Africa: Could Mozambique's Next President Change Tack On Cabo Delgado?

Mozambican troops have been battling militants in Cabo Delgado since 2017.

New leadership could take the long overdue step of balancing security and development policies to prevent terrorism.

On 5 May, the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) chose Daniel Chapo, a 47-year-old lawyer, as its presidential candidate for the 9 October elections. He will likely be declared president, regardless of opposition candidates.

FRELIMO controls state institutions and retains power through election irregularities and an uneven political playing field, in which the state-owned media, public servants, police and even the judiciary are forced to support the ruling party. If Chapo does succeed President Filipe Nyusi, he will be the second Mozambican president to rule without having been a Cabinet member (the first was Samora Machel in 1975).

The first challenge for the future president will be implementing a coherent, realistic strategy to address terrorism in Cabo Delgado, in the north of the country. The seven-year insurgency has killed 5 600 people and internally displaced over a million.

The recent attack on the Macomia district headquarters - considered one of the most daring and sophisticated since the March 2021 attack on Palma - shows that the insurgents are still active and haven't been contained as the governments of Mozambique and Rwanda claim. Soldiers and police from Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community Mission in Mozambique (SAMIM) have been deployed to combat the insurgency since August 2021.

How the new president will respond is unclear. Experience suggests a high likelihood of discontinuity in the government's peace and security approach. But a change in leadership also presents opportunities to improve conflict resolution efforts.

Since FRELIMO took power in 1975, new presidents have tended to abandon their predecessors' policies. Leaders bring entirely new ideas in a process enabled by the country's authoritarian regime. Parliament and the judiciary have no power over the president, so there are few checks and balances over the head of state's decisions. And influence groups that build up around the president often oppose predecessors' policies.

When Joaquim Chissano took over from Machel in 1986, Chissano abandoned Machel's radical military policy and negotiated peace with the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), ending the decade-long civil war. The fall of the Berlin Wall and end of apartheid in South Africa shaped Chissano's stance, but his personal decision was important.

His successor in 2005, Armando Guebuza, abandoned Chissano's policy of dialogue with RENAMO and began persecuting its soldiers. RENAMO suspended the peace agreement and started a new military conflict.

When he took office in 2015, Nyusi, who was defence minister in Guebuza's government, discontinued the controversial US$2 billion maritime security project. The project to protect Mozambique's coastline by providing vessels, radars and other equipment was used to embezzle hundreds of millions of dollars from the state. However some military and intelligence officials believe it could have reduced the risk of insurgents using the sea as a logistics trafficking route, including of arms from Tanzania.

Nyusi did however resume negotiations with RENAMO, leading to the 2019 Maputo Accord and enabling the disarmament and reintegration of RENAMO fighters, which opened the way for more sustainable peace.

What are the risks and opportunities of a new president changing Nyusi's policies in Cabo Delgado? His approach favoured a security response focused on deploying police, military and even private military companies and foreign forces to fight the insurgency. No social or economic measures were taken to prevent violent extremism. Nyusi's government initially denied the insurgency existed, branding sectarian groups that turned violent in 2017 as criminals and bandits, and then as foreign-inspired terrorists.

Nyusi still doesn't openly recognise the conflict's socio-economic drivers, revealing the government's blind spot in addressing human security issues as integral to counter-terrorism. There is no recognition that poverty, unemployment and social inequalities, especially affecting young people, are push factors in the violence.

A strategy to prevent and contain extremism was drawn up with the support of the World Bank and European Union. It recognised poverty and social inequality as important facilitators of youth radicalisation in Cabo Delgado. However, Nyusi's Cabinet didn't