The appeals by the Mozambique government for military assistance to fight the jihadist threat in its Cabo Delgado province bear careful examination. The insurgency began in 2017 and until April 2020 Maputo maintained that it had things under control. This was quite obviously untrue. The al-Shabaab (“the youth”) insurgents (who owe loyalty to ISIL) have continuously escalated their violence, executing enough civilians to terrify the local population, compelling obedience if not support, and they have frequently ambushed the military, who seem outclassed.
Moreover they have frequently taken and held towns including the important port of Mocimboa de Praia, which the insurgents clearly want to make the capital of their caliphate. They also captured the islands of Vamizi and Mecungo and have raided into neighbouring Tanzania. According to Mozambique government figures nearly 600,000 civilians have fled the fighting.
Reversing Robin Hood: taking from the poor to give to the rich
The beginning of wisdom here is the realisation that Mozambique, as also Angola, are examples of wholly corrupted liberation movements gone wrong. In Angola a huge proportion of the national wealth was channelled into the pockets of just one family, so much so that President dos Santos was reckoned to be one of the richest men in Brazil, which is offshore Angola in the same way that Miami is offshore Latin America.
His daughter, Isabel dos Santos, is probably one of the richest women in the world – while most Angolans remain bone poor. A tiny party elite has captured almost all the national wealth so that despite the MPLA’s professions of socialism, social and economic inequality now far exceed what was seen under Portuguese rule.
We have seen the same process in South Africa where inequality has steadily grown under ANC rule so that the Gini index is now far higher than it was under apartheid. South Africa’s president is now one of the country’s richest men – something never seen under apartheid.
His brother in law, Patrice Motsepe, is the country’s richest black man. Another brother in law, Jeff Radebe, is married to Bridget Radebe (also known under her maiden name, Bridget Motsepe), the richest black woman in South Africa.
We have a functioning plutocracy. There is no such thing as a poor Cabinet minister and as we have seen in both Durban and Joburg, even ANC mayors get very rich these days. Nothing like this was seen under apartheid – none of the National Party leaders were rich and there was never such a concentration of wealth within one extended family at the top of the state. A ruling family, in other words. Again, this regressive development occurs behind a facade of socialist rhetoric.
The same process is replicated even by Cosatu and the SACP. Public service workers in South Africa are already massively overpaid – to the point of bankrupting the state – but the Left is furiously demanding that they be given pay increases beyond inflation. This could only worsen inequality and might well result in the reduction of social grants for the poor.
SAFTU, headed by Zwelinzima Vavi, has already called a general strike to support this cause of growing inequality. This grotesque distortion of what was once a liberation movement mirrors what is happening in our neighbouring countries.
The trend is so general that one has to regard it as intrinsic to such regimes. Anyone who continues to be fooled by the leftist rhetoric of their leaders must want to be fooled. Exactly the same is seen in the EFF, the ANC’s would-be successor movement: radical socialist rhetoric from leaders grown rich on endless scams and the spoils of the VBS bank robbery.
The case of Mozambique
Mozambique has long fitted this pattern. In power Frelimo began by such radical measures that all small shops were nationalised and people were forbidden even to celebrate Christmas. Happily, such nonsense was reversed because the Frelimo elite was mainly interested in becoming seriously rich and that aim was not fostered by such measures.
By the time we got to the era of Wikileaks it was no surprise to read a cable from the US ambassador in Maputo to his superiors in Washington warning that all financial flows into Mozambique, whether aid, investment, trade or loans were effectively creamed off to the benefit of just a few leading Frelimo families. Graca Machel was specifically mentioned. Given that the US is Mozambique’s biggest aid donor one assumes he knew what he was talking about.
The other side of this was, of course, the complete neglect of the poor. This was very apparent in the northernmost province of Cabo Delgado. It is little wonder that the insurgents there have been able to draw on a feeling of furious resentment against the Maputo elite and to draw in Muslim support from other neighbouring provinces (18% of Mozambicans are Muslims).
There is an awful lot that is rotten in the state of Mozambique. The discovery of vast gas deposits in Cabo Delgado has only heightened resentments for locals are bitterly aware that the benefits will flow directly to the same few families in Maputo and bypass them altogether.
To some extent the insurgency should be seen as the expression of a desperate local demand that the $60 billion gas industry there should benefit them at last. Naturally, the Maputo elite are not interested in such thoughts and want to view the insurgency in purely military terms. If they get their way, the insurgency will be crushed with foreign help, enabling them – and no one else – to pocket the gas billions.
During the Frelimo insurgency against the Portuguese one was encouraged to believe in the military prowess of Frelimo. Whether this truly existed or not, it has clearly long vanished. The performance of the Mozambique army (the FADM) against al-Shabaab has been woeful.
