How great is the Islamic threat in Mozambique? And why are Rwandan troops there?

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Rwanda has sent troops to Mozambique to help the government fight a four-year Islamist uprising. Political scientist Phil Clark provides insights into the threat and why Rwanda supports Mozambique.

Are the insurgents in Mozambique a new front for Islamic terrorism on the continent?

Jihadist militias have been waging an armed uprising against the Mozambican government in the northern Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado since 2017. Its declared goal is the introduction of Sharia law in northern Mozambique. This is said to be a response to chronic poverty, unemployment and poor public services in the region under the Frelimo-led government in Maputo.

The Mozambican insurgents represent a new armed Islamic front with exclusively local motivations and command structures. However, their propaganda invokes common tropes of regional and global jihad.

They often confess to attacks under the name given to them by the local population: “Al-Shabaab”. However, there is no evidence that they have any direct links with Al-Shabaab in Somalia.

The Islamic State (IS) recently admitted to jihadist attacks in Mozambique.

But even here there seems to be little direct connection between the Mozambican jihadists and the Islamic State. ISIS has previously tried to blame itself for attacks by non-associated Islamist groups in other parts of Africa, for example the Allied Democratic Forces in the east of the Democratic Republic of the Congo

What threat do they pose?

The jihadists pose a significant threat to local civilians and foreign economic interests in Cabo Delgado. The four-year low-intensity civil war has killed more than 3,000 civilians, displaced 800,000 and caused widespread food insecurity.

Meanwhile, energy giants ExxonMobil and Total have suspended their liquefied natural gas projects in Cabo Delgado. ExxonMobil is investing $ 30 billion and a total of $ 20 billion.

As a catalyst for their attacks, the insurgents have cited the perception that the local population will not benefit from government deals with the multinationals.

The combination of widespread violence and threats from foreign companies has created a patchwork of international military and security interventions. This includes reports on:

  • the use of Russian and South African mercenaries by the Mozambican government

  • the presence of Portuguese military trainers and

  • Total hires a former French Foreign Legionnaire to coordinate the security of its gas plant on the Afungi peninsula.

In addition, Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) – including South African special forces – have sent peacekeeping forces to Cabo Delgado.

This raises major concerns about an apparent lack of coordination between these armed actors.

Why is the Rwandan government getting involved?

This is the subject of heated debate.

The Rwandan government calls this a “responsibility to protect” mission. This was due to the failure of the international community to protect the civilian population in Rwanda during the 1994 Tutsi genocide.

The Rwandan intervention in Mozambique came shortly after French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to Kigali in May 2021. Some commentators have suggested that Rwanda, funded by France, intervened to bolster France’s interests, particularly Total’s gas reserves.

The Rwandan government has resisted the claim that it is merely obeying France’s neo-colonial commandments. She stressed the humanitarian basis of her intervention.

There is little evidence of direct French support for Rwanda’s military campaign. Nevertheless, in the months leading up to its interventions in Mozambique, France had a number of high-level discussions with Rwanda and South Africa on the Cabo Delgado conflict. This indicates a close coordination between Paris and these actors, which reflects the enormous French interests.

In May of this year, Macron discussed military solutions to the crisis with several African heads of state at a summit meeting in Paris. Among them were Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Rwandan President Paul Kagame. Similar talks followed a few weeks later with Kagame and Ramaphosa in Kigali and Pretoria.

Rwanda’s engagement in Cabo Delgdao is driven by the growing relationship between Rwanda and Mozambique after the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding in 2018.

Earlier this year, Nyusi made a lightning stop in Kigali to seek Rwanda’s military assistance in Cabo Delgado. Nyusi had previously stated his preference for bilateral rather than multilateral military intervention. He may be concerned about surrendering too much control to an SADC mission led by the regional powerhouse of South Africa.

He also referred to Rwanda’s track record in conducting extremely disciplined and effective peacekeeping missions. These included Rwandan battalions operating in the Central African Republic outside of the wider UN peacekeeping mission, much like Rwanda is currently supporting Mozambican forces outside of SADC.

In addition to its humanitarian goals, the Rwandan government benefits from its involvement in Cabo Delgado in terms of security and diplomacy.

The intervention follows a pattern of Rwanda’s “responsibility for protection” in peace missions in Darfur, Mali, the Central African Republic and Haiti. These have strengthened its international image and given it considerable international significance. For example, when foreign donors considered prosecuting the alleged crimes in Eastern Congo and stopping aid to Rwanda in 2010, Kigali threatened to withdraw its peacekeeping forces from Darfur.

The Cabo Delgado campaign is also in line with Rwanda’s recent discussion on combating Islamist threats domestically and in the wider region.

In regional geopolitical terms, Rwanda will welcome reports that its forces in northern Mozambique have proven to be more effective than those of SADC, with which it has often had a difficult relationship.

Finally, Rwanda’s intervention strengthens its bilateral ties with Mozambique and France. A major catalyst for Rwanda’s diplomatic foray with Mozambique in recent years has been concerns that Maputo had become a launch pad for Rwandan dissidents in exile. This also included members of the opposition Rwanda National Congress. Rwanda’s request that Mozambique should curb opposition members on its territory is one of the closer security ties.

For years, Kagame has criticized France for failing to apologize for its complicity in the 1994 genocide. Hence, it took some genocide survivors by surprise when he warmly welcomed Macron’s remarks on the matter. They were concerned about whether Macron had fully recognized and apologized for France’s role in the genocide.

Kagame’s warm comments preceded the announcement of a new French development package worth € 500 million for Rwanda.

What are the consequences of his engagement?

The Rwandan armed forces have so far proven effective in fighting the jihadist insurgents. This has led the Mozambican government to claim that Rwanda’s accession has fundamentally changed the direction of the conflict and improved the security situation for civilians and foreign companies.

However, the simultaneous operations of Rwandan and SADC forces could cause problems in the coming months. Various SADC leaders – as well as Mozambique’s largest opposition party, Renamo – have criticized the arrival of Rwandan troops. They argue that this should have been an exclusive effort by SADC.

These questions preoccupied the Rwandan Foreign Minister Vincent Biruta, who traveled to Pretoria in early June to discuss cooperation between Rwanda and South Africa in Mozambique. This happened shortly after Rwandan military chiefs made their first reconnaissance trip to Cabo Delgado.

But military force can only achieve so much. This became clear in comparable cases of Islamist violence in the Horn of Africa, Nigeria and the Sahel.

Systemic political and socio-economic interventions are necessary to combat the years of neglect of Frelimo in northern Mozambique. These have created the privation and marginalization that underpin the uprising.

The Mozambicans themselves are clearly the main actors in this situation. Still, Rwanda and SADC should use diplomatic pressure to encourage Nyusi to address the structural causes – and not just the violent manifestations – of the conflict. This also includes ensuring that the immense natural gas wealth that will flow in after the conflict subsides not only benefits the Nyusi government and multinationals, but above all the Mozambicans.


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