Feature: SADC’s withdrawal from Mozambique – has SAMIM fulfilled its mandate?

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Having been deployed to Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado province for just under three years, 5 April 2024 marked the beginning of the Southern African Development Community’s (SADC’s) official withdrawal of its mission in Mozambique (SAMIM). The presence of SADC troops in the region marked a delayed yet urgently needed response to increasing acts of terrorism in the province. Yet, despite ground operations in Cabo Delgado since July 2021, the SADC’s swift withdrawal leaves a number of questions behind. Most notably, did SAMIM achieve what it set out to do in Mozambique.

Pre-deployment considerations

Prior to the SADC’s deployment in Mozambique, several questions were raised as to how and what role the organisation should take in addressing acts of terrorism in Cabo Delgado. Among the questions raised was what kind of response would be required to counter the insurgency in Mozambique. This had evidently been considered two months before the SADC authorised the deployment, with a report by the Chief of Staff of the SADC Standby Brigade, Brigadier Michael Mukokomani.

The report recommended a concrete deployment to Mozambique with five objectives. The report’s recommendations were ultimately transformed into six objectives under the finalised SAMIM mandate: supporting Mozambique to combat acts of terrorism and violent extremism by neutralising the threat and restoring security; support Mozambique to strengthen peace and maintain security; support the restoration of law and order in Cabo Delgado; provide air and maritime support to enhance FADM operational capabilities; provide logistics and training to the FADM to combat terrorism; and provide support to Mozambique to ensure humanitarian relief to affected populations.

On 23 June 2021, the SADC authorised the deployment of SAMIM for an initial period of three months and a budget of EUR 10 million was drawn up.

A Botswana Defence Force C-130 in Mozambique.

On 19 July 2021, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) and Botswana Defence Force deployed advanced teams to Pemba, reportedly to conduct intelligence and reconnaissance as well as prepare command and control. By 28 July, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa authorised the deployment of the SANDF in Mozambique, setting a ceiling of 1 495 personnel at a cost of EUR48 million, with special forces being the first to deploy. South Africa also deployed 43 brigade vehicles and the SAS Makhanda, a Warrior-class strike craft of the SA Navy to Pemba. Botswana deployed 296 troops together with armoured personnel carriers and other heavy equipment. Further reported deployments included 20 advisers and a transport aircraft (Ilyushin II-76) by Angola, 304 defence instructors from Zimbabwe, 125 personnel from the Lesotho Defence Force, and several hundred personnel from Tanzania. SAMIM officially launched operations on 9 August 2021 in the districts of Macomia, Muidumbe, and Nangade.

Has SAMIM achieved its Mandate in Cabo Delgado?

 Whether SAMIM has entirely achieved its mandate in Cabo Delgado remains uncertain. It is worth noting that while some of SAMIM’s objectives were military in nature, such as offensive operations against the insurgency, others included civilian and humanitarian efforts aimed at long-term stability.

SAMIM was instrumental in directly targeting Ansar al-Sunna, together with Mozambican military (FADM) and Rwandan troops. In August 2021, the port town of Mocímboa de Praia was retaken from the insurgents. By September 2021, SAMIM had captured four insurgent bases, neutralising some 20 insurgents and capturing several others. It had secured roads from Pemba to neighbouring areas and indicated that calm and stability had been restored to Mueda, Macomia and Nangade districts.

Later that month, SAMIM targeted another insurgency base where it recovered communication equipment and training manuals. In addition, it also targeted an insurgency base in Nangade district, neutralising a further 17 insurgents. On 24 October 2021, SAMIM launched a major operation, destroying three insurgent bases in Macomia. During 2022, SAMIM, together with the FADM, Rwandan forces and local militia were further able to push back the insurgency, reclaim territory and interrupt the insurgency’s activities and supplies.

According to the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies, despite an overall increase in deaths linked to militant Islamist violence across Africa, there was a 71% decrease in violence in Cabo Delgado during 2023. This decrease is directly attributed to SAMIM’s operations in the province. Reports indicate that the SADC was able to regain control over 90% of territory occupied by the insurgency. To the end that it should be mentioned, SAMIM has effectively contributed to the restoration of peace and security and the return of law and order in Cabo Delgado.

Insurgents in Mozambique.

While there is little doubt based on publicly available information that SAMIM has supported Mozambique to ‘combat acts of terrorism and violent extremism’, it is plainly clear that the threat is yet to be ‘neutralised’. Despite significant advances against the insurgency between 2021 and 2023, by January 2024 the situation had taken a turn. A few reports indicate that upon the SADC’s stated intention to withdraw from Mozambique, the insurgency had resumed offensive operations. Hundreds of civilians have been documented fleeing Southern Cabo Delgado into the province of Nampula. Insurgents have launched repeated coordinated attacks and, in some cases, having re-claimed control over territory. Some 13 Mozambican defence force members were killed in December and a further 20 in January when insurgents attacked a village in Macomia district.

