The Southern African Development Community (SADC) is poised to intervene militarily on the side of the Mozambican government to stop the emerging deadly Islamist insurgency in the Cabo Delgado Province, in the north of the country.
This comes after the regional body of 16-nation states sent a technical team to verify events in the area and advise its heads of state forum on the way forward.
The technical team has recommended that SADC deploys a 3 000-strong robust intervention force comprised of land, air and naval assets to help quell the insurgency.
The decision to intervene militarily is a clear indicator that the deadly insurgency, which began in earnest in October 2017, has long passed the stage where it can be seen as a purely domestic problem to be addressed by Mozambique as a sovereign state.
Having failed to act to prevent the insurgency escalating, SADC and Mozambique are now in the difficult position of having to react after extensive damage has already been done. They will thus have to help stop the insurgency as well as embark on post-conflict rebuilding. These two responses are more complicated, expensive and more dangerous than prevention.
SADC’s late entry into the fray raises the need to deal with its own array of bureaucratic and other pitfalls that make it less than agile. Its overcautious and sluggish response has resulted in the loss of initiative and opportunities to prevent the insurgency escalating.
But, the problem is not purely of its own making. The African Union took too long to designate it as the preferred regional actor to address the Mozambican insurgency problem in a timely way.
Intervention in Cabo Delgado is a potentially dangerous move with far-reaching consequences for SADC if its efforts fail, or it becomes a protracted intervention.
The basis of intervention
The SADC response to events in Mozambique is in line with the United Nation’s “responsibility to protect principle” to prevent human catastrophe.
The principle has three elements. These are to prevent conflict, to react once conflict has started with a view to stopping the violence, and to rebuild in the aftermath of the conflict.
The SADC intervention fits in with the commitment by African leaders to find “African solutions for African problems”. It is underpinned by SADC’s peace and security protocol and its Standby Force and SADC Brigade to guide and execute decisions.
SADC is also guided by its 2003 Mutual Defence Pact regulating responses to armed attacks on a fellow SADC member state. The pact outlines the type of responses to be undertaken to defend a member state under attack.
The Protocol on Politics Defence and Security Cooperation stipulates that a member state under siege should invite SADC to intervene.
Mozambique has been slow to invite SADC to intervene. A final decision is likely at a meeting of SADC and Mozambique set for the end of May.
In terms of SADC protocols and the report of the technical team following its visit to Mozambique, military support is recommended as an instrument to assist the Mozambique government. The recommendation points to assembling a military contingent with mixed military capabilities. That aligns with the following functions under the SADC Protocol on politics, defence and security cooperation.
Dangers and vulnerabilities
At the moment, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) provides an example of ongoing military intervention in a fellow SADC member country. SADC member states - South Africa, Tanzania and Malawi - are actively involved in a UN peacekeeping mission, MUNOSCO, in the country.
It is the largest ongoing UN mission and dates back to 2010. Elements from SADC are now largely concentrated in the Force Intervention Brigade to pursue armed groups in the east and help the DRC government regain control of its territory.
The operation in Mozambique will be different as SADC will be operating without the cover of the UN. This places it in a precarious position. It will have to take full responsibility for any fall-out resulting from failure.
There’s no precedent for an intervention of this kind. In 1998 South Africa and Botswana sent troops into Lesotho. In the same year Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe intervened in the DRC. In both cases the interventions were controversial and messy. SADC authorisation came after deployment and placed great strain on relationships within the regional body.
SADC’s decision to intervene in Mozambique comes with its own set of difficulties. Chief among these is to get member states to commit resources to establish an intervention brigade to deploy against the insurgents.
The size of the final force will be depend on how extensive the armed conflict has become, and what level of intervention the Mozambican government is willing to accept from SADC.
To succeed, SADCS’s intervention in Mozambique will require extensive investment in time, human resources and money. The extent of this investment will, of course, be determined by the speed with which it contains – or even defeats – the insurgents.
Military action will need to entail a parallel process of rebuilding physical infrastructure and assisting with returning people to their normal life. Most of all, it must help the Mozambique government prevent a resurgence of the violence.
The violence has had a devastating effect on security and rule of law. The impact spilled offshore as gas companies placed extensive foreign infrastructure development for the energy sector on hold.
Rebuilding the confidence needed for the gas industry to resume activities is a major incentive to get the insurgency under control.
Costly and dangerous mission ahead
Success in turning the tide against militants in Cabo Delgado could give SADC’s image a major boost. Failure, however, could tarnish its image of protecting a fellow member country and the region for years to come.
In essence, Cabo Delgado shows how a slow and over-cautious approach to a potentially explosive security situation can allow matters to deteriorate to such an extent that deadly violence can’t be prevented.
The scene is now set for a military response that leaves SADC facing an expensive and dangerous intervention, and rebuilding costs that a poor country such as Mozambique can ill afford.
Francois Vreÿ is a Research Coordinator, Security Institute for Governance and Leadership in Africa, Stellenbosch University