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Earlier this year, the United States-led ‘war on terror’ gained another African front line. In March, the USA added a Mozambican group known as Ansar al-Sunnah to its list of designated foreign terrorist organizations, under the name ‘ISIS-Mozambique’.
Portugal, the USA and others are already preparing to offer Mozambique help with counter-insurgency. If recent experience in the Sahel region is anything to go by, this will include military support, including arms transfers.
But is boosting Mozambique’s armed forces the best approach? Increased flows of major arms to Burkina Faso and Mali, along with military training support, have not helped those countries to quash their own insurgencies and restore stability. Furthermore, important questions remain over governance and transparency in Mozambique.
A growing appetite for military assistance
More than 3000 civilians have been killed and 700 000 people internally displaced since a jihadist insurgency emerged in Cabo Delgado province in October 2017. Much of the violence has been attributed to Ansar al-Sunnah.
The international community has been slow to respond to this emerging threat, possibly due to a perception that the risk of it spilling over into relatively stable neighbouring countries was low. That seems to be changing.
Mozambique has generally been reluctant to accept direct military support in the past, turning to mercenary groups instead, including the South Africa-based Dyck Advisory Group. However, since a large-scale attack in the town of Palma in Cabo Delgado in March this year, Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi appears to be warming to the idea.
Nyusi is in talks with Rwandan President Paul Kagame about possible support from Rwandan forces. He also seems more open to support from the Southern African Development Community (SADC).
Nyusi, the current SADC chair, previously dismissed calls to discuss a regional response to the insurgency in the SADC. However, he acquiesced to meetings in April and May this year called for by regional leaders. Although no concrete plan for regional action has yet appeared, Botswana and South Africa are pressing for SADC military action.
Tanzania, an SADC member that shares a border with Cabo Delgado, has stepped up its bilateral cooperation (including joint exercises) with Mozambique since Ansar al-Sunnah carried out a cross-border attack. Incidents like this could add weight to calls for an intervention under the SADC’s collective self-defence agreement, which forms one of several legal bases for the organization to take military action.
The USA has also shown willingness to support the Mozambican armed forces, the Forças Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique (FADM), in counter-insurgency efforts. It carried out a two-month Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) exercise for Mozambican marines, which began five days after ISIS-Mozambique was added to the US terror list.
Portugal, Mozambique’s former colonial power, confirmed that it is sending 60 troops to provide training as part of a new defence cooperation plan lasting until 2026. Portugal also used its position as European Union (EU) Council President during the first half of 2021 to call on EU partners to increase military support for Maputo, a move backed by the USA.
Arms transfers to Mozambique
Some countries experiencing insurgencies like the one in Mozambique received significantly more arms transfers in 2016–20 than in 2011–15. Burkina Faso saw an increase of 83 per cent and Mali 669 per cent. Such increases are, however, yet to be seen in Mozambique.
According to the SIPRI Arms Transfers Database, two deliveries of major conventional arms were made to Mozambique between 2016 and 2020. These were an Mi‑171 transport helicopter from Russia and two Fast Interceptor patrol boats from India. Between 2001 and 2016, Mozambique imported few major arms. Earlier transfers included trainer aircraft supplied by Brazil and Slovakia, light aircraft from Germany, Portugal and Romania, and two transport aircraft from Ukraine. Mozambique also received armoured personnel carriers from China, South Africa and the United Kingdom and one patrol boat from Spain. The majority of these arms were second hand or provided free as aid.
Mozambique also has received relatively low volumes of small arms and light weapons (SALW) shipments since 2001, according to the UN Register of Conventional Arms. They included at least 340 rifles or carbines from Portugal, 390 revolvers and self-loading pistols from Turkey, and 215 assault rifles from the UK.
Despite being party to the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty, Mozambique is yet to provide reports on its imports of major arms and SALW. This means that Mozambique may have received imports of SALW that have not been publicly confirmed.
SIPRI’s estimates of Mozambique’s military expenditure as a share of gross domestic product (GDP) have remained relatively consistent since 2001. The insurgency does not seem to have affected spending, and in fact the only significant decrease in total spending in the period 2016–20—of 24 per cent—was recorded between 2019 and 2020 (see figure 1) despite the increasing violence.
But these estimates are based on publicly available government documents and Mozambique has poor institutional transparency.
In 2016 it was revealed that off-budget military spending had been part of a series of secret government loans from 2013 on. Investigations on behalf of Mozambique’s public prosecutor by Kroll (an international company that assesses governance, risk and transparency) alleged that these loans were worth around US$2 billion. They were provided to three companies, Ematum, Mozambique Asset Management (MAM) and Proindicus, all of which are partly owned by the Servico de Informaçãos e Segurança do Estado (SISE), Mozambique’s security services.
Of these off-budget sums, $500 million had reportedly been earmarked for patrol aircraft, boats and radars. Another $200 million was to pay commissions for individuals facilitating those deals. But around two-thirds of the sum, $1.3 billion, remains unaccounted for. The $500 million alone would more than double Mozambique’s military expenditure between 2013 and 2016.
Arms transfers for counter-insurgency: A need for caution
The impact that new access to arms can have in certain contexts should not be underestimated. It remains unclear whether arms supplies provide additional security and ultimately help to stabilize violent conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, or rather provoke and prolong them. Recent experience in Burkina Faso and Mali certainly suggests that increased arms transfers are no easy solution.
One question is whether equipping and expanding the FADM could end up strengthening grievances against the state. The US military training missions followed calls by Amnesty International for more training of the FADM, including in international human rights law. Amnesty has documented human rights violations believed to have been carried out by the FADM and mercenary groups as well as Ansar al-Sunnah. There is surely a risk that greater access to arms will exacerbate these abuses.
Furthermore, allegations of large-scale corruption have likely deepened mistrust of the government. Perceptions of relative deprivation and inequality have been assessed to be stronger motivations for insurgents than jihadist ideology. The start of the insurgency followed quickly after the $2 billion loans scandal broke. This connection demands further attention and research.
With military options being considered by both the EU and the SADC, adding new arms to the conflict in Mozambique risks worsening an already dire situation for local civilians, not ending it. Furthermore, with major concerns around transparency in military procurement and budgeting, suppliers cannot be confident about how and where their arms exports will be used.
Until more is known about the impact that certain weapons supplies may have on Mozambique’s conflict, any external actors should carefully consider the implications of arms transfers as a response to the insurgency. Pursuing such a policy in isolation would act as a treatment for symptoms rather than an effective prevention strategy and is unlikely to bring the conflict to a peaceful resolution.
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