficient coordination between itself, and the RDFs and the host nation’s security forces. Joint operational planning and even operations have been problematic. For example, they had different communication equipment, and the soldiers spoke different languages, which made communication on the ground difficult.

Information sharing was limited due to operational security concerns and experiences of information being leaked to the insurgents, which made joint operations difficult. Unclear political interference also played a role, where the local authorities blocked planned operations at a late hour without proper explanation.

This issue also points to the host nation’s role, which must be supportive and take the lead for a mission to be successful, which has not been the case in Mozambique. SAMIM created a “space” where political solutions could have been found but these did not materialise.

Due to the seriousness of the situation, the SADC member states could not have chosen to remain passive – they had to react. However, deploying a force and not providing it with the tools needed to fulfil its mandate is dangerous and self-defeating. Currently SADC is repeating the same mistake in the SAMDRC deployment, and this time, it is costing lives amongst the deployed contingents.

These deployments are a political responsibility, and they can cost lives if governments do not provide the deployed forces with the tools needed to fulfil their mandates.

Dr Thomas Mandrup is an Extraordinary Associate Professor at Stellenbosch University’s Security Institute for Governance and Leadership (SIGLA) and Associate Professor at the Royal Danish Defence College’s Centre for Stabilisation.

This article was first published at ACCORD