SADC mission in Mozambique: Evaluation & future challenges

The Southern African Development Community (SADC) military mission in Mozambique (Samim), which was deployed on 15 July 2021 to fight the Islamic insurgents terrorising the northern Cabo Delgado province since 2017, is scheduled to end by June 2024. Mozambican security forces will then take full responsibility for security.

The Conversation asked military science and defence expert Thomas Mandrup, who has published a paper on the situation after a recent ground visit, to evaluate the mission.

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By Thomas Mandrup*

Why did the military mission in Mozambique intervene?

The jihadist insurgency by the group now calling itself Al Sunnah had been spreading rapidly in the Cabo Delgado province from late 2019. SADC member states had been putting pressure on the Mozambican government to allow a regional military intervention to prevent the insurgency from spreading in the region. Their fear was that Islamic State (Isis), to which the extremists are affiliated, would get a bridgehead from which they could expand their operations.

More than 850,000 civilians had been forced to flee their homes after violent attacks by the extremists.

The insurgency caused the suspension of a US$60 billion investment in a liquefied natural gas project led by multinational energy giants TotalEnergiesENI and Exxon. The hope had been that the development would drive local, national and regional economic growth.

The SADC decided to deploy a combined force of 2,210 troops. The mission is dominated by a South African contingent of 1,495 soldiers. Other troops come from Botswana, Tanzania, Lesotho, Namibia and Angola.

The thinking was that they would eliminate the Al-Sunnah presence in its area of operation.

How successful was the mission? What were the challenges?

The SADC military mission had several main strategic objectives:

  • neutralising the extremists
  • assisting the Mozambique Defence Armed Forces in planning and undertaking operations
  • training and advising the Mozambique forces.

The SADC member states also planned to supplement the military efforts with humanitarian aid and even development projects to sustain the progress made by the mission.

An internal assessment report was presented at the July 2023 meeting of the then SADC leadership troika (Zambia, Namibia and South Africa).

It concluded that the SADC mission had achieved its objective of reducing the insurgents’ capacity and assisting the Mozambican military. In addition, 570,000 internally displaced people had returned to their homes by August 2023, as the security situation had improved.

However, since the second half of 2023, the number of attacks has increased, leading to a rise in the number of displaced people.

Samim has found it difficult to fulfil its mandate of training the Mozambican force because they couldn’t identify their training needs.

The development and humanitarian efforts have been limited at best.

The assessment report also concluded that the mission had suffered because it was never given the capabilities outlined in the initial SADC pre-mission report of April 2021.

Firstly, the force was smaller than initially recommended. It never went beyond 2,200, a far cry from the mandated 2,900. The mission lacked numbers and capabilities in terms of air, naval and ground assets. Lack of funding was key to the mission’s limited size and capabilities.

Secondly, coordination and joint operations with the Rwandan forces, which had been deployed in July 2021, the SADC force and the Mozambican security forces have been problematic. For example, they had different communication equipment and the soldiers spoke different languages.

Thirdly, intelligence gathering capabilities were weak. Insufficient information before operations commenced increased the danger to troops and civilians.

Fourth, intelligence and operational information was frequently leaked to the extremists.

What lessons can be learnt from the operation?

An outside intervening force must have the full backing of the host nation. And it must understand the area and situation it’s being deployed into. The Mozambican government and military have not always worked with the mission. Seemingly hidden agendas, or different priorities, have hampered the mission.

The Mozambican government’s delayed and timid response to the growth of the insurgency from its beginning raises a number of questions:

  • why was its response so slow and insufficient?
  • why did it oppose regional involvement for so long?
  • why has the SADC mission at times found it difficult to strike at the core of the insurgents?

The difficult political situation in the capital, Maputo, notably factional battles inside the governing Frelimo and the fallout over the huge 2013-2014 Tuna bonds corruption scandal, hampered the mission.

During my recent fieldwork several interviewees even suggested that a faction of Frelimo had at times supported the insurgents.

In addition, strong personal, political and economic interests affected operational realities. Frelimo has strong ties to the region going back to the war of independence against Portugal, and later the civil war between Renamo and Frelimo. The cleavages from the civil war have never been really solved and are still visible.

It was clear that the Mozambican government didn’t have a clear plan to address the many causes of conflict. For example, it did not understand why the insurgency had attracted support from large sections of the local population.

Many people living in Cabo Delgado view the Mozambican state as removed from their everyday realities. Some even see the government as illegitimate and the cause of their suffering. An effective stabilisation effort needs various interventions – military, socioeconomic and political – to resolve the difficult conditions people are living under.

The SADC mission was starved of the capabilities and numbers needed to be an effective fighting force. The local population considered it less effective than, for instance, the Rwandan force, which was also better equipped and trained.

What needs to happen

Insurgency activities are once again on the rise in Cabo Delgado. The risk is that the extremists will once again take a stronger foothold there since the issues that led to the conflict in the first place remain unresolved.

The SADC mission shows how difficult and costly it is to launch and run a large scale military operation, especially if the host government is not taking full ownership and supporting the operation. The SADC operation can only create “space” for the political solutions to be found.

In addition, the Mozambican government and its security force have shown only limited signs of improved capacity. It is uncertain that they are ready to take over the full responsibility for security after June 2024, when the SADC soldiers leave.

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*Thomas Mandrup: Associate Professor, Security Institute for Governance and Leadership In Africa (SIGLA), Stellenbosch University

This article was first published by The Conversation and is republished with permission

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