Mozambicans who have been forced from their homes because of the ongoing conflict in the northern part of their country say Washington’s pledge to train Mozambican security forces brings a glimmer of hope that their situation will improve.
Last week, the U.S. embassy in Mozambique announced plans to train Mozambican security forces to combat violent extremism in the country’s north. Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department designated an Islamic State (IS) affiliate in Mozambique as a foreign terrorist organization — along with another IS affiliate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Residents in the country’s northern Cabo Delgado province, a region rich in natural gas deposits, have been grappling with an Islamist insurgency there since 2017. Attacks claimed by the militant group known as al-Shabab have killed nearly 2,700 people and displaced 670,000 others, according to the conflict monitoring group Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project (ACLED).
Last week, Britain-based aid group Save the Children said al-Shabab militants, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State terror group, have beheaded children as young as 11 in Cabo Delgado.
Many residents in the state now live in temporary displacement camps under dire conditions, international medical group Doctors Without Borders said in a statement last week.
“It is very good that the Americans are going to train the Mozambican Marines to end the war,” said Kalumane Adali, a former Mozambican soldier who now lives in a displacement center in Cabo Delgado’s Metuge district.
Adali, who fled his hometown of Quissanga in April 2020 following an insurgent attack, told VOA that the U.S. training could help him and other displaced people return home.
“We want to return to our peaceful lives in our villages,” he said.
Abuchate Nantonta is another displaced person from northern Mozambique who was captured by the insurgents for two days in April 2020.
“What the insurgents do is inhumane and not good. They kill people and destroy their villages,” he told VOA. “If the Mozambican military was effective in fighting terrorism, it would have ended this carnage. So that’s why I think this training by the Americans is a very good step.”
Julia Adamo, 64, says she managed to leave her village of Quilite “because military helicopters were flying overhead to prevent al-Shabab militants from attacking us.”
“So, this U.S. training will be beneficial to our military not only to combat those al-Shabab but also to protect civilians, including those running from their homes,” she told VOA.
Greater U.S. involvement
Local observers say the U.S. terror designation and the subsequent training announcement could be the beginning of a greater U.S. involvement in Cabo Delgado’s conflict.
The U.S. wants to show “in practical terms that it supports Mozambique in this fight against violence in Cabo Delgado,” said Mozambique-based analyst Fernando Lima.
Independent Mozambican politician Raul Domingos emphasized that such interventions are welcome as the U.S. “isn’t only a power that has logistical resources, but also has experience in dealing with terrorism.”
“The terrorists in Cabo Delgado use drones, and to make an efficient counterattack strategy, we must use these means too,” he told VOA. “We cannot continue using AK-47 [rifles] to go after terrorists who use drones.”
Limited impact in short term
Other experts, like Jasmine Opperman, who is an Africa analyst at ACLED, believe these U.S. measures could have little impact on countering the insurgency in northern Mozambique.
“Training Mozambican security forces to get fit for this purpose is going to take time, which Mozambique does not have right now,” she told VOA.
“Training the security forces and the importance thereof is undeniable, but will it actually create the U-turn we all want? I think it will be long term, not immediate. And I remain skeptical that this will address the core problems at hand,” Opperman added.
Piers Pigou, a senior consultant for Southern Africa at the International Crisis Group, echoes similar views.
“It will be unclear as to how those marines can be used from that training, because it’s a fairly small training period, to work on the actual insurgency on the ground in terms of impacting on the dynamics,” he said.
But analyst Lima said the presence of U.S. military instructors in Mozambique “enables the United States and its armed forces to have a better perception of what is happening in Cabo Delgado and what kind of military challenges they face there.”
Regarding the designation of al-Shabab as a terrorist organization, “it feeds the narrative of the Mozambican government that it’s all about an external force … and potentially enables them to downplay and avoid an array of local dynamics that are central to the evolution of this insurgency and its maintenance,” Pigou told VOA.
U.S. officials say the security forces training is just one part of their support to counter the spread of violent extremism in the region.
“This approach addresses socioeconomic development issues as well as the security situation,” the U.S. embassy said in a statement.
Emilia Columbo, a senior Africa researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, says the U.S. could help deal with the insurgency in northern Mozambique by helping the Mozambican government develop a more comprehensive approach to the conflict.
Such an approach will be essential “to both undercut the appeal of the insurgency and to start building good will between the state and the civilian population,” she told VOA.
VOA Portuguese Service’s Ramos Miguel and Andre Baptista contributed to this report from Maputo, Mozambique.