Questions arise over SA’s arms supplies to Mozambique as violence spikes in Cabo Delgado

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South Africa’s supply of weapons and training to Mozambique is under scrutiny as violence increases in Cabo Delgado and the United Nations reports targeted attacks against civilians in Palma.

The insurgency in Mozambique began in 2017 and since then has killed thousands and displaced more than half a million. The Mozambican authorities have turned to South African private companies to assist with security, while the United States and Portugal have agreed to provide limited training.

Since April 2020, Dyck Advisory Group (DAG) has been assisting the Mozambican police, and using light helicopters helped rescue many people from besieged Palma over the weekend. However, Amnesty International has accused it of indiscriminate attacks against civilians and its contract with Mozambique expires on 6 April.

Paramount Group is supplying a number of Marauder armoured personnel carriers to Mozambique as well as refurbished Mi-17 and Mi-24 helicopters and pilot training.

With regard to the weapons from South Africa being authorised by the South African government and Pretoria looking the other way regarding private military contractors, according to Khadija Sharife, Senior Editor for Africa at the non-profit Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, “unless a country is flagged by way of sanctions or other issues, arms trading is a largely private affair”.

Sharife said that “South Africa approved over half a billion rand in weapons exports to Mozambique during 2020. The conflict in Cabo Delgado justifies the export as it does in many other countries where a sovereign government can claim they are under duress from non-governmental armed forces”. That, in her view, is “an old trick”.

She is not the only one who worries about the role that arms flows are playing in what can only be described as a rapidly deteriorating situation. Amnesty International’s newest report, released in March of this year, is focused on Mozambique. The global NGO, based in London, says that its researchers have found war crimes committed by three key actors: armed groups, government forces, and private military contractors. Their independent study lays out to the world some of the key facts, including hundreds of people killed as conflict continues to rage in Cabo Delgado; indiscriminate attacks carried out by Dyck Advisory Group; and more than half-a-million civilians displaced to date.

According to Brian Castner, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Advisor, “We have no evidence that SA has licensed DAG for operations in Mozambique. This is why one of the recommendations in the report is for SA to investigate whether DAG is complying with the Foreign Military Assistance Act.”

Castner pointed out that “Paramount is active in Mozambique, providing armoured vehicles and helicopters to the army. There may be others, but this was not an object of our research.” He added that Amnesty doesn’t have specific evidence of specific South African weapons systems provided to the Mozambique government.

According to Dewa Mavhinga, Southern Africa Director at Human Rights Watch, his organization “is aware that officially, South African authorities announced last year that they are providing weaponry to Mozambique to help end the insurgency in Cabo Delgado province. However, they did not provide further details. Having documented allegations of serious human rights abuses in Cabo Delgado by both the insurgents and Mozambique security forces, including killings, kidnappings, ill treatment of detainees and arbitrary detentions which are happening with impunity, we urge the SA authorities to ensure that their support will not result in further abuses.”

Mavhinga said that SA should “seriously consider” coordinating within the Southern African Development Community (SADC) to help ensure technical, training, and capacity support to Mozambican security forces to ensure they respect the rights of civilians and prohibit summary, extrajudicial, or arbitrary executions, and torture and other ill-treatment of people in Cabo Delgado. According to Mavhinga, support to Mozambique “should consider the need to protect civilians and prevent abuses and barbaric criminal acts.”

The South African National Defence Force does not appear to be involved in the conflict as Mozambique appears reluctant to call in international assistance, although this month the United States began a two-month training course for Mozambican forces, and Portugal has announced it will send 60 soldiers to Mozambique. Portugal has in the past provided security assistance (including equipment such as FTB-337 aircraft) to Mozambique. The South African Air Force did send a C-130 Hercules transport to Mozambique this week, but that was to repatriate South African citizens. The SANDF’s Operation Copper anti-piracy deployment remains restricted to warship patrols in the Mozambique Channel.

Last month International Relations and Cooperation Minister Naledi Pandor said South Africa had offered to assist Mozambique fight the insurgency but the Mozambicans have not been very forthcoming. “And we said, we are ready to [assist], but we must know, [play] a key role in what?” she said, repeating an earlier complaint that the Mozambican government had not yet indicated concretely what it needed.

“What do they need? You know, do they need helicopters? Do they need, you know, vessels on the sea? Do they need training? It’s a puzzle for us. Why they don’t actually tell us what it is they need,” she said in mid-February.

A weekend Department of International Relations and Cooperation statement had it that the South African mission in Maputo was going to be “reinforced with additional staff to handle the work of locating, identifying and responding to the respective needs of the affected”.

Darren Olivier, African Defence Review (ADR) director, notes the SANDF is capable of intervention, as was shown in its surge after the Battle of Bangui, but lacks sufficient budget to sustain one without additional funding from national budgets.

Meanwhile, fighting continues in Cabo Delgado, with the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) on 30 March saying dozens of people were killed by insurgents in Palma at the weekend.

“The violence has not stopped. What happened in Palma is an absolute horror inflicted on civilians by a non-State armed group,” the OCHA’s Jens Laerke said.

“They have done horrific things, they are still doing so, we reported continued sporadic clashes and are talking about expectations of thousands moving from the Palma district to other areas of the country and toward the Tanzanian border.”