FORMER Zimbabwean national army senior commander retired Colonel Lionel Dyck (pictured) – who has a colourful military history – is literally leading from the front in Mozambique’s explosive Islamist insurgency sweeping through the gas-rich Cabo Delgado region, leaving a trail of destruction and death.
Dyck warned this week the conflict in the north of Mozambique was “like a cancer” and will “insidiously grow” as the conditions there allowed it.
Marginalisation, deprivation and poverty are some of the conditions which creates fertile ground for terrorism.
This has raised fears the war, which has serious geopolitical and geoeconomics implications, might spread into neighbouring provinces and even countries. Zimbabwe, which imports 80% of its fuel needs through the port of Beira, shares its longest border with Mozambique.
Dyck’s courage, motivated by money, adventure and fame – and perhaps humanitarian service – sticks out like a sore thumb compared to the anxious hand-wringing and procrastination by regional leaders who have been timidly watching the theatre of war from the sidelines.
With terrified caution and manifest fear, Sadc leaders, even those who like deploying security forces against civilians at home, have remained paralysed as the conflict unfolds with calamitous and devastating consequences.
There are many factors which have immobilised Sadc leaders: lack of cooperation and consent from Maputo on regional intervention, poor regional cohesion, resource scarcity, mutual geopolitical and geoeconomic suspicions and attendant rivalries, and mortal fear of the deadly Islamic terrorist networks and their potential backlash on those who intervene.
This comes against a backdrop of clear indications that Africa has now become a frontline for the Isis battle. Thirteen countries in Africa, including Mozambique, are battling Islamic terrorist networks. They are Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Algeria, Mali, Chad, Burkina Faso, Niger, Somalia, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Thousands of local troops from African countries are also engaged in the struggle to beat back the jihadists, whose numbers seem to grow by the day.
The recent Mozambique jihadist massacre in which scores of victims were slaughtered – many beheaded – has highlighted a massive terror surge across Africa.
Terrorism in West Africa was already the new frontline against global jihad, with 300 British among 15 000 United Nations troops on peacekeeping missions there.
In a separate struggle, 5 000 French soldiers are involved in ferocious firefights against jihadists in the region and the security nightmare is spreading.
French expert on jihad Olivier Guitta, from Global Risk Consultancy, warned recently: “Africa is going to be the battleground of jihad for the next 20 years and it’s going to replace the Middle East.”
After a series of deadly attacks and bloodshed by the jihadists, President Emmerson Mnangagwa this week hosted in Harare his Botswana counterpart President Mokgweetsi Masisi, the current chair of the Sadc troika on politics, defence and security, to discuss the political and security situation in Cabo Delgado region.
Mnangagwa is the outgoing troika chair. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa is one of the troika members and incoming chair. Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi is the Sadc chair.
Sadc leaders last met on 14 December 2020 in Maputo, Mozambique, after their 27 November 2020 meeting at the regional grouping’s headquarters – in Gaborone, Botswana – to discuss the crisis.
They agreed to meet again in January this year, but the meeting was postponed partly due to Covid-19 and protracted consultations. The meeting was postponed to May or June. Since then, war in northern Mozambique has intensified as the Islamist militants gained ground.
After Masisi and Mnangagwa’s meeting in Harare, Sadc issued a statement on Mozambique without a plan of action and timelines.
This has been happening since the troika met in Harare on 19 May 2020. Sadc leaders also held a virtual summit on 17 August 2020 before their November and December meetings.
After Wednesday’s troika consultative meeting in Harare, Sadc issued yet another statement, but no action.
“The Southern African Development Community (Sadc) has learnt with dismay the inhumane terrorist attacks on the town of Palma in Mozambique, on 24 March 2021,” Masisi’s statement said.
“It is utterly disheartening that these indiscriminate attacks on the civilian population have resulted in the loss of lives of dozens of people, leaving hundreds others injured and many more displaced, particularly women and children. This has heightened insecurity in the area, leading to a serious humanitarian crisis, especially the need for the provision of basic services, such as food, water and shelter to the affected population.
“Sadc condemns in the strongest possible terms this heinous act of cowardice. It is our fervent hope that the perpetrators will be quickly arrested and brought to justice.
“We wish to express our heartfelt condolences and sympathies to the Government and people of the Republic of Mozambique and other affected countries, particularly the bereaved families, on the untimely demise of their loved ones. We also wish a speedy recovery for the injured.”
Regional leaders just remained “deeply concerned” as they have always said, but no concrete action.
