The terrorism in the Cabo Delgado province of Mozambique is escalating and is something to be watched closely. While the present violence is far from our borders, a serious threat to the stability of Mozambique would impact on South Africa.
An unstable neighbour is never good news; we import gas from Mozambique and will in due course be importing from the gas fields of Cabo Delgado; we need Maputo port; and a stable, prosperous neighbour will be a lucrative export market for our manufacturing industries.
So we need to monitor the violence in Cabo Delgado closely: Any sign of major escalation or of expansion south would have negative implications for us. Then would come the question of what, if anything, to do about it. That is something that needs to be considered now, so that we can move with reasonable alacrity should it become necessary to take action.
The first issue must be to decide the nature of the problem, because that will to a large extent determine what South Africa could or should do to assist and support our neighbour.
There seem to be four possibilities. This could be:
• An insurgency with substantive if not yet substantial support among the local people, bearing in mind that most insurgencies employ terrorism to establish themselves before turning to guerrilla operations.
• Given the amount of killing, the brutality, the seemingly random nature of attacks, and the more recent suggestion of a tactic/strategy of driving people from the rural areas into towns, it does not seem to be an insurgency with any substantive support among the local population. That does not, however, preclude this being a Stage 1 effort to initiate insurgency, albeit ineptly. So it is necessary to develop a proper picture of local issues and grievances and government measures to address them.
• Politico-religious terrorism based on hatred or contempt for others, as has been the case with the Islamic State, or simply for the joy of it, as was the case with many of the terrorist groups in Europe, even if they did pretend to political goals.
• The nature of the attacks so far does suggest that this might be the case. However, it could also be a campaign to seize control of the province or parts of it by instilling sufficient fear to eliminate any opposition among the people. That would be in line with the strategy and tactics used by Boko Haram, extremist Islamist groups in the Sahel and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Non-state groups can gain control of an area by fear and, if they can demonstrate that the government cannot stop them killing, they can even win a later election on the basis that only their victory at the polls will end the killing.
• A foreign sponsored or at least supported guerrilla (in the sense of ‘small war’) such as that conducted by Indonesia in Malaysia during ‘Konfrontasi’, by the former Rhodesia in Mozambique (Renamo), by South Africa in Angola (Unita), Mozambique (Renamo) and Lesotho (Lesotho Liberation Army), by Sudan against Uganda (Lord’s Resistance Army, Allied Democratic Forces), by Uganda against Sudan (Sudan People’s Liberation Army), by Uganda and Rwanda using rebels in the then Zaire, and by Russia in the east of Ukraine.
• This seems unlikely: None of Mozambique’s neighbours would stand to benefit by the country becoming unstable; on the contrary, it would be in all their interests for Mozambique to be stable and prosperous. On the other hand, it is conceivable – but unlikely – that a country that could stand to lose if Mozambique becomes a major gas exporter, might seek to disrupt or at least delay the development of that industry by destabilising the surrounding area.
• Actions by criminal groups to establish de facto control of an area, as was done by the narco-terrorists in Colombia and is being done by narcotics groups in Mexico.
• Given the amount of smuggling taking place along the Indian Ocean seaboard of Africa – narcotics in, rhino horn and minerals etc out – it is conceivable that this violence is being perpetrated by criminal interests with the aim of gaining de facto control of the area for their purposes.
• It could also be a mix of two or more of the above. Many insurgent and terrorist groups have in the past made use of criminal groups or even made common cause with them; and many criminals have cooperated with guerrillas or terrorists in their own interests. Much of the smuggling and terrorism in the Sahel seems to include such cooperation, as does much of the violence in the DRC. What is happening in the Cabo Delgado province may well be a toxic combination of politico/religious terrorism and criminality, and quite possibly a case of the former being harnessed to the interests of the latter.
What are the implications for South Africa?
If analysis shows that this in fact a real insurgency or has the potential to become one, South Africa will do well to avoid becoming directly involved. The record of foreign forces against local insurgents is not one to encourage military involvement.
However, Mozambique is an immediate neighbour, so doing nothing may not be a good option: An unstable Mozambique would be bad news for South Africa. Containment would be the first option, coupled with diplomatic efforts to bring the parties to some political settlement. Failing a settlement, we might have to consider arms-length support – logistic, training and COMINT (communications intelligence) support and, if the insurgency is supplied by sea, interdiction patrols off the coast. Tanzania would also have to step up to the table to prevent resupply through its territory or through the Ruvuma River mouth.
If analysis shows the violence in Cabo Delgado being one of the other, more likely, situations, South Africa could do well to become engaged and should do so early. Dithering will only allow the violence to escalate and become a long-term problem for the sub-region. The options could include aerial reconnaissance, air transport, COMINT and perhaps Special Forces teams and close air support if that proves necessary, as well as training where that may be required and logistic support. The deployment of combat troops other than Special Forces would even in this case only be a last resort. Again, Tanzania will have to step up to the table and at least try to close its border to illegal movement, and Malawi would do well to deploy forces along its border with Mozambique to counter spill-over.
The fundamental consideration that should govern our thinking and finally our decision is well set out by two African leaders: Former Mozambique intelligence head Sergio Vieira made the point that “paupers make bad neighbours”; and former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa made the more direct point that “if your neighbour is not stable, you cannot be stable for long; if your neighbour collapses, the fallout will not respect the boundary between you”. We will do well to heed those warnings.