Not only has al-Shabaab – an army of amateurs, after all - clearly had by far the best of the fighting but the army has been accused of carrying out major atrocities against local civilians and captured insurgents. These include torture and summary executions. This is the classical behaviour of an ill-trained army under pressure and, doubtless, terrified by its task.
Maputo then summoned the hardened mercenaries of the Russian Wagner group. They too retired hurt before long, since when, to Pretoria’s huge embarrassment, Mozambique has depended on the efforts of the South African mercenaries of the Dyck Advisory Group. Thus far these have stuck to their task with commendable grit but they are clearly not numerous enough to win an outright victory. The Van Dyck men are frankly saying that they need help and are not getting it.
By April 2020 al-Shabaab had done so much damage that President Felipe Nyusi of Mozambique appealed for help ahead of the SADC summit in May. Despite the fact that Mozambique assumed the SADC presidency in August the SADC response was apathetic to say the least. Nobody was at all keen to get involved.
The Americans decided that the Zimbabwean army was still quite formidable and suggested to Mnangagwa that he volunteer. Eager to gain Western acceptance, he did, though thus far that has merely meant making a speech. Since Zimbabwe could clearly not fund an army expedition to Mozambique, someone else would have to pay and there were no volunteers for that. Inevitably, all eyes turned to South Africa.
South Africa’s dilemma
The fact is that the South African army too is in no shape to undertake such an adventure. It is full of portly middle aged men with far too many well-paid but often useless generals: the typical SOE situation.
An army needs lots of highly trained and mustard keen young men and the SANDF has very few of these. It would also need a sharp intelligence service and a lot of close air support from fighter jets, drones and helicopters. South Africa no longer has such capabilities.
In addition, the armed forces have suffered large budget cuts and a great deal of their equipment is now unusable. At its Ysterplaat base in Cape Town the Air Force has only a few old Dakotas that can still fly. The Navy’s ships are apparently permanently tied up in Simonstown. Denel, ruined by corruption, is in no shape to help.
The situation is lamentable and the whole organization needs to be purged from top to bottom and wholly reorganized before it could take on any demanding task. Parading in blue helmets in the DRC and abusing the local women – which is what UN peacekeepers generally seem to do - is about all the SANDF is currently good for.
However, South Africa’s self-respect meant that it had to respond so it offered to help but cleverly made such assistance dependent on Mozambique first producing a detailed plan of action for how they envisaged dealing with the insurgency. Since Mozambique is most unlikely to be able or willing to produce such a plan this had the intended result: South Africa would look good by making the offer but would not actually have to deliver anything.
Meanwhile al-Shabaab warned that in the event of any South African intervention it would use its links to Muslim communities in Durban and Cape Town to launch terrorist attacks within South Africa. Such talk may have been largely bravado but it was quite enough to scare the government and to guarantee that South Africa’s offer of help was not only tentative but, in fact, empty.
Appeal to the EU
Several months followed before Mozambique swallowed hard and appealed to the EU, asking it to train the Mozambique army and provide medical and humanitarian support. In fact Mozambique needs everything, starting with better intelligence, equipment, properly trained staff officers and a long list after that. Within the EU Portugal immediately backed the idea of helping its former colony and some expectant eyes turned to the French, for Total has a large share in the Cabo Delgado gas project.
However, the appeal to the EU has set off predictable political reverberations. Should the EU intervene South Africa would be greatly embarrassed and its position as the region’s primary power would be undermined. Moreover, the politically correct line is heard that Southern Africa is peculiarly sensitive, because of its history, to the notion of troops from former imperial powers being sent into the region. At the very least any such assistance would have to be channelled through SADC because if SADC is side-stepped it too would be undermined. This is, of course, ridiculous: SADC is a hopeless organization and anything channelled through it is unlikely to work.
Nervous reactions in Maputo
But Mozambique is nervous for other reasons. For a start there is still the outstanding matter of the $2 billion “illegal debt” taken out in 2013-2014 by two Mozambican state companies, allegedly for a project about tuna fishing and maritime security but which was in fact an elaborate bribery and kickback scheme.
Hundreds of millions of dollars went “missing” in the usual way and none of the supposed benefits of the project ever materialised. That might seem like fairly standard practice but the further wrinkle was that the Mozambican government tried to hide this debt. When its aid donors and the IMF learnt that they had been lied to they cut off all aid and Mozambique suffered a sovereign default and huge reputational damage. This matter is far from resolved and casts a long shadow.
Armando Guebeza, who was President at the time, has since made a deposition with the state’s attorney-general to the effect that his successor, Filipe Nyusi, was deeply involved in this scam and should be arrested. Already the scandal has triggered major court cases round the world. The US Court of the Eastern District of New York has also heard that Nyusi took over $2 million in bribes connected with these illegal debts (he was Minister of Defence at the time).
