By Liesl Louw-Vaudran*
In early August, citizens of Mozambican towns along the main routes to northernmost Cabo Delgado province witnessed military convoys that many had not seen in their lifetime.
First Rwandans, then troops from three of the five countries making up the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) – Botswana, South Africa and Lesotho – travelled to the conflict-ridden province to join the fight against violent extremists. Civilians were seen on video cheering on the African forces coming to help combat the insurgency that has killed up to 3 000 and displaced more than 800 000.
The SAMIM, which also includes Angolan and Tanzanian troops, arrived four months after SADC’s April decision to send them – quite speedily compared to similar deployments. The action prevented the risk of non-African solutions in the Southern African region where lucrative natural resources prompted fears of what some called the ‘Iraqification of Mozambique.’
However, while the mission was mobilised relatively quickly and with considerable resources, SADC’s arrival came a few weeks after Rwanda had deployed 1 000 troops and police at the invitation of Mozambique’s government. The move wasn’t coordinated through SADC or the African Union (AU). Its timing, ahead of SADC’s arrival, was described as ‘unfortunate’ by Dr Stergomena Tax, SADC’s outgoing executive secretary.
As the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) prepares to discuss the relationship between regional economic communities (RECs) and the AU on 26 August, it should consider the Mozambique situation. The current Mozambique intervention should prompt the PSC to look at ways to better coordinate conflict responses. Mozambique and Rwanda didn’t coordinate their actions with SADC, and the regional body also failed to consult with the AU.
There’s been no formal cooperation or help from the AU’s Peace Support Operations division to SAMIM, say AU sources. However, Tax confirmed to the Institute for Security Studies’ PSC Report that SADC had informed the AU, even though her organisation wasn’t legally obliged to do so.
Significantly, there has also to date been no PSC discussion about the current situation in Mozambique. The issue was tabled for talks in May, but was later withdrawn at Mozambique’s insistence that this was a SADC matter. Sources indicate such a debate might take place in the next few months.
The AU’s African Standby Force (ASF) is coordinated from Addis Ababa, and logically the regional standby forces should rely on AU Commission support and convening power. However, questions have been asked for some time about the ASF’s role in dealing with fast-changing and complex situations.
Increasingly, AU officials call for ad hoc assistance from African countries to solve crises on the continent, especially violent extremism as seen in Mozambique. Deployments against al-Shabaab in Somalia (the AU Mission in Somalia), Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin (the Multinational Joint Task Force) and jihadis in the Sahel (G5-Sahel) weren’t conducted by RECs. This was because United Nations involvement was needed, or countries responding to the threat were from different RECs.
Such arrangements play a key early response role while RECs reach consensus on deployment. They are a stopgap to be encouraged if it serves the continental peace and security goal.
AU Commission Chairperson Moussa Faki Mahamat and other officials recently asked African countries outside the Sahel to help combat terrorism, but there was little uptake. The African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises was another example of calls for voluntary contributions to fight threats across regional boundaries. The initiative failed, not due to a lack of volunteers but to states’ resistance to foreign intervention, albeit from other African countries.
Lately, ad hoc deployments from countries such as Rwanda seem to be a favoured solution. Before Mozambique, Rwanda also intervened in the Central African Republic to stall the advance of rebels to the capital Bangui. This was not part of any AU or regional force. Some saw it as a propaganda coup for Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who wishes to project himself as the leader of one of Africa’s military big powers.
It is in SADC’s interests to ensure long-term peace and stability in Southern Africa. This means helping Mozambique ensure security – long after Rwanda has left – and commit to a holistic plan for Cabo Delgado that addresses the humanitarian crisis.
SADC’s actions show it is conscious of the economic imperatives of restoring peace to the area. After several summit meetings during 2020 and early 2021, the decision to deploy the standby force was prompted by a deadly attack on Palma in March this year. This led to the suspension of a multimillion-dollar investment by French company Total Energy, the main investor in liquid natural gas in Cabo Delgado.
So far, Rwandan assistance has been successful, at least in short-term gains. Several towns have been retaken from the insurgents, notably the harbour town of Mocímboa da Praia, which was occupied by insurgents for a year.
Rwanda says it is intervening to ensure ‘African solutions’ and has denied rumours that its action is being financed by either Total Energy or the French government. The AU’s Mahamat welcomed the intervention on Twitter, stating this was ‘a concrete act of African solidarity.’ This endorsement supported Rwanda’s claim that the AU sanctioned its mission.
Whatever the case, the issue shows that continental discussions and coordination around conflict intervention are more urgently needed than ever. Rwanda’s deployment should have been the subject of formal talks and transparent agreements among SADC, Rwanda, Mozambique and preferably the AU.
The AU remains the only continental body that can convene and mediate such discussions. With its vast experience and insight into events on the continent, the AU can also persuade states to draw up workable plans to overcome the threat of long-term violent extremism.
*About the author: Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Senior Researcher and Project Leader, Southern Africa, ISS Pretoria