As SADC prepares to send troops to Mozambique, experts warn of potential pitfalls

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Troops from Southern African Development Community are seen in the Northern Cape as part of a military exercise.
Troops from Southern African Development Community are seen in the Northern Cape as part of a military exercise.
(Photo by Foto24/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
  • The Southern African Development Community (SADC) meeting in Mozambique is expected to okay troop deployment in Cabo Delgado.
  • SADC is expected to assert itself against Portugal and US involvement in the insurgency. 
  • Experts warn the situation in Cabo Delgado could create difficulty for SADC troops.

Southern Africa's leaders are meeting in the Mozambican capital on Thursday to discuss the insurgency in the north of the country, which could spill over regional borders.

The meeting is expected to implement the recommendations of the technical fact-finding mission to Cabo Delgado, including the deployment of nearly 3 000 troops to quell the violence in the region.

President Cyril Ramaphosa will join President Mokgweetsi Masisi of Botswana, President Emmerson Mnangagwa of Zimbabwe and President Filipe Nyusi of Mozambique at the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Extraordinary Troika Summit.

The leaders last met at the end of April at a summit of SADC's organ on peace and security and heads of state following the attacks in the gas-hub of Palma, in which dozens were killed, including a South African man.

The March attack garnered international attention for the conflict in which 2 600 people have been killed since 2017.

READ | Ramaphosa's new SADC position gives SA platform to promote peace, free elections

When SADC meets, its intervention will have to contend with interest from Portugal, the United States, France and Rwanda.

Maintaining SADC control

"At the G7 meeting, I had the opportunity to meet France, the EU and the United States secretary of state and I made it clear to them that our view is SADC must lead on this matter," International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said.

"There appeared to be some agreement but I see there are some countries that are already entered into bilateral agreements with Mozambique but our view is that SADC should be the lead."

In the last month, Nyusi met with President Emmanuel Macron of France, while his Defence Minister Jaime Neto travelled to Lisbon to meet his Portuguese counterpart Joao Cravinho.

Portugal agreed to send 60 troops to bolster the already 60-member training mission that landed in Mozambique soon after the attacks.

The insurgents' alleged pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State led to a Foreign Terror Designation from the US, and made it part of a growing perceived terror threat on the continent.

Ramaphosa has held a bilateral meeting with President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, and will host Macron in Pretoria on Friday.

READ | Palma attacks: 'We left nobody behind' - Survivors decry lack of help as rescue mission questioned

Rwanda is reportedly assessing the possibility of sending troops to Mozambique, and renewed relations between Kagame and Macron point to the possibility of French support for such a move.

"What is fortunate is that all the countries that have been speaking to Mozambique have also been speaking to South Africa. So we've been able to say to Portugal, we think let's work in concert rather than finding ourselves tripping over each other should troops from SADC come in," Pandor said in an interview with News24 ahead of the summit.

Mobilising a SADC force

SADC would mobilise the standby force when they are deployed in Mozambique.

In a leaked report from the Southern African Development Community Double Troika Plus Angola Technical Assessment Mission, the deployment should see nearly 150 special forces members, who will "conduct targeted operations" and secure the coast of the Mozambican channel.

The report also called for equipment, including six helicopters, four transport aircraft, two maritime surveillance and two drones.

The April meeting marked a turning point in Mozambique's previous efforts to rebuff regional intervention. Observers around the region are calling for greater SADC intervention, and leaders are expected to follow suit. 

When Mnangagwa returned home after the last meeting, he told local press that the leaders had agreed to "the need to have SADC take responsibility in dealing with the threat in Cabo Delgado, in the sense that SADC, through its Force Intervention Brigade – our SADC force – should be resuscitated and capacitated immediately so that it can intervene".

But it could take up to six months for actual boots to get on the ground from a capable force, said Liesl Louw-Vaudran, senior research consultant at the Institute for Security Studies.

"There's going to have to be command control. There's going to have to be coordination. These are troops who don't speak the same language and don't speak the language on the ground. The SADC standby force exists on paper. They've had exercise but a lot needs to happen before they can start making an impact," Louw-Vaudran said.

READ | Mozambican conflict could spill into SA whose defence capabilities are 'extremely stressed' - Mapisa-Nqakula

South Africa may have to redeploy troops from the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, but troops from Angola and Zimbabwe may be sooner prepared to join the force.

The insurgency will need a regional force, but the conflict is not yet on the scale of the crisis in the Sahel, which has sucked in at least five African countries and thousands of troops from France, the EU and elsewhere.

Possible pitfalls

Still, there is a lesson from the West African conflict.

The northern Mozambican province is known for illicit trade, from human trafficking to logging, and this lawlessness could be exacerbated by an armed conflict.

"Cabo Delgado after all is just one province of Mozambique so it's probably more manageable, but there's always a danger that such a military intervention can actually aggravate the situation," Louw-Vaudran said.

"Such a force, if it gets involved in anything illegal because it can aggravate the cause for people to join extremist groups because then they feel that this intervention force is an occupying force, almost like you see in the Sahel, and it attracts extremists from across Africa."

The SADC force may have to be just as wary of the Mozambican troops, who were accused of abuses in the region, according to an Amnesty International report. Until now, Mozambique has been adamant that it will steer any intervention.

"Will Maputo just swing open the door and say welcome to Cabo Delgado? Highly unlikely. I can't see that happening. Mozambique is uncompromising in terms of its sovereignty," said Jasmine Opperman, Africa researcher at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED).

Opperman said she believed there will be no boots on the ground in Cabo Delgado unless command and control lie firmly with Nyusi's government.

"Then I want to caution SADC – take care because you are aligning and setting the soldiers up in a force that is not trusted by the people of Cabo Delgado," she warned.

News24's Africa Desk is supported by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. The stories produced through the Africa Desk and the opinions and statements that may be contained herein do not reflect those of the Hanns Seidel Foundation.

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