One of the lenders affected, Credit Suisse, also admitted to the High Court in London that it had added Nyusi’s name to the lawsuit as first defendant. But the judicial system in Mozambique is largely used to convict Nyusi’s enemies and exonerate his friends so there seems little chance that any court there will follow up and arrest or charge him. It is known that Nyusi’s first presidential campaign in 2014 benefited heavily from funds from the “illegal debt” scam.
In 2019 Nyusi ran again and won in what the Opposition labelled “a mega fraud”. This view was shared by the EU and Commonwealth observer missions, both of which said the election was rigged, as did a number of other international observer groups. So far, so normal, for all of Frelimo’s election triumphs have been accused of the same. It seems quite possible that Mozambique has never had a free and fair election.
In 2019 state resources, media and aid for cyclone relief were all extensively used by Frelimo. (Cyclone Kenneth had just wrought terrible damage to northern Mozambique, including Cabo Delgado. Naturally, Maputo stole the aid money that donors produced and didn’t bother with humanitarian assistance in the affected areas. This was a major grievance used by al-Shabaab.) Nyusi has, of course, used his presidential power for further self-enrichment and this has been accompanied by increased poverty among the general population.
Nyusi also makes extensive use of “esquadroes da morte” (death squads) to assassinate leaders of opposition parties, academics, journalists or NGO activists who have dared speak or write against him. (The Mozambique Constitution’s ban on the death penalty is no barrier to this.)
The government’s security forces, the FADM (Mozambique Armed Defence Force) and the PIR (Mozambique Rapid Intervention Police) have particularly nasty records of gross human rights violations including the mutilation of victims. Naturally, such assassinations and human rights violations are never investigated.
Manuel Chang, the Mozambican Finance Minister who arranged the illegal debts, is still being held in South Africa as US prosecutors seek his extradition in connection with trials concerning those debts, while Nyusi is frantically trying to get South Africa to hand Chang back to him. South Africa just dithers.
All of this is perfectly well known to both South Africa and the international community but the fact that Nyusi is a crook and runs death squads hardly makes him unusual among Third World presidents and most countries have tried to keep relations with Mozambique on a business-as-usual basis. The fact that Nyusi is currently the president of SADC makes the notion that EU aid has to flow through SADC in order to gain “legitimacy” seem quite funny.
An unwelcome spotlight
However, once the question of EU military intervention is raised and outfits like the UN High Commission for Refugees and Amnesty International get involved there is no end to the embarrassing facts that can and will be ventilated. Already this is beginning to happen with the UNHCR echoing the grievances of the Cabo Delgado populace, fed up with decades of elite theft, rigged elections, death squads and all the rest. Moreover, EU intervention would bring the international media with it and it is unlikely that Nyusi can cope with what a genuinely free press is likely to come up with.
Naturally, Nyusi wants to divert international attention away from Mozambican domestic affairs if at all possible – this is why he has tried to argue that the al-Shabaab insurgency is the work of “foreign extremists”, though thus far the insurgents who have come to light have consisted entirely of locals.. But this is really a lost cause. And the fact is that Nyusi has got to get help or watch things spin out of control, perhaps even jeopardising the big gas project – though a lot of that will be offshore and mega-mining projects in Africa have a way of providing their own security, for they know they can’t rely on the local police or army.
In the days of Pierre Mulele’s rebels in the DRC one famous mine had a circular railway running right round the mine, rather like a child’s model railway. On it sat a well-armoured train with multiple machine guns and mortars which it could fire more or less continuously as it made its circuits. The mine was never bothered by the rebels. True, al-Shabaab clearly has maritime ambitions – hence its capture of a port city and offshore islands – but no doubt the gas rigs will have their own little security force.
Who can really help ?
When push comes to shove Nyusi knows that he needs assistance from a developed country with serious experience of counter-insurgency warfare. In southern Africa the only two forces that ever had such capabilities were the old SADF, an army then roughly on a par with Israel’s, and the Rhodesian forces of Smith’s time. It is no accident that the Van Dyck Advisory Group which has thus far stuck the course will draw its manpower from precisely those sources. No modern African army has such capabilities. So appealing to SADC is really just play-acting.
Mozambique, a Commonwealth member, has also been talking to Britain, no doubt remembering the short work that the British special forces made of the thuggish Foday Sankoh and the West Side Boys in Sierra Leone in 2000. But Britain is unlikely to be keen: action in Mozambique would be expensive and quite possibly bring Britain some difficulties with other Commonwealth countries in the region. It might provide some military training but that won’t be enough to stamp out an insurgency. Moreover restoring the status quo ante so that thugs like Nyusi can go on looting is not an appealing objective.
Doubtless, Nyusi would be pleased to get the French involved if he could but that too seems unlikely. France has its hands full fighting jihadists in Mali and the surrounding countries of ex-French West Africa and that expensive war has no end in sight. The French have no historic ties to southern Africa and no ex-colonies there harbouring French interests which they need to protect.