ACLED reports indicate insurgent attacks in Mocímboa da Praia, Macomia, Metuge, Pemba and Mecúfi districts in January; three times higher than the month before. Twenty-one civilian fatalities were recorded, the highest such number in over a year. According to the most recent report of the UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team, regional States estimate the insurgency still has some ‘160 to 200 battle-hardened fighters’ in Cabo Delgado. One year prior, this number was estimated to have dropped from 2 500 fighters during the insurgency’s peak down to ‘280 adult male fighters’. Based on recent reports and the surge in attacks, the threat the insurgency poses in the province has not been neutralised. At least one objective of the SAMIM mandate is therefore yet to be fully achieved.

In September 2022, the SADC announced that the SAMIM deployment would shift from offensive operations under ASF scenario six, to scenario five, with a combined focus on military, civilian and police services. This suggests that the SADC’s evaluation of the situation in Cabo Delgado requires moving to a multidimensional approach and that conditions on the ground were adequate for the restoration of law and order (as opposed to purely offensive operations against the insurgency under ASF scenario six).

The fact that the situation in the province has taken a dramatic turn, with increased activity and offensives by the insurgency, legitimate questions remain as to whether SAMIM has in fact restored law and order. Recent reports suggest that even if law and order was in part restored, the situation may be reversing. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that between December 2023 and the first week of March 2024, some 112 000 people have become displaced within Cabo Delgado.

A further aspect of the SAMIM mandate concerned the overall objective of enhancing the capabilities of the FADM; enabling and equipping it to effectively counter the insurgency and other threats in future. A specific aspect of this included air and maritime support to the FADM. To date, it remains unclear to what extent SAMIM, and more specifically the SANDF, has provided this kind of support. It is worth recalling that the initial fact-finding mission and concept note on SAMIM’s deployment suggested the inclusion of at least one of South Africa’s submarines to patrol the Cabo Delgado coast, primarily for reconnaissance purposes.

Reports suggest that at least one vessel was deployed in the region. The South African Navy’s SAS Makhanda ‘warrior-class strike craft’ was reportedly deployed to Cabo Delgado in August of 2021. In August 2023, Tanzania also deployed patrols vessels to the region; although it remains unclear whether these deployments relate to the ongoing SAMIM mission or are part of anti-piracy and anti-criminal operations in the Mozambican channel.

Similar uncertainty surrounds the provision of air support; understandably operational details in this regard are not made publicly available. Yet, even with the possibility of these deployments in the province, it remains uncertain to what extent SAMIM has facilitated air and maritime support to enhance FADM operational capabilities.

FADM personnel training on Mako boats.

Whereas some success has been made in other mandate objectives, the position is entirely unclear on whether SAMIM has provided logistics and training to the FADM. Initially, as its main contribution to the deployment, Zimbabwe was meant to deploy some 300 trainers to Mozambique for purposes of FADM training. Reportedly, no such training had yet taken place. In August 2023, it was reported that 12 members of the FADM together with four SAMIM members were receiving training on boat handling skills (rigid hull inflatable boats) which were donated by the EU. No further information in this regard is available.

Beyond SAMIM’s training efforts, Mozambique has also engaged with both the EU and the US in training operations. The European Union Training Mission in Mozambique (EUTM) has been instrumental in this regard, with a budget of EUR 15 million, it aims to train eleven companies; five of those being the navy marines in Katembe and six of the army special forces in Chimoio. It will also equip the FADM with a Quick Reaction Force of some 1 100 soldiers.

While these efforts suggest progress has been made in increasing the capacity of the FADM, Mozambique does not seem convinced it is a long-term solution. The Government has instead turned to conscription to bolster the armed forces. In December 2023, seemingly in response to the continued unrest, Mozambique’s Parliament revised its conscription laws. The period of service was increased from two to five years, and six years for special forces. Despite this push, it has been noted that Mozambique’s military facilities are simply unable to uptake all conscripts; out of the thousands that will register for conscription, only a fraction will be conscripted.

With regard to internally displaced persons (IDPs), the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) reported, as of August 2023, the number of IDPs in Cabo Delgado decreased by 17%. The ECHO further noted that recent attacks by Ansar al-Sunna, have again triggered mass displacement. Moreover, several relief agencies have suspended humanitarian support in the province.

To this end, it remains clear that continued attacks by the insurgency will result in increased numbers of IDPs, in turn requiring increased humanitarian support. The situation in Cabo Delgado is therefore unlikely to improve in the short-term particularly considering SAMIM’s withdrawal. It will remain to be seen whether the FADM will effectively take SAMIM’s place in the province, both in terms of offensive operations to counter the insurgency but also provide much needed relief to affected communities.

Lack of preparedness and accusations of misconduct

Over the years of the deployment, several issues arose regarding equipment and the conduct of personnel. In December 2021, SANDF Special Forces Corporal Tebogo Radebe became the first special forces casualty since 1989, after passing from wounds sustained in an ambush in eastern Cabo Delgado. Shadow Minister of Defence Kobus Marais attributed his passing to the lack of air support available during the ambush. Marais had repeatedly warned that the SADC mission was improperly funded and lacked the appropriate assets needed.

