Mozambique is stepping up plans to formalise international help to combat the Islamist insurgency in gas-rich Cabo Delgado province, with Maputo considering offers of assistance from the US, the European Union and neighbours in the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC).

Sign up for our new energy transition newsletter

Gain valuable insight into the global oil and gas industry's energy transition from Accelerate, the new weekly newsletter from Upstream and Recharge. Sign up here.

President Filipe Nyusi, giving his annual state of the nation address to parliament on Wednesday, also highlighted how the insurgents are trying to recruit adherents in provinces outside Cabo Delgado, which will concern SADC states that border Mozambique.

The security situation will be of concern to oil and gas players as the country host's the Total-led Mozambique LNG development as well as ExxonMobil's planned Rovuma LNG project, among other huge gas schemes.

'We will be on the front line' - Nyusi

Nyusi said the offers of support from overseas must be managed carefully, stressing that Mozambicans need to develop their own skills.

“We will be on the front line of defending the country. Nobody will do it for us. We shall continue investing in the combat capacity of the defence and security forces, so that they can protect the entire country," he said.

The EU's head of diplomacy, Josep Borrell, said this week that Portugal’s Foreign Minister, Augusto Santos Silva, is set to travel to Mozambique this month as his envoy to discuss the Cabo Delgado situation.

Santos Silva told Lusa news agency: “The seriousness of the situation, which concerns not only Mozambique but the whole of East Africa and global security, is well understood by all and we are mobilising to support Mozambique.”

Sub-regional response in offing

Borrell said a team of security experts has been ready to travel to Mozambique since November, but was waiting on Maputo’s go-ahead.

Meanwhile, a meeting of SADC heads of state took place in Maputo this week, with a spokesman for Zimbabwe’s President Emmerson Mnangagwa saying that the community “is fast moving towards a sub-regional response against [the Islamist] insurgency".

Zimbabwe’s Ministry of Defence said Harare will contribute troops and equipment to an SADC brigade once the leaders sanctioned the intervention, according to Kenya-based newspaper the East African.

“Intervention in that conflict will be done within the framework of the SADC brigade,” said the ministry, although reports suggest Zimbabwean special forces are already operating in Mozambique to protect infrastructure.

Malawi is also ready to contribute troops, reported the Nyasa Times, citing President Lazarus Chakwera.

Leader summit planned

The SADC has scheduled for a heads of state summit for January to analyse the situation in Cabo Delgado.

Nyusi, while declining to talk publicly about strategies the country should adopt, said veterans of Mozambique’s liberation war are working with armed forces in Cabo Delgado, highlighting their involvement in “cleaning up” the Awasse area in Mocimboa da Praia.

He declined to mention the involvement of private military contractors (PMC) in countering the insurgency, with reports stating South African PMC’s Dyck Advisory Group — said to be working with the police and not the armed forces — and Paramount are active in Mozambique, having supplanted Russia’s Wagner Group.

A report published this week by CIP, a Maputo-based civil society group, recommended the government “reconsider” resorting to the services of PMCs because they appear to have had little success in holding back the insurgents.

'Enormous losses'

CIP also bemoaned the government’s lack of openness about the Cabo Delgado situation in general and troop losses, in particular.

“The insurgents are causing enormous losses in the Mozambican armed forces,” said CIP, highlighting its discovery that a recent ambush cost the lives of at least 29 special operations personnel.

It said the ambush took place on 29 November in Muidumbe district and, “as usual, the government gave no information about the deaths".

Nyusi revealed that, although the Cabo Delgado insurgency started in earnest in late 2017, it actually dates to 2012 when, he said, a group of “extremists” led by a Tanzanian citizen incited disobedience against Mozambique’s constitution, and told followers to send their children to madrassas.

Regional fighters

“The government of Mozambique already knew (of the Islamists) in 2012 and managed to contain their expansion until 2017.”

Sign up for our new energy transition newsletter

Gain valuable insight into the global oil and gas industry's energy transition from Accelerate, the new weekly newsletter from Upstream and Recharge. Sign up here

Since then, he told parliament that among the insurgents killed or captured are Tanzanians, Congolese, Ugandans, Somalis and Kenyans, pointing out the terrorist leadership is mostly foreign with funding from looting, electronic money transfers and organised crime.

Discussing the Islamist movement, the AIM news agency cited him as saying they are recruited not only in Cabo Delgado, but also in Nampula, Zambezia and Niassa provinces.

According to ACLED, an organisation that monitors violence in Mozambique through its Cabo Legado project, said insurgents “dramatically” increased their use of deadly violence last month during their ongoing occupation of large swathes of Muidumbe district in Cabo Delgado.

ACLED also reported that, for the first time, local militias joined police in Mueda town — a key base for government forces — in an offensive against the insurgents, with the local population in Palma, close to the Afungi gas complex, has been issued with arms since at least September.

In addition, the organisation remarked that “the warning signs are there” that child soldiers could soon be used in the conflict, some having been trained in the port of Mocimboa da Praia.

The official count of people displaced by the insurgency has now surpassed 560,000, while deaths have totalled more than 2400.

Nyusi also told parliamentarians that military operations are underway in Manica and Sofala provinces against the Renamo Military Junta, whose members have refused to enter talks with Maputo and have been disavowed by the Renamo movement with whom a peace deal was struck in 2019.

“There is nothing we can do but launch vigorous operations against this enemy — that’s what’s happening right now,” he said.