In effect countries like Mali and Mozambique are pleading for re-colonization or something rather like it which will still leave the local elites free to plunder. And despite their proud assertion of nationhood they are quite unable to perform the basic duty of a nation state to provide law and order.
This leaves America which is already involved in fighting al-Shabab in Somalia as well as being involved with helping the French and the several other EU countries involved in the Sahel. The US still looks at such insurgencies through the lens of 9/11, fearing the creation of terrorist sanctuaries from which attacks might be launched against the USA. The arrest last week of a Kenyan Muslim in the Philippines who was taking flying lessons and scanning tall buildings in American cities into which he might fly a plane suggests that such fears are not wholly misplaced.
So it was interesting that US Ambassador at large, Nathan Sales, who is America’s Co-ordinator for Counter-Terrorism recently visited Mozambique and South Africa. He wanted, he said, to see how the US could help “contain, degrade and defeat” al-Shaabaab in Mozambique – though he warned that a military solution alone would not be enough. “What we need to do is make sure that we in the United States are making available to Mozambique every capability that we have”, he said in terms which must have thrilled Nyusi.
“Once we have reached an agreement on what our partnership could look like”, Sales continued, “I’m sure we’ll be in a position to share more information about what that will look like” , he said, suggesting a degree of transparency which Nyusi would probably like a lot less. “We’ve been doing it for 20 years. The US has a strong record for fighting terrorism and rebuilding societies, and we have a strong role to play in Africa. I think there’s a recognition on the continent that if you want to do it right, you’ve got to work with the Americans.”
A further quandary for South Africa
This sort of talk doubtless makes South Africa feel extremely uncomfortable. The sight of the US getting deeply involved in Mozambique and the government there depending upon it would make someone like Thabo Mbeki believe that the counter-revolution has arrived to overthrow the liberation movements of southern Africa.
It was exactly such paranoia which led him to support Mugabe when the MDC would clearly have thrown him out if free elections were allowed. Mbeki’s greatest fear from the outset was that all the liberation movements of southern Africa which had waged armed struggle would be undermined by imperialist intervention. He attempted to organize those movements to resist that – i.e. they must all support Mugabe, the dreadful Angolan and Mozambican regimes and so on. The fact that these regimes had lost popular support and were completely corrupt was a mere detail.
And there is no point expecting the US to believe in any nonsense about working through SADC or subordinating themselves to local political prejudices. If the US muscles in and spends big bucks on defeating al-Shabaab, it will expect to call the shots.
The talk about “re-building societies” will make Nyusi, Mnangagwa and Ramaphosa extremely uncomfortable but given that they have nothing much to offer themselves, it is hard to see that they can object. But if this happens, it will change the game throughout southern Africa.
Nathan Sales is, however, a Trump appointee and Under-Secretary of State to Mike Pompeo, so he is about to leave office on January 20, 2021 unless Joe Biden wishes to re-appoint him, which seems unlikely. We don’t yet know what Biden’s international priorities will be or what his Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, will wish to do. Doubtless, southern Africa ranks very low on their to-do list.
Mending fences with the Europeans, bolstering NATO, meeting the Chinese challenge in the Pacific, working out what to do with Russia and Iran, and with North Korea and the Middle East, will all come a lot higher on the list, as will international agreements on START and climate change. But if even the isolationist Trump regime was willing to get involved in Mozambique then sooner or later Biden’s men will get there too.
It’s quite a thought. A significant US presence in Mozambique would require a considerable technical and administrative back-up and that would most conveniently be situated in South Africa and GIs needing R and R would probably want to spend it in Durban. Local hoteliers and service industries would stand to benefit considerably but the ANC would feel deeply uncomfortable at the very thought that the US military presence in their region would quickly be stronger than their own. The idea that, on top of that, GIs were enjoying the delights of Durban would probably be too much for the ANC to stomach.
We might even see US carriers off the coast or other very visible signs of US power and the ANC is easily made paranoid by the very thought of such things. It will be a considerable test of South Africa’s political maturity. On any sensible calculus the objective of preventing jihadism getting well established in southern Africa outranks all these lesser difficulties. And anyone who doesn’t think Mozambique could do with a bit of rebuilding simply hasn’t been paying attention, though whether that means further ensconcing the likes of Nyusi or frankly getting rid of him remains to be seen.
 The government’s steady refusal to assist Botswana in its request concerning its case against Bridget Motsepe is a disgrace, whether or not Ms Motsepe/Radebe is innocent or guilty. Botswana is a friendly neighbouring country and its request should be properly dealt with, like South Africa’s request to Malawi in the Bushiri case. It is impossible to avoid the impression that Ms Motsepe’s membership of “the ruling family” is behind this.