In January 2023, a video emerged showing unidentified soldiers throwing a dead body on a fire, while an unknown SANDF soldier filmed the incident. Shortly after, a team was dispatched by SANDF to investigate the matter. However, to date, there has been no update regarding the incident; despite the fact that mutilation of the dead may constitute a war crime under international law.

Screengrab from the Mozambique body burning video.

With the end of SAMIM, it has been revealed that some of the equipment used has been earmarked for the upcoming SAMIDRC (SADC Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo), notably the 36 Casspirs armoured personnel carriers that were deployed. Recent reports state the dire conditions of the Casspirs, with only 3 of 36 in an operational condition.

Was SADC side-tracked by the DRC?

 Despite its (limited) progress in Cabo Delgado, the SADC’s decision to withdraw will likely come at a great cost. Not only is it evident that SAMIM has not entirely fulfilled its mandate, but its withdrawal has now shifted SADC’s attention to another conflict in the region.

On 15 December 2023, the SADC authorised the deployment of its SADC Mission in the DRC. This means that the SADC now has two concurrent deployments. The wisdom in such a decision is open to debate. On the one hand, the organisation has begun to pay more attention to pressing conflict situations in the sub-region. On the other hand, there are serious concerns that SADC is committing to something it cannot achieve.

Realistically, the organisation relies heaviest on South Africa for its military deployments. Both South Africa and the SADC have limited capacities, financially and logistically. These limitations have become evident in so far as the drawdown of SAMIM concerns. It is unlikely that South Africa or the SADC would be able to contribute meaningfully to two deployments at the same time; at least not without significant external financial support.

This risk the SADC runs in an early withdrawal from Mozambique and potentially unrealistic expectation in the DRC would concurrently leave and security vacuum in the former and potentially lethal consequences in the latter. Whereas SAMIM’s operations against Ansar al-Sunna were predicated on anti-terrorism with the support of the FADM and Rwandan troops, the conflict in the DRC is far larger in scale and more complex.

The most notable challenge will be SADC’s engagement with the notorious M23 rebel movement, which both the United States and France have said is supported directly by Rwanda. In addition, those familiar with the situation have noted that SAMIDRC is both ill-equipped and underfunded for such an operation. In addition, the deployment of SAMIDRC would seem to be undertaken at the expense of SAMIM; the regional block avoiding being overstretched.

Part of the Malawi advance contingent for SAMIDRC in DR Congo. Picture: SADC

Finally, it should also be noted that in both the SAMIM and SAMIDRC deployments, funding and logistic requirements are likely to directly impact mandate achievement. As the largest contributor of both troops and finances, the SADC relies almost entirely on South Africa at present. While still the regional powerhouse, South Africa’s challenges will no doubt impact on its contributions to the SADC. In 2024 alone, the SANDF budget for the financial periods 2025-2026 and 2026-2027 has seen a ‘decline in real terms’. South Africa’s defence spending is at 0.7% of its GDP, by far lower than the global average. The decline in the SADNF has also come with operational issues: it is unable to secure parts for many of its vehicles and maintenance of both naval and air assets has been described as critical. These challenges will no doubt reflect on South Africa’s contributions to overseas deployments. Continued financial neglect of the SANDF may ultimately see SADC without a reliable and capable partner in future.

Concluding Remarks

The SADC’s decision to deploy in Mozambique was welcomed even at a time when such a decision was considered delayed. Ironically, this same deployment is now to be withdrawn at a time considered premature. While SAMIM set out with a commendable and perhaps ambitious mandate, its initial operations effectively contributed to that mandate. The SADC was able to stop the spread and violence of Ansar al-Sunna, reverse its territorial gains, and engage directly against the group in offensive operations. It had, within a short time frame, set out to achieve its objectives of combatting terrorism in Cabo Delgado. Complimentarily, the SAMIM deployment was able to secure peace and stability across a number of districts in the province. In addition, and to a limited extent, SAMIM facilitated the return of law and order in these communities. The return of IDPs and to state structures and authorities within districts once most affected is testament to this.

Despite these commendable achievements, the rapid change in circumstances in Cabo Delgado now suggests much of SAMIM’s work may be reversed. If the insurgency is once again conducting various and scaled offensive operations, destroying state and private infrastructure, and increasing the number of IDPs, SAMIM’s continued presence in Cabo Delgado is warranted. Mozambique’s capacity to deal with the insurgency on its own remains questionable. While Rwandan troops continue their operations in the province alongside the FADM, there is a real concern that they will not be able to handle Ansar al-Sunna alone. SAMIM’s withdrawal at such a crucial time, in favour of the SADC’s DRC deployment, will only reverse its albeit limited achievements under its mandate.

Written by Marko Svicevic, Researcher and Lecturer, Centre for International Humanitarian and Operational Law, Palacký University in Olomouc, Czech Republic; and Ricardo Teixeira, Rise Mzansi Candidate for the National Assembly and defence and national security advocate.