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Mozambique jihadist insurgency rocks regional stability

AFP logo AFP 4/8/2021 AFP
a building with a mountain in the background: Analysts fear the unrest could push international energy companies to fully abandon the Afungi gas site © Grant Lee Neuenburg Analysts fear the unrest could push international energy companies to fully abandon the Afungi gas site

The violent escalation of an insurgency in northern Mozambique last month has whipped up fresh concerns about security in southern Africa, a region that has enjoyed relative stability in recent decades.

Map of Mozambique locating the province of Cabo Delgado and the town of Palma. © Kun TIAN Map of Mozambique locating the province of Cabo Delgado and the town of Palma.

Islamic State-linked militants raided the coastal town of Palma on March 24, forcing thousands of residents to flee to the surrounding forest and pushing France's Total to desert a nearby multi-billion-dollar gas project.

The deftly-planned assault marked a major intensification in an insurgency that has wreaked havoc across Cabo Delgado province for over three years as the jihadists seek to establish a caliphate.

The 16-member Southern African Development Community (SADC) has denounced the attacks as an "affront" to the peace and security of Mozambique, the region and the international community. 

a person is walking down the street: Mozambique's authorities have insisted that Palma is now fully in government hands -- a claim widely disputed by analysts and sources on the ground © JOHN WESSELS Mozambique's authorities have insisted that Palma is now fully in government hands -- a claim widely disputed by analysts and sources on the ground

Six of the regional leaders will meet on Thursday for emergency talks in Mozambique's capital Maputo on the deteriorating security situation.

Analysts say the stability of the wider region is at stake, as well as the spin-offs of a liquified natural gas (LNG) project on the Afungi peninsula -- the biggest single investment in Africa, led by Total.

a group of people sitting on a bed: In Northern Mozambique, hundreds of internally displaced people find shelter in a sports centre in Pemba, more than a week after jihadists staged a deadly raid on the northern Mozambican town of Palma. Many arrived at the shelter after hiding for days from the attackers. © Alfredo ZUNIGA In Northern Mozambique, hundreds of internally displaced people find shelter in a sports centre in Pemba, more than a week after jihadists staged a deadly raid on the northern Mozambican town of Palma. Many arrived at the shelter after hiding for days from the attackers.

"The hope is that Mozambique will open its doors to some practical assistance... as part of an integrated strategy," said Crisis Group analyst Piers Pigou, noting that the country had so far only sought ad-hoc help from other SADC members on a bilateral basis.

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Convincing President Filipe Nyusi to stop playing "sovereignty politics" and cooperate with the bloc would be key to thwarting the insurgency, Pigou said.

"The question is whether it can be nipped in the bud at this juncture without spreading further," he added.

- 'On our doorstep' -

While Mozambique's jihadists have so far remained relatively contained, their 2018 allegiance to the Islamic State group has raised fears of a more expansive agenda and more sophisticated tactics.

Mozambican civil society activist Adriano Nuvunga said the fallout of a worsening of the situation could be momentous. 

"If Mozambique was to collapse, it could be used by all sorts of groups as a transit point to affect the region," he warned.

The southeast African country, which stretches along the Indian Ocean, shares borders with Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.

"The borders with Mozambique are huge and not easy to manage," said Tanzanian independent analyst Kennedy Mmari, warning that the insurgency could "accelerate" extremism in his country.   

Mozambique's jihadists have already targeted parts of southern Tanzania, including a deadly raid on the city of Mtwara last October.

"It's on our doorstep," said South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies researcher Liesl Louw-Vaudran.

"It would be a huge issue if there was a growing insurgency in southern Africa, where we haven't really seen any violent extremism," she said.

The most vulnerable countries are those adjacent to Cabo Delgado, Louw-Vaudran said, including Malawi and Zimbabwe.

But she noted the risk of territorial expansion remained "quite limited" for the time being, as the jihadists seemed more prone to spreading further into Mozambique than crossing borders.

- Gas at stake -

Security concerns are compounded by the insurgency's proximity to the LNG project, originally scheduled to go on stream in 2024, before the Palma attack.

These "world class gas reserves" were meant to turn Mozambique into an "energy giant" in a region seeking to boost and diversify its energy supply, Nuvunga said.

Analysts fear the unrest could push the international energy companies to fully abandon the LNG site, and deter future investments in the area.

"The region could have benefitted from this gas... but that ship has now sailed," said Louw-Vaudran, referring to opportunities that had opened up for support businesses.

Trade corridors are also at threat.

Analysts pointed to the corridor linking landlocked Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe to Mozambique's Beira port, and the Cahora Bassa hydroelectric dam -- the largest in southern Africa -- located in northwestern Mozambique.

"People fear that if the insurgency is not tackled and gains capacity, it can hijack resource development in the region," Nuvunga said.

Thursday's summit comes as Mozambique's authorities have insisted that Palma is now fully in government hands -- a claim widely disputed by analysts and sources on the ground.

"They are far from being in control," said Pigou.

"Whether (the SADC) has the deftness to navigate that space and get some progress remains to be seen."

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