HARARE – Zimbabwe is among a host of southern African countries readying for military intervention to stop a deadly insurgency by Islamists in northern Mozambique, a top official said on Monday.
President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s spokesperson, George Charamba, said the Southern African Development Community (Sadc) was edging closer to sending troops to the troubled country.
Mr Charamba spoke as five Sadc leaders began a day-long summit in Maputo to tackle the conflict in the Cabo Delgado region.
“Sadc is fast moving towards a subregional response against Islamic insurgency, an initiative which started when President Emmerson Mnangagwa was chairman of the Sadc Organ on Defence, Politics and Security,” he said.
The Defence ministry said Zimbabwe will contribute troops and equipment to a Sadc brigade once the leaders sanctioned the intervention.
“Intervention in that conflict will be done within the framework of the Sadc brigade,” the Ministry said in response to reports claiming that plans by Zimbabwe’s military to deploy troops in Mozambique were at an advanced stage.
“The Sadc brigade was launched in August 2008 and is made up of military, police and civilian members from Sadc member countries…Zimbabwe as a member state contributed troops and equipment to the brigade that will be deployed to such missions.”
Speculation has been rife that Zimbabwe’s special forces are already operating in Mozambique to secure infrastructure such as railway lines.
Landlocked Zimbabwe relies on Mozambican ports to transport its imports and export goods to overseas markets.
The country also relies on a pipeline from Beira for its fuel imports and, in the 1990s, was forced to deploy troops during the Mozambican civil war to secure the infrastructure.
Authorities, however, say this time around any military intervention would be led by Sadc.
“Zimbabwe is a member state of Sadc and as such any decisions to assist another member state in conflict resolution will always be guided by relevant treaties and conventions,” the Defence Ministry said.
On Monday, the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNCHR) said at least 400,000 people have fled militant attacks in Cabo Delgado.
UNHCR warned that the conflict could spill over into neighbouring countries if left unchecked.
Meanwhile, the population has soared in Pemba, a northern Mozambique port known for its wide bay, but rather than tourists coming for a swim, the newcomers have fled Islamic extremists.
In the past few months, boatloads of people with little but the clothes they wear have landed under the palm trees after their homes fell prey to Al-Shabaab gunmen swearing allegiance to the Islamic State group (IS).
In October, the violent rebellion entered its fourth year and has reportedly killed more than 2,400 people and displaced half a million, according to the government.
Their villages were torched, many men killed and many young women kidnapped.
After seizing coastal zones that host natural gas installations, Islamist fighters have begun to push to the inland districts of Cabo Delgado province.
The last official census put Pemba’s population at more than 205,000, while more than 130,000 displaced people are estimated to have arrived.
Basic social services
Local authorities are now struggling to provide basic social services, Mayor Florete Simba told AFP.
He deplored “pressure on water, health centres, sanitation and mobility and territorial planning”.
Many refugees try to earn money by buying essential goods in bulk and selling them for a small profit, and a study is underway to determine how many displaced people have remained in Pemba.
The major described being faced with “a huge challenge” that required “diverting existing resources to support the displaced.
“For example, we had to allocate vehicles to transport the displaced people from Pemba to their respective camps” and mobile toilets had to be installed in an old part of town that lies near the shore.
Vetting potential terrorists
On top of the infrastructure challenges, newcomers must be vetted given the risk that jihadists could be among them.
“We have had situations of criminality… especially small-scale theft,” the mayor said.
“We have created a security committee, where we have our municipal police who, in coordination with the police of the Republic of Mozambique and local authorities track everyone who arrives.”
In fact, a local resident told AFP: “On the beach, when the boats arrive, the police receive money” and let people through.
Physically at least, terrorists “are people like us, so they should search everyone who enters,” the resident insisted.
Others say they have no choice but to take in entire families who really need support.
Sani Bernardo, 36, has lived in Pemba for 30 years and feels a moral duty to help those who land on the shore.
“I have a displaced family at home. I am not sure how many there are, but there are many,” she told AFP.
“We received them despite the difficulties” such as insufficient food supplies.
“As human beings we receive them without discrimination.”
Fulcane Saide, 25, works for a Pemba fishing company but was born and raised in Paquitequete, the neighbourhood where the beach is, now home to thousands of displaced people.
“Our parents are from these affected areas, so they are like family to us.
“We give shelter without fear because we are sure they need a place to stay. If they didn’t, they wouldn’t be here.”
Many of those displaced are gradually settling in, and using their skills to work in the local economy.
Suleimane Saide, 49, arrived three months ago and now works as a carpenter to feed his family, sculpting long fishing boats that line local beaches.
“They attacked my village and took my daughter. I came to Pemba and was welcomed by a family here,” he told AFP.
“I still haven’t forgotten what happened. I do not sleep. My head hurts. I think they should stop this war.”