Mozambique: Government ‘inaction’ allowed rebels to regroup, attack – analysts

There has been “inaction” on the part of Mozambique government forces in attempting “blocking” the lines of escape of armed rebels in Cabo Delgado, according to analysts, who stress the need to halt the insurgents’ expansion to other provinces.

“I wouldn’t say they are failures” on the part of government forces, said Moisés Mabunda, a sociologist and political analyst, in comments to Lusa on operations to stop the spread of armed violence. “I was going to use the term inaction.” 

According to Mabunda, Mozambique’s Defence and Security Forces got carried away by the “euphoria” of the military victories over the rebels in the north of Cabo Delgado, then allowing the insurgents to disperse and split into small groups, which are now carrying out attacks in the south of the province and threatening its capital, Pemba.

“Surprisingly or unpleasantly, even though we have benefited from military support from the Southern African region and Rwanda, we seem to have gone dormant,” he noted, referring to armed support from Mozambique’s neighbours in the region.

With the arrival of foreign military contingents, he argued, the government should have stepped up the training of special forces that could assist in preventing the expansion of armed groups.

Mabunda pointed out that the government had already been taken by surprise by the insurgents when attacks began in Cabo Delgado back in 2017 with an onslaught against a police station in the district of Mocímboa da Praia, to which the authorities responded with a police offensive, when a military reaction was needed.

“We could not be so naive and think that now the terrorists have unleashed the war, they only had plan A” to occupy districts and then give up if they were defeated on that front, he said.

Faced with joint actions by the government forces and those from Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community (SADC), the armed groups were to avoid “direct confrontations” and move on to terrorise civilian and economic targets, with an “extremely big impact”, Mabunda pointed out.

He dismissed the scenario of a large-scale rebel attack and attempt at occupation on the city of Pemba, citing the insurgents’ insufficient logistics and equipment for such action in a provincial capital. 

But he warned of the risk of isolated terrorist-type attacks on a civilian, economic or state target inside Pemba, as has already happened in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, on the part of similar radical groups in those countries.

Rodrigues Lapucheque, a legal and security expert, for his part, also felt that a “cordon” should have been set up to stop the insurgents fleeing northern Cabo Delgado from spreading mayhem to the south.

“It was essential” for the Defence and Security Forces to “block the likely exits of these groups,” said Lapucheque, a university lecturer and motorised infantry colonel in the Mozambique Defence Forces (FADM) with a doctorate in Law and Security from Lisbon’s Universidade Nova. He argued that as soon as military pressure against the armed groups increased, with the presence of the Rwandan and SADC contingents, government forces should have deployed at least two well-trained, equipped “battalions” with modern mobility and communications to stem the insurgents’ flight.

“Terrorists, when they face well-trained and well-equipped conventional armed forces, do not risk frontal combat,” he said. “They disperse into small groups, they go about making attacks in small groups.”

The rebels have transformed themselves into a guerrilla force and are pursuing a strategy of attrition in order to gain time and destabilise government forces, he added.

Lapucheque warned of the risk of the insurgents seeking to reoccupy territories they had conquered before the arrival of foreign military support, particularly at Mocímboa da Praia, as it is a strategic town due to its port and airfield.

“This [expansion] is another tactical way of distracting the conventional armed forces” so that they focus on a different front from the insurgents’ main objective, he explained.

Faced with the dispersal of the rebels, the government should speed up the creation of special forces with anti-guerrilla combat training and equip them with modern means, Lapucheque argued.

“The armed forces may have serious difficulties if there is no training, permanent training and re-equipment in combat techniques and efficient multilateral logistics,” he warned, stressing that the country should take advantage of the presence of foreign military personnel to improve its own capacity for defence and combat against threats to its sovereignty.

Cabo Delgado province is rich in natural gas but since 2017 has been plagued by armed rebels, with responsibility for some attacks claimed by the local affiliate of the extremist group Islamic State.

Around 784,000 people have been internally displaced by the conflict, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and around 4,000 killed, according to the ACLED conflict registration project.

Since July 2021, an offensive by government troops with Rwandan support, later joined by SADC forces, has made it possible to retake areas where there had been a rebel presence, but the latter’s flight has seen new attacks in other districts used as passage or temporary refuge.