By Abhishek Mishra
The Mozambique Channel, a waterway between Madagascar and East Africa and a key global shipping route that carries 30 percent of global tanker traffic, is slowly turning into the next major security hotspot in the Indian Ocean. Since October 2017, the humanitarian situation in the coastal town of Palma, Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique, has been alarmingly deteriorating, triggered by escalating Islamist armed insurgency.
What began as a local religious sect has now morphed into a violent Islamic insurgency, led by the jihadist group Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jama’a (ASJW), locally known as ‘Al Shabaab’. The group has continuously targeted Mozambican security establishments in response to years of grinding poverty, a deep sense of marginalization, and inequality among locals and elites. Although no consensus has evolved till now on the identity of these attackers, their motives are clear—to establish a counter-society ruled exclusively by the Islamic law (Sharia) and gain access to resources and power.
At first, the attacks took place at night, against small villages, but by 2019, they began to target small towns, army outposts, and eventually pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, more commonly known as ISIS). The latest spate of attack claimed dozens of lives and lasted for several days as the Islamist militants seized control of the town of Palma. It is still unclear whether the Mozambican public security forces have been able to gain back control of the town and restore order. The human costs of the insurgency have been troubling. According to US-based data collecting agency Armed Conflict Location & Event Data (ACLED), the violence in Mozambique has claimed the lives of 2,600 people, including civilians, and has displaced more than 700,000 people.
Increasingly, the insurgents are perpetrating attacks on maritime infrastructures on the Afungi peninsula, only miles from French energy giant Total’s operations which has invested US $20 billion in extracting liquified natural gas in Cabo Delgado. Total had already suspended its operations back in January this year, and any plans to remobilise the project has now been further suspended following the recent attacks. Even US’s ExxonMobil has delayed its final decision to invest in the construction of a US $30-billion liquified natural gas processing facility on the Afungi peninsula. The growing insecurity in the region has put on hold any further investments in mega gas projects and adjacent onshore infrastructure. In case the projects continue and are moved offshore, then there would be little job creation for locals.
Feeble regional and international response
The dramatic and sudden escalation of attacks in Mozambique has caught the international community off guard whose response has been lacklustre thus far. The crisis has come at a time when Mozambique is already reeling under debt distress and the coronavirus pandemic has hampered the delivery of food and vital supplies. President Filipe Nyusi has been reluctant to accept foreign military intervention and has attempted to downplay the siege of Palma, describing it as “not the biggest,” even though it has endangered one of Africa’s largest investment.
The response to the crisis by African Union (AU) and African regional economic communities (RECs) like the Southern African Development Community (SADC) has been hamstrung by various institutional paralysis and has been limited to organising summit meetings. Even though the AU had first acknowledged the crisis back in February 2020 and announced its willingness to support Mozambique, it could not intervene ahead of SADC following the principle of subsidiarity that governs relations between the AU and African RECs.
However, since the crisis has the potential to spill over to neighbouring Tanzania and Malawi, and destabilise the entire South African region, the Presidents of Botswana, South Africa, and Zimbabwe have vowed to support Mozambique to ensure that non-state forces do not undermine the democratic credentials and peace in the region.
Even non-African intervention to help prevent violent extremism spreading in Southern Africa has been limited. The inaction on the part of SADC and AU has forced Mozambique to resort to international mercenary companies, like the Russian Wagner group and South Africa’s Dyck Advisory Group. Portugal and United States have agreed to send training missions to help Mozambican security personnel with the counterinsurgency efforts. American military advisors have been stationed in Mozambique since last month, following the US government’s decision to designate the group, which it calls ISIS-Mozambique, as belonging to a Foreign Terrorist Organisation. European powers like France and Spain have also offered military assistance. France has traditionally been a leading security provider in the southwest Indian Ocean and has ample capabilities to assist with surveillance in the Mozambique channel.
The amphibious nature of the conflict has necessitated either the SADC or foreign navies to deploy naval vessels to protect internally displaced people and protect coastal shipping delivering humanitarian aid. Without a concerted maritime strategy to deal with the insurgents, there is a real possibility of the conflict being protracted. Northern Mozambique could very possibly become a platform for furthering the aims of criminal networks across the region, including piracy. The ASJW has steadily been increasing its maritime operational capabilities to wage violence on land. Therefore, Timothy Walker of the Institute for Security Studies has argued in favour of incorporating a maritime strategy into the ongoing counterinsurgency efforts because “an amphibious capability could deny Al-Sunnah further revenue and intelligence opportunities.”
This is where India, who is a resident power in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) can assist in Mozambique’s counterinsurgency efforts.
Mozambique Channel’s centrality to India
Despite serving as a key transit and trading hub linking the Indian Ocean to the world, the Mozambique channel has often been overlooked as a global maritime chokepoint. Major powers like the US have historically been reluctant to acknowledge the Mozambique Channel’s significance to global commerce, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal back in 1869. However, the Mozambique Channel is no longer an afterthought following the recent discovery of 100 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas in the Rovuma basin and huge coal reserves.
India and South Africa are two prominent regional actors that considers the Mozambique Channel as a key maritime choke point in the IOR. India’s 2015 Maritime Security Strategy identifies the Mozambique Channel as one of India’s primary areas of maritime interest. While India’s trade with littoral countries through the channel has been limited, India has maintained a consistent security presence in the region. Indian Naval ships have provided security when Maputo held the AU and World Economic Forum summits in 2003 and 2004, respectively. In March 2020, the Indian and French Navy conducted joint patrol off Réunion island with a P-8I Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft with French naval personnel onboard. India is also in the process of constructing an air and naval facility on Mauritius’ Agalega island, near the Mozambique Channel, in addition to its monitoring station in Madagascar. India is also integrating Mauritius and Seychelles into its coastal radar chain network which will help to improve India’s strategic foothold and maritime domain awareness capabilities in the Western Indian Ocean region.
Apart from South Africa, Mozambique is the only second African country with whom India enjoys a strategic partnership. Mozambique has sought cooperation from India to deal with the growing menace of terrorism and radicalisation, to which India has responded favourably. Shri Rajnath Singh’s visit to Maputo in 2019 was a historic first-ever visit by an Indian defence minister during which an MoU on sharing of white shipping information was signed. India also gifted two Indian-made Fast Interceptor Boats (FIBs) and 44 Sports Utility Vehicles (SUVs).
While these gifts and growing defence cooperation has been a welcome development, the current crisis in Mozambique requires India to play a more proactive role. There are already reports of insurgents hijacking vessels off the coast of Palma. The insurgents have successfully incorporated a maritime strategy of ‘island hopping’ which provides the insurgents with various strategic advantages including freedom of movement, and tactical support for long-term group survival.
If the Indian Navy wants to consolidate its role as a net security provider, it must leverage its intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities in the region to track stolen vessels and identify any patterns to these island attacks. India must do its bit to prevent the Mozambique Channel from turning into the next security hotspot in the Indian Ocean.
The views expressed above belong to the author.