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Is southern Africa's forgotten war back on the global radar?

February 03, 2023
topic:Peace and Reconciliation
tags:#Mozambique, #Cabo Delgado, #civil war, #South Africa
located:Mozambique, South Africa
by:Cyril Zenda
A viral video of southern African peacekeepers burning corpses has brought global attention to the bloody civil war raging in Mozambique

A regional force that is helping Mozambique fight an insurgency by an Islamist militant group is now battling to restore its own image after a video showing what appears to be its members setting corpses ablaze went viral.

The video has outraged human rights groups as it exposes acts of atrocity that run contrary to international rules of engagement. 

In the video, people in South African army uniform are captured tossing corpses into a bonfire of burning household furniture and pouring an inflammable liquid. The Southern African Development Community Mission In Mozambique (SAMIM) force is commanded by South Africa, and members of the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) dominate it.

The incident is reported to have taken place in November 2022 in Cabo Delgado, where SAMIM has been fighting the rebel group since 2021 alongside Mozambique government forces.

'A Despicable Act'

While admitting to the involvement of their members in what it described as a "despicable act," SANDF spokesperson Brigadier General Andries Mokoena Mahapa threatened punishment for those found guilty.

"The SANDF does not condone in any way the acts committed in the video and those who are found guilty of such acts will be brought to book," Mahapa said in a statement. He added the SAMIM, rather than the SANDF, was "conducting an investigation surrounding the involvement of its members in this despicable act," as it is the entity overseeing the military mission in Mozambique. 

The chairperson of SADC's organ on politics, defence and security, Namibian President Hage Geingob, announced the investigation, pointing out that the bloc did not condone the atrocities reflected in the video.

He added that once the investigation is complete, appropriate measures would be taken in line with international law on armed conflict.

SAMIM, which involves personnel from Rwanda, Angola, Botswana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Lesotho, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania and Zimbabwe, is partially funded by the European Union.

Same Tactics As Insurgents?

Since October 2017, an armed group calling itself Ansar al-Sunna (Supporters of the Tradition) and locally known as Al-Shabaab) - which is allegedly affiliated with the group self-named as the Islamic State of Central Africa Province - has attacked government forces and civilians in Cabo Delgado, a northeastern province of Mozambique where large gas reserves have been discovered.

The insurgency has claimed more than 4,500 lives and sent over a million people fleeing into neighbouring provinces where they now live in camps and among local populations.

The militants have been accused of committing gross human rights violations, including the beheading of civilians. But according to Amnesty International, in a pattern also observed in Nigeria and Cameroon, government security forces in Mozambique and those assisting it have been increasingly responding with similar tactics.

'A Glimpse of This Forgotten War'

Amnesty International, which previously documented atrocities that were committed during in the conflict - now in its seventh year, stated that the video is indicative of the broader reality of what it describes as a "forgotten war."

"The viral video showing soldiers burning corpses is another horrific event that gives a glimpse of what is going on away from the attention of international media in this forgotten war in Cabo Delgado," said Amnesty International’s director for East and Southern Africa, Tigere Chagutah.

"Tragically, it appears that incidents ofviolence against civilians, extrajudicial executions and other human rights violations and violations of international humanitarian law are still occurring, as previously documented by Amnesty International," Chagutah added.

'Potential To Make Insurgents Fight Harder'

In the past, churches and human rights groups have blamed the continued strengthening of the insurgency on the heavy-handed response of the government, which they said made the insurgents appear to be the better of two evils.

The indiscriminate killing of civilians by private military contractors like the Russia’s Wagner Group and South Africa’s Dyke Advisory Group that the Mozambican government hired to help it only served to reinforce this perception. Now the SADC force is arguably exacerbating it.

John Stupart, director of the African Defence Review, told the media that the video had potential to make the insurgents "fighter even harder."

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has also previously accused the Mozambican government of failing to protect citizens in its fight against the insurgents. 

"It’s the worst case of betrayal," Zenaida Machado, a senior research at HRW said, adding that "frightened citizens should not run from insurgents only to find themselves in danger from those who are supposed to keep them safe."

Possible Solutions To The Insurgency

While there is no consensus on the root causes of the insurgency, it is generally understood that the group is rebelling against neglect by the country’s leadership that is based in the capital Maputo, some 1,700 km away.

The Cabo Delgado province borders Tanzania, and is home to 2.3 million people, a majority of whom (about 60 percent) are Muslims. It is disparagingly known among the local population as "Cabo Esquecidoor "Forgotten Cape."

Analysts have pointed out that while religion could be playing a fundamental role in the conflict, they also believe the most important factors in the insurgency also include widespread social, economic and political tensions in a country that was colonised by Portugal for 470 years until 1975 and is currently one of the poorest in the world.

Soaring inequalities have led many young Mozambicans to be easily attracted to such a radical movement, as Ansar al-Sunna promises that its form of Islam will act as 'antidote' to the existing "corrupt, elitist rule." 

"The movement emerged within a particular religious, social and ethnic group known as the Mwani," explained Dr Eric Morier-Genoud, a Mozambican-born political scientist at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who links the insurgency to specific historical and social dynamics.

"They feel they have been marginalised for decades by migration into their area, a lack of economic development, and their neighbours’ political clout," he added.

Even the Catholic bishops have, in their pastoral letters, repeatedly pointed out that military campaigns alone would not bring an end to the conflict and that there is need for a more equitable distribution of resources in the country.

'A Climate of Fear'

"This is not something new. These things have been happening since the conflict started in 2017, so SAMIM is only continuing what the Mozambican forces have been doing," a director of a Mozambican human rights group told FairPlanet. He preferred to remain anonymous for his own safety due to what he described as "a climate of fear" Maputo created around the conflict.

According to Amnesty International, journalists, human rights advocates, researchers, academics and others who hold critical views about the Mozambican government have of late been subjected to harassment, intimidation, abduction, and torture.

A Mozambican journalist, who also requested anonymity, told FairPlanet that since the video went viral the Maputo administration had remained mum. "There has not been any reaction by our government and we don’t expect it to comment," he said. 

Filimao Suaze, a spokesperson for the Mozambican government, did not respond to questions from FairPlanet on Maputo’s reaction to the latest atrocities, which experts say might constitute war crimes.

Image by Farah Nabil.

Article written by:
CZ Photo
Cyril Zenda
Mozambique South Africa
Embed from Getty Images
While admitting to the involvement of their members in what it described as a “despicable act,” SANDF spokesperson Brigadier General Andries Mokoena Mahapa threatened punishment for those found guilty.
Embed from Getty Images
The insurgency has so far claimed more than 4,500 lives and sent over a million people fleeing into neighbouring provinces.
Embed from Getty Images
There is no consensus on the root causes of the insurgency, but many believe is is the result of deeply entrenched socio-economic inequities.
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