Mozambique insurgents dare SADC forces to follow them into the bush

SANDF troops ride along a dirt road in the Maringanha district in Pemba, Mozambique. Alfredo Zuniga / AFP
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On December 15 last year, Islamic extremists in Nova Zambezia, Macomia district, beheaded a pastor and instructed his wife to take his head to the police with a message: “While you [government forces] are walking on tarred roads, real men [insurgents] are in the woods.”

This was a thinly veiled message to the SADC Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) operating in the area.

In November and December, the SAMIM registered considerable victory, killing insurgents and raiding their bases in Cabo Delgado.

The attacks forced insurgents to retreat to the bush in guerrilla groups.

The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) – a think tank that tracks indicators of social conflict in Southern Africa in its review of the last three weeks in northern Mozambique – said the beheading of the pastor was a propaganda message.

“The content of the message calls to mind the core tactical problem faced by Mozambican and allied forces for the vast majority of the conflict,” the group’s review said.

The message from the insurgents also exposed SAMIM’s shortcomings:

…their ability to operate is severely restricted once they leave main roads because their equipment and training is built around armour rather than infantry or air assault capabilities. By making the case that the tactical dynamic has not changed, the insurgents are arguing to a civilian audience that foreign intervenors have not altered the fundamentals of the conflict despite Rwandan successes in Mocimboa da Praia and Palma districts.

As a show of power, the insurgents operating from the bush ambushed SAMIM forces in the east of Chai in the northern Macomia district on the night of December 19, resulting in the death of a South African soldier.

The ACLED in its review also suggests that the insurgents have support within communities they operate, with some civilians assisting them in transporting arms.

“On 20 December, police stopped a bus carrying passengers from Nampula to Pemba just outside of Nampula, after receiving a tip that a group of passengers refused to open their bags when asked by bus company employees. Police searched the bags and found firearms.

“No details have emerged about the extent of the shipment or the types of weapons involved, but one witness reported that the passengers carrying the bags told police as they were being arrested that others had transported weapons along the same route before,” the report stated.

Since the insurgency began in 2017, ACLED says there have been 1 111 cases of organised political violence, 3 627 reported fatalities from organised political violence, and 1 587 reported fatalities from organised violence targeting civilians.

Speaking to SADC heads of state and government in Malawi at the SADC Extraordinary Summit on Mozambique, SADC chairperson, a president of Malawi, Lazarus Chakwera, said member states should incorporate youth empowerment in the reconstruction of Cabo Delgado.

This would be a way to frustrate insurgent recruitment drives. Disgruntled youths are easily recruited as fighters.