Durban – The Southern African Development Community (SADC) must urgently intervene in Mozambique as the country faces a growing threat of Islamic State of Iraq (IS)-linked terrorism that could give the extremist group a foothold to expand in the region.
This was the warning from a panel of experts on security and armed conflict at the Human Sciences Research Council’s Africa Institute of SA unit during a webinar this week on growing violent extremism in Mozambique.
The warning comes after the IS-affiliated group, known locally as Ansar al-Sunnah, seized the northern port of Mocímboa da Praia last week when government forces ran out of ammunition after days of fighting with hundreds of insurgents.
The port is close to a site of natural gas projects valued at about R1.04trillion ($60billion).
Africa Institute of SA executive director Cheryl Hendricks said about 1400 people had died in growing extremist violence and more than 100000 had been displaced in the region.
“Alarms bells are going off across SADC as to the nature and scale of the threat we are facing. We cannot look at Mozambique as an isolated picture of growing extremism in the region,” Hendricks said.
Jasmine Opperman, analyst at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, said underdevelopment and marginalisation of people in northern provinces such as Cabo Delgado had provided fertile ground for the radicalisation of the youth which was propagated by the influence of foreign extremist groups.
“The insurgency has evolved as we have seen since the port falling on August 11 and the insurgency has gained sophistication and access to weapons that we have never seen before. The type of actions taken on ground level indicate this is much more than Cabo Delgado; there are definite transnational interests at play within the insurgency,” Opperman said.
“The insurgency has allowed them for the first time in southern Africa to find a footprint as we see they are propagating in their media channels. As long as the insurgency continues, the risk of them finding an institutionalised presence is extremely high, and we cannot ignore that,” Opperman said.
Opperman said there were four active cells in operation in the province and there was a risk of it spreading to the rest of Mozambique.
However, she said Ansar al-Sunnah had never shown capacity to execute attacks and control an area for a sustained period, so it was a matter of time before the government took back the port.
Institute for Security Studies researcher Ringisai Chikohomero said SADC had a number of treaties, including its Regional Counter Terrorism Strategy and Plan of Action, which empowered it to act against threats to regional security but it did not have a good track record.
“SADC hardly ever intervenes on issues of human rights and political instability and you have in SADC a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ and a clear lack of acting collectively. It is an indictment on SADC as a body to say, where did we go wrong? As member states and a regional block, we have a responsibility to protect civilians,” he said.
He said the SADC could not ignore the threat to the whole region if the Mozambique insurgency was not contained.
“The nature of Islamic State is they need to expand their territory, and when they are not facing the collective force of a regional block, they become more emboldened and they can move to other countries, to Malawi and Tanzania, and that poses a threat of destabilising the whole region,” he said.
“The lack of action of SADC only plays into the hands of the narrative that SADC is incapacitated to act. It has the instruments, the hardware and the software but there is this inertia and where it matters most, the failure to follow through. They should have established a fact-finding mission to Mozambique to find out the context within which the insurgents are mushrooming, Mozambique government’s response and how SADC can come in,” he said.
“There is a need for SADC to communicate clearly and transparently as to what are the next steps. It’s important to engender confidence and trust as to what’s happening in the regional block.”
Julia Wachave, who works with the group Muleide that assists women impacted by gender-based violence, said women had been raped during the conflict and were stripped naked and forced to hide under trees, in tents and in schools as there were no refugee shelters.
“People are vulnerable to every kind of violence. They remove their clothing so they can’t run away, they stay naked, they remove their belongings that they have taken from their lands,” Wachave said.
She said some displaced youths had fled and others had joined the insurgents on rampages, burning houses. “We are in a very critical situation,” she said.
Énio Viegas Filipe Chingotuane, of the Centro de Estudos Estratégicos e Internacionais, said countering the insurgency was a “race against time”.
“We are already in the third year now (since the violence broke out) and if the problem sticks around for more than that, it can expand nationally and regionally, so we need to come up with a strategy to counter the violence nationally and regionally,” he said.
Anthoni van Nieuwkerk, of the School of Governance at Wits University, said the region needed to focus not just on military intervention but on studying the motives of groups and individuals and their mobilising networks, and the role of state corruption and organised crime. “The region offers fertile ground for the spread of violent extremism,” he said.