“Sadc is deeply concerned about the continued terrorist attacks in Cabo Delgado, especially for the lives and welfare of the residents who continue to suffer from the atrocious, brutal and indiscriminate assaults. These attacks are an affront to peace and security, not only in Mozambique, but also in the region and the international community as a whole.
“We wish to express our full solidarity with the government and people of the Republic of Mozambique, as well as the armed forces on the ground, who are working towards restoring peace and security in the affected areas. We also wish to reaffirm our continued commitment to contribute towards the efforts to bring about lasting peace and security, as well as reconciliation and development in Mozambique.”
All the while, Dyck and his small force are in action. However, the situation is likely to get worse if Dyck and his band of mercenaries are let go when their private security contract expires on 6 April.
In his first on-camera interview, Dyck, the head of Dyck Advisory Group (Dag), told American international news channel CNN that insurgents in northern Mozambique effectively hold the strategic town of Palma after they staged a complex attack last week.
“As I sit here, Palma is lost. Unless something happens, they have lost Palma,” Dyck said, “we continue to rescue people today who are hiding in the bush and to engage the terrorists. The insurgents are running in and out of houses. It is a standard Isis-like tactic to hide amongst the people.”
Dag is contracted by Mozambique to help fight an insurgency that has killed at least 2 000 civilians and pushed hundreds of thousands from their homes in Cabo Delgado province, since attacks started in 2017.
A deployment of Russian guns-for-hire, with links to the Kremlin, withdrew from Mozambique after it sustained casualties in its fight against the Islamist militants.
Dozens of private military contractors were aiding the Mozambican army which is battling the intractable insurgency.
The Russians pulled out. Dyck, a former Zimbabwean military colonel who fought in the Rhodesian army during the liberation struggle and served after the country’s Independence in 1980, made his name during the war and later during the military lockdown in Matabeleland region, a precursor to Gukurahundi. He also fought during the Mozambican conflict with Renamo rebel movement.
Dyck then led de-mining teams and anti-poaching units after retiring from military service.
CNN says since the initial attack on Palma, Dyck’s forces have rescued scores of civilians, many of them sheltering in the Amarula Lodge as armed gunmen assaulted the town. Insurgents ambushed at least one convoy trying to flee to safety. Dyck says their helicopters have repeatedly taken fire, but none of the crew have been hurt.
“We have small helicopters that can carry four or perhaps six people at a time,” Dyck said, adding that they dropped people at the airstrip at the nearby natural gas development.
“This is what we are there for and what we went to Mozambique for. There were a lot of people in trouble from those guys,” he said, referring to the militants.
Dyck said that the insurgents attacked in three groups and were well-equipped with light arms and mortars – something that his fighters had not seen before. But he says that he was not surprised that the attack happened after the end of the rainy season, giving the insurgents time to plan.
“The situation on the ground was awful when my pilots got there. The first thing they saw were food trucks on the road where the drivers and their assistants had been pulled out and beheaded. They were lying next to their cars,” Dyck said.
“What we are concerned about is that nothing seemed to be done for the people up there, particularly by the oil company, for any kind of emergency procedures. That shocked me,” he said.
French oil giant Total is developing a billion-dollar natural gas find near Palma and many of those caught up in the fighting were contractors on the project.
In a statement to CNN, Total said that “Mozambique LNG confirms that it has been and is currently providing all possible support to the Mozambican authorities for the rescue operations on-going in Palma.”
Total has now been forced to withdraw from its project after evacuations under terrorist attack.
Dyck’s operations have not been without controversy. In early March, a report by Amnesty International said that Dag was carrying out indiscriminate attacks, including firing into crowds and targeting civilian infrastructure like hospitals.
“Everything that they said was totally unfair, it was a desktop study,” Dyck told CNN.
He admitted that Dag crews had fired into crowds when terrorists were attacking his men from among civilians, and “dissidents [who] ran into a hospital shooting at us so we shot them,” Dyck explained.
Dyck told CNN that a law firm hired by Dag was conducting an investigation into the allegations, and that all their actions were cleared by a senior Mozambican officer.
“I have no idea why mercenaries are so badly spoken of. We have that reputation too, good or bad, I don’t understand it. We are doing something that nobody else can do or has wanted to do so use what you have got. And if it is not efficient, fire us. It as simple as that. I am happy to go home,” he said.
Speaking to British international broadcaster the BBC on Monday, Dyck suggested the insurgents obtained their weapons from both Mozambique and further afield.
“They have captured quite a lot from military posts they have overrun (in Cabo Delgado) before the rains came. But there is no way they captured mortars (the Mozambique army does not use them), so I think they brought them in from Tanzania or somewhere further north.” – News Hawks