OPINION: Mozambique’s brutal Islamist insurgency has reached a tipping point, with last month's attack on the town of Palma in Cabo Delgado province leading to yet more bloodshed, a fresh wave of refugees and the evacuation of workers from the Afungi liquefied natural gas site.
For many observers, the three-and-a-half-year insurgency — which has complex roots — had been building up to an assault on the town.
Last year’s attack on Mocimboa da Praia port to the south is widely considered to have been a trial run for the 24 March assault on Palma.
Despite a 25-kilometre security cordon around Afungi — that also encompasses Palma — being patrolled by Mozambique’s elite forces, the well-armed insurgents managed to infiltrate the town and kill dozens of locals and foreign workers, prompting a humanitarian crisis.
Expatriate fatalities and the proximity of the attacks to Afungi where France's Total is building its $20 billion LNG complex, saw the insurgency become a top story globally — much to the chagrin of Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi and his ruling Frelimo party.
A well-placed contact in Maputo said the government was "surprised" by the Palma attack, highlighting “a level of disbelief and embarrassment” that the insurgency was now international news.
Also, Lionel Dyck, boss of mercenary group Dyck Advisory — which was providing air support for government forces — claimed Mozambican soldiers only began arriving in Palma on 28 March, leaving his men and local police to fight the insurgents and undertake search and rescue missions.
This listless response to the assault was backed up by a source familiar with events at Palma and Afungi who told Upstream on 1 April that a Mozambican government presence was “totally absent”, with Maputo “not perceiving (the attack) as a significant problem".
Even Nyusi remarked that the attack “was not greater than others", a statement for which he was criticised by Ossufo Momade, leader of Mozambique’s Renamo opposition movement.
Mozambique's defence and security forces claim they have secured Palma after “cleansing” it of insurgents and aim to create the conditions for a return of civilians and workers.
However, Total and its contractors will be scarred by the Palma attack and Maputo’s lack of urgency in dealing with the resulting crisis, so will be reluctant to return.
It has again been proven that Mozambique’s military cannot guarantee a safe and secure working environment, so Frelimo needs to swallow its pride and accept more help from overseas.
The government may be pressured to do so by investors, led by Total and US supermajor ExxonMobil, in the two planned but delayed LNG projects that are vital to Mozambique’s economic health after 2025.
The longer the president stalls on seeking further outside help, the worse the insurgency will become.
Exactly what form additional overseas help could take is unclear because the president does not want foreign troops (apart from non-state actors) on the ground and would not want to see northern Mozambique become an ungovernable region.
If the Mocimboa de Praia attack was a combat rehearsal for Palma, could the Palma attack preface an assault on a bigger target — potentially even Pemba?
Surely, this is something Nyusi and his stubborn Frelimo cohorts would be desperate to avoid.
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(This is an Upstream opinion article.)