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How did Mozambique find itself in the current security crisis?

A great deal had changed since independence, and some of the changes had degraded Mozambique’s ability, even willingness, to build and maintain an effective military


A great deal has been said and written, in both praise and criticism, about Rwanda’s deployment of the combined contingent of Rwanda Defence Force and Rwanda National Police Forces in Mozambique in July 2021. The deployment followed what was reported as a spirited appeal by President Felipe Nyusi of Mozambique to his Rwandan counterpart, Paul Kagame, to come to his country’s assistance, after it began to seem like the Ansar al-Sunna (al-Shabaab) insurgents could overrun the country within a matter of weeks. The Mozambican army was struggling to contain, let alone defeat, them.

Until then, Rwanda’s security forces had not been deployed in southern Africa. The Government of Rwanda responded positively to the appeal for help. Subsequently, it took a relatively short time for a force to be mobilised and despatched, totalling 1000 men and women, comprising 700 military and 300 police personnel. For me, it was the first time I had seen police officers being sent off to war in the absence of an internal emergency. Why police officers accompanied the RDF into a theatre of war is a story on its own, to be narrated another day.

The deployment, now totalling 2500 men and women, triggered a range of reactions. At home, it was the usual pride Rwandans express whenever they see their compatriots in the forces sent off to go and render assistance where needed. Within Mozambique itself, there was much relief, given the RDF’s reputation as a lethal force, that finally the insurgents would be stopped in their tracks and security restored in the northern part of the country, Cabo Delgado Province, where hundreds of thousands had been displaced, members of local communities killed, and public and private property destroyed in what seemed like an orgy of savagery and vandalism.

There was no shortage of criticism of the deployment, however, not least because, as reported in the media, President Nyusi had neither consulted nor secured the necessary approval from parliament, let alone the ruling party, FRELIMO. Questions were raised about the kind of deal Nyusi had struck with his Rwandan counterpart. Soon enough, the rumour mill began to turn, churning out claims that, in exchange for the security assistance, Nyusi would assist the Government of Rwanda to harass, possibly seize and forcibly return to Rwanda, opponents and critics of the Government of Rwanda and of President Kagame, of whom there was a significant number living in the country.

There was also speculation that, in addition to Rwandan forces helping the government to defeat the insurgents, their deployment would de facto hand Nyusi the excuse he allegedly needed, to amend the constitution and run for a third term. It was claimed that he would use the war and the instability in a significant part of the country to argue that the situation on the ground was not conducive to holding campaigns and elections. Outside Mozambique, in the wider SADC region, especially in South Africa, the deployment was met with palpable hostility, including public condemnation, for all sorts of reasons. The reasons included that it made SADC look bad. SADC had spent months dragging its feet on the deployment of troops from its member states. This, despite the organisation having a mutual defence pact, and the risk of the insurgency spilling over into member countries, especially Tanzania, which borders Cabo Delgado Province, and from which some of the insurgents were reported to originate. Some commentators went as far as invoking Rwanda’s allegedly poor human rights record as somehow raising the spectre of its security forces committing war crimes against the insurgents.

The Rwandans went on to acquit themselves very well on the war front, scoring quick victories against the insurgents who until then had been committing crimes against local communities more than fighting, as Mozambique’s armed forces were overstretched. Military contractors and mercenaries who had been brought in previously to bolster its capacity had packed their bags and left, leaving little behind in terms of results on the ground. Within a very short time after the deployment, a large swathe of territory which the insurgents had captured and occupied and forced local communities out of, was captured by the Rwandans. Thereafter, together with their host government, they proceeded to encourage civilians to return to their sometimes damaged, other times destroyed homes. Their display of skill and courage and their friendly interactions with civilians earned them respect, if sometimes grudging, and gratitude from Mozambicans, including previous critics, among them civil society, human rights groups, even academics, and public affairs analysts. In many ways the Mozambique mission has further bolstered and cemented the reputation of Rwanda’s armed forces, leading some commentators to designate the country as an exporter of security.

