South Africa’s goal as Chair of the AU was to silence the guns by the end of this year, and with the Covid-19 pandemic that was beginning to look achievable.
That is true for many hot spots on the continent with the exception of where IS-linked insurgents remain active in the Sahel, parts of West Africa, and increasingly in northern Mozambique.
Last month the Islamic State leadership instructed fighters to increase attacks after the outbreak of Covid-19, saying that Western countries would divert attention from terrorism to the fight against the pandemic. As a result, there was an increase in attacks in West Africa, the Sahel and Mozambique last month.
The latter has been a particular challenge as the escalation and intensity of attacks in northern Mozambique has preoccupied the government at a time when it lacks resources to fight Covid-19, and the situation presents a serious danger to the SADC region. The World Health Organization estimates that only 36% of Mozambicans have access to a health facility within 30 minutes of their homes, and there are only 24 ventilators in the whole country. Mozambique has already asked its partners for US$700million to fight Covid-19.
For the first two years of the conflict it was unclear whether the Islamist insurgents in northern Mozambique were in fact linked to IS or just the extremist Muslim clerics in Tanzania and Somalia. But more recently the numbers of fighters in northern Mozambique have increased exponentially, going from cells of about 10 to more than 100, with co-ordinated attacks on government and civilian infrastructure, where they have begun to hoist the black IS flag, and the group Islamic State Central African Province (ISCAP) have taken responsibility for more than 30 attacks.
The very idea that IS-linked groups could be gaining a real foothold in southern Africa is something that requires our urgent attention. To date SADC has made no comment on the insurgency, and while the AU Peace and Security Council expressed concern at the February AU Summit, it is unclear how exactly it has assisted Mozambique in fighting this new threat.
For now it seems Mozambique is on its own, but clearly unable to defeat the Islamist forces which have now changed tactics, moving away from beheadings and terror to a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the people. It has been somewhat successful in this regard as it takes over local banks and grocery stores and hands out money and food to local people, who have applauded such tactics.
On March 23, the insurgents carried out their largest military operation of the 30-month insurgency. They conducted a successful assault by land and sea on the strategic port town of Mocimboa da Praia, 60km south of liquid gas installations under construction on the Afungi peninsula. The insurgents destroyed barges that oil and gas companies are using to offload equipment at the port for construction of the gas facilities.
After capturing Mocimboa, the insurgents took over a military base and captured military equipment for two battalions, as well as boats and military patrol vessels. They destroyed the airport, robbed three banks, destroyed the port facilities and government buildings, and released prisoners from jail, largely adopting the modus operandi of the Islamist extremists operating in West Africa and the Sahel.
Once the insurgents succeed in physically isolating the population in the areas under their control by destroying bridges, roads, and taking over military and police bases, their intention is the implementation of Sharia law with brutal force.
As they acquire significant new weaponry and expand their financial networks through the illicit trade of timber, rubies, ivory and coal through Tanzania, it will become harder to defeat them militarily.
Out of desperation, the government of Mozambique had initially relied on the assistance of the Russian Wagner Group, one of the largest private military companies in the world. But the group has been largely ineffectual in crushing the insurgency, with a number of Russian soldiers beheaded by the insurgents in an ambush, and some shot dead at a military base. The Wagner Group was reported to have entered Mozambique in November, contracted by the government, but it is believed they largely failed in their mission.
The government of Mozambique is now using the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), which is based in South Africa, to launch attacks on the insurgents. It is alleged that DAG is contracted to assist the Mozambican government for four weeks, and is allegedly deploying about 100 mercenaries. DAG is owned by a former Zimbabwean military Colonel Lionel Dyck, who had helped Frelimo defeat Renamo in the 1980s, and also worked with Emmerson Mnangagwa and Zanu-PF in prosecuting the infamous Matabeleland campaign in the early 1980s, which resulted in widespread massacres.
DAG recently flew in three helicopters to Pemba in Cabo Delgado on Mozambique’s northern coast, two of which are registered in South Africa. One of the helicopters is allegedly registered to a former member of Executive Outcomes Cobus Claasens, who is now the head of Pilgrims Africa. It has been reported that Dyck was contracted by Erik Prince, the founder of the infamous Blackwater and Frontier Services Group, to get the helicopters to Mozambique. Prince is touted as an unofficial adviser to the Trump administration, and is the brother of Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy De Vos.
Last week it was reported that attacks conducted by DAG were conducted on April 8, in which helicopter gunships strafed the bases of insurgents using light canons installed in the aircraft.
DAG head Lionel Dyck is a permanent resident of South Africa, and it has been reported that no permission was received from the South African National Convention for Arms Control Committee for his group’s involvement in Mozambique. If this was the case then it would be in direct contravention of the Prohibition of Mercenary Activities and Regulation of Certain Activities in Countries of Armed Conflict Act of 2006. The intent of the Act is to prohibit mercenary activity and to regulate the provision of assistance or service of a military or military-related nature in a country of armed conflict, and to regulate the enlistment of South African citizens or permanent residents in other armed forces.
If the DAG mercenaries left South Africa illegally, then it is a matter which should not be swept under the carpet. According to our Act it should then be a matter for prosecution. But an important caveat is that we cannot allow the insurgency to proliferate unabated in northern Mozambique, and the AU has the responsibility to deploy a standby force to confront the group militarily.
If the peace and security architecture of the AU does not kick into action and confront the challenge posed by Islamic insurgents in Mozambique, which the government has been unable to neutralise for two and half years, it will set a dangerous precedent of democratic governments relying on mercenaries to do their counter terrorism work for them. Those mercenaries are the ghosts of apartheid’s past, and are operating with a free hand, accountable to no one for their excesses, or human rights abuses. It is time they are reined in.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.