The International Response to the Mozambique Crisis Gets Militarized

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The international militarization of the response to the jihadist insurgency in northern Mozambique is accelerating, as Southern African leaders agreed Wednesday to deploy a regional force to help contain the Islamist extremists. A European Union military mission to support Mozambican troops battling the Islamic State-linked militants could also be approved as early as next month.

The interventions signal mounting international concern that the situation in northern Mozambique, where at least 3,000 people have been killed and 1 million more are in need of food assistance, is at risk of spiraling further out of control. As if to underscore that point, the announcement that the Southern African Development Community, or SADC, would send standby forces to the region was followed by reports of renewed clashes between the militants and Mozambican soldiers outside the key city of Palma.

The insurgency in Mozambique’s gas-rich Cabo Delgado province began in 2017, but gained prominence in 2020 when the jihadist group, Ansar al-Sunna, ramped up its activities. The rebels have held the port of Mocimboa da Praia since August 2020 and have repeatedly attacked Palma, just inland from the coast and near the site of a $20 billion liquified natural gas project that was being developed by French energy firm Total.Their brutal attacks on civilians have caused at least 800,000 people across the region to flee their homes.

That strategy appears to be intentional, designed “to reduce competition for scarce resources in their areas of operations, facilitate territorial control, and put additional pressure on the Mozambican government and its international partners,” as Emilia Columbo explained in a March WPR briefing.

Ansar al-Sunna first grabbed international attention in March, with another assault on Palma in which the insurgents slaughtered civilians trying to escape the besieged town, leaving trapped residents to gather on the coast hoping for rescue. At least 61 people died, and dozens are still missing. Though Mozambican forces eventually retook the town, the siege demonstrated the rebels’ increased operational sophistication. The rebels notably timed the attack for maximum media impact, waiting until Total had brought its international staff back from a two-month hiatus after a previous deterioration in the security situation. Total indefinitely suspended all operations at the LNG project in April.

The rebels have also used small boats to launch simultaneous attacks from land and sea, adding another element of concern given the northern coast’s proximity to the Mozambique Channel, a key commercial shipping lane. “Given its increased capabilities and proximity to nearby maritime routes, the insurgency now poses a serious maritime security threat,” Sebastian Rowe-Munday explained in an April WPR briefing. The attack on Palma in March and the risk of the Mozambique Channel turning into a piracy hotspot appears to have added additional urgency to what had previously been a halting response by the Mozambican government.

A week prior to the March attack, the U.S. military had deployed special operations forces to Cabo Delgado to train local troops, and Portugal has now dispatched 80 troops to assist in its former colony. They will soon be joined by the standby forces from the 16-nation SADC regional bloc. Though SADC officials did not offer details on the size of the force or the exact timing of its deployment, the group’s military experts had earlier recommended deploying 3,000 troops with air and maritime capabilities.

The rest of Europe might not be far behind. Portuguese Foreign Minister Augusto Santos Silva told Portuguese lawmakers this week that a military training mission could be approved at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in July.

Even with the extra support, observers warn that Mozambican forces might find it difficult to contain the insurgency, while also cautioning against a purely militarized response.

Keep up to date on Africa news with our daily curated Africa news wire.

Here’s a rundown of news from elsewhere on the continent:

East Africa

Ethiopia: A military airstrike on a market in the war-torn Tigray region Tuesday left at least 64 people dead and more than 100 others wounded, according to health workers, in an attack that European officials said “deliberately” targeted civilians. Health workers also accused Ethiopian forces of blocking emergency responders and of shooting at a Red Cross ambulance trying to reach the victims. Ethiopian military officials confirmed launching the attack, but denied targeting civilians, saying the strike was aimed at former regional leaders who were reportedly gathered in the village of Togoga to celebrate Martyrs’ Day, a commemoration of a massacre committed by Italian forces during the Mussolini-era occupation of Ethiopia. The airstrike comes amid an escalation in the eight-month-old Tigray conflict, as Ethiopian troops with the support of Eritrean forces intensify their efforts to capture the region’s former leaders. Since the start of the conflict, the government-aligned forces have been accused of massacring and raping civilians, killing livestock and destroying food in a campaign that is “sending Tigray back to a stone-age economy in which people are forced to live hand-to-mouth and depend on charity,” as Alex de Waal wrote in an April WPR briefing.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, center, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Feb. 9, 2020 (AP photo).

Tanzania: The government partially reversed its policy of barring pregnant young women from getting an education, announcing this week that young mothers will be allowed to resume their studies in alternative colleges by next year. The Folk Development Colleges, which are located across the country, teach basic numeracy and literacy. Officials approved a policy of expelling pregnant young women from schools in 2002, but enforcement sharply increased under former President John Magufuli, who “single-handedly created a more regressive environment for the country’s women and girls,” as former WPR senior editor Robbie Corey-Boulet explained in a 2018 briefing. Around 5,500 young women now drop out of school every year because of pregnancy, according to the World Bank. Since taking over following Magufuli’s death in March,President Samia Suluhu Hassan has been steadily reversing many of her predecessor’s policies, as Sophie Neiman reported for WPR earlier this month.

Southern Africa

South Africa: The country could soon host the continent’s first vaccine technology transfer hub, as the World Health Organization looks to boost Africa’s vaccine manufacturing capacity. The WHO is developing the hub to be able to produce vaccines that leverage new mRNA technology, like the COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, at an industrial scale, while also providing training and licenses to other interested manufacturers.The WHO coordinated the hub in response to ongoing COVID-19 vaccine shortages on the continent, though it is not expected to start manufacturing until next year. Fewer than 1.5 percent of the 2.71 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses administered globally have been given in Africa.

West Africa

Cote d’Ivoire: A criminal court sentenced former Prime Minister Guillaume Soro to life in prison in absentia on charges of plotting to overthrow the government. The accusations stem from his aborted run in last year’s presidential election, with the government accusing Soro and 19 of his supporters of organizing a coup rather than an election campaign. Soro was eventually barred by the Constitutional Court from running because of an unrelated conviction for embezzlement in a race that saw President Alassane Ouattara ultimately claim a controversial third term. A former rebel leader, Soro became a close political ally of Ouattara until they fell out over the prime minister’s presidential ambitions. Soro, who now lives in exile in France, has denied all of the charges against him and denounced the latest conviction on Twitter as being “dictated only by political considerations.” The criminal court also ordered the dissolution of his political movement and sentenced several other defendants, including two of Soro’s brothers, to lengthy jail terms.

North Africa

Libya: The country’s interim government recommitted to holding December elections at a conference in Berlin on Wednesday, even as global powers, including the United States,called for an October 2020 cease-fire agreement to be fully implemented and all foreign troops withdrawn from the country. The U.N. and Germany organized the conference of 17 countries to discuss the situation in Libya. An estimated 20,000 foreign fighters are still stationed in the country, following a domestic conflict between the U.N.-backed Government of National Accord and forces led by Gen. Khalifa Haftar that turned into a regional proxy war. A senior U.S. official told the Associated Press that Russia and Turkey, who were on opposing sides of that conflict, tentatively agreed at the conference to begin removing foreign fighters.

Libyan Foreign Minister Najla Mangoush also confirmed that the transitional government that was installed in March is working to realize federal elections later this year, as called for in the cease-fire. But even if free and fair elections are conducted, which is far from guaranteed, treating them “as a panacea in a country that has known nothing but zero-sum politics since 2011 risks not only dashed expectations but also military escalation,” Mary Fitzgerald explained in a May WPR briefing.

Central Africa

Gabon: The government received an initial allocation of $17 million from the Central African Forest Initiative for cutting carbon emissions by reducing deforestation and degradation, the Environment Ministry confirmed Tuesday, making it the first African country to collect money from the fund. The initiative, which is run by the United Nations with backing from international donors, has promised to pay out $150 million over 10 years to Gabon if it can meet a series of targets for reducing carbon emissions. Gabon is home to 18 percent of the Congo Basin forest, which has been called the world’s “second lung” after the Amazon. The Environment Ministry said the first round of funding would be used to support local forestry projects.

Top Reads From Around the Web

Young, Qualified and Barely Scraping By: Unemployment is rampant in Nigeria, where an estimated 23 million people—or 33 percent of the working-age population who are actively seeking jobs—are out of work. People under 35 are particularly hard hit, with at least half of those looking for work either unemployed or underemployed. And young university graduates are finding that a degree, even an advanced degree in a technical subject, is no guarantee of a job. “We have a situation where the middle class and educated class are struggling to find work,” economist Tokunbo Afikuyomi told The Guardian’s Emmanuel Akinwotu. In response, the government is launching mass job programs, but Afikuyomi warns that many of the positions are short term and won’t solve the unemployment crisis.

Newly Sanctified Tunisian Cemetery for Migrants Filling Fast: On June 9, Rachid Koraichi officially opened a cemetery in Zarzis, Tunisia, to bury people who died attempting the Mediterranean crossing to Europe. Already a third of the 600 graves are full. The bodies of the migrants often wash ashore in this coastal town, and residents have refused to bury them in local Muslim cemeteries. So Koraichi purchased the land for the cemetery and pays for each funeral. Koraichi has a personal connection to the plight of the migrants: His brother died attempting the crossing, and he said he felt a duty to bury the dead. “They died in the same waters, they died in the same sea and were taken by the same salt,” he told AP’s Mehdi El-Arem and Lori Hinnant.

Andrew Green is a freelance journalist based in Berlin. He writes regularly about health and human rights issues. You can view more of his work at www.theandrewgreen.com.

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