What has not attracted as much attention and scrutiny is why and how Mozambique, which has been ruled since independence in 1975 by one of Africa’s more famous liberation movements, FRELIMO, found itself unable to defend its citizens against what, in the general scheme of things, was a relatively minor insurgency. On a number of occasions, analysts have asked: “What happened to FRELIMO? What happened to Mozambique? How did the Mozambican army fail to measure up to its responsibility to ensure the security and safety of fellow citizens?”

There is a background to these questions. It is the association of liberation movements, those that won or pursued independence through force of arms, with the building and maintenance of large and competent armies. FRELIMO may not have outrightly defeated the Portuguese and gained independence through war, but it did build a force that was formidable enough to have exhausted them and precipitated their not-so-orderly departure from their former colony. The image that FRELIMO built of itself, therefore, was of a no-nonsense liberation movement undergirded by a formidable military machine. The failure by RENAMO, Apartheid South Africa’s proxy to defeat it, despite all the financial and logistical support the insurgent movement received, cemented the idea of an invincible FRELIMO in the minds of its admirers who were watching from a distance across the continent. Little did they know that a great deal had changed since independence, and that some of the changes had degraded Mozambique’s ability, even willingness, to build and maintain an effective military. So, what happened?

There are probably many things that are not publicly known. However, among those that are known perhaps the most significant was the requirement, under the terms of the peace agreement signed between RENAMO and the Government of Mozambique in 1992, that the national army be split 50/50 between the then national army and the former insurgents. To this, the Government of Mozambique reacted by transferring the best of their troops into the national police, presumably to create a separate force that could act as a counter-weight to the now adulterated military. Overtime, the elements transferred into the police aged and retired. The younger ones degraded over time. Nonetheless, the police continued to enjoy the trust and confidence of the political elite as a depository of their best forces. Which is why, early on after the insurgency broke out, police units were the first to be sent out to deal with it. They were routed.

Meanwhile, after the RENAMO’s forces were merged with those of the government army, investment by the government in the military fell drastically, the reason being that the political class came to believe that the end of the war with RENAMO foretold a peaceful future in which the army would have no wars to fight. The end of the insurgency had been presumed to be the end of all wars. As a result, the army received little by way of modern weapons and resources for training and preparation for combat operations. Further, neglect translated into poor pay for the soldiers. To make matters worse, the poor pay rarely came on time. Consequently, soldiers could hardly make ends meet, let alone take care of their families’ needs. Morale plummeted. As the insurgency raged on and threatened to engulf other parts of the country outside of Cabo Delgado where it had started, and as the army and police proved incapable of stopping it, a pertinent question kept coming up in conversations among sections of the Mozambican intellectual, political and social elite: why would anyone expect badly paid, badly facilitated and demoralised soldiers whose families were living in poverty, to put their lives on the line for a country that seemed not to care about them. The question summed up what the concerned elite thought of their own government. They saw it as hopelessly out of touch with the reality of the ordinary soldier on whom it sought to depend for protection of both government and country. Meanwhile, stories continued making the rounds about the charmed lives of senior officers whom many accused of corruption and dereliction of duty of care for the ordinary man and woman in uniform.

These and other stories that highlight what went wrong with FRELIMO and the armed forces, also point at something else that is highly significant: the need for Mozambique to rebuild the armed forces and equip and care for them in ways that make them combat-ready once again. This is not a task that can happen within a short time. Nor is it a task that can take place consistently, coherently and sustainably while the insurgency rages on. There are foreign training missions from the EU and elsewhere, that have been trying to patch up some holes left by years of neglect. However, these cannot have much more than a short-term palliative effect.

It is therefore hardly farfetched to envisage that Rwanda which may have gone in hoping to coming out after a short while will stay much longer than expected, if not to combat the insurgency should it spread to other parts of the country, but to help Mozambique with security sector reform and to build a military that, in future, can stand on its own against internal security threats.


This article, which is part of the current edition of Pan African Review Magazine (The Quest for Africa’s Security Paradigm), was informed by multiple conversations with Mozambican and non-Mozambican observers and commentators on public affairs from academia, business, politics and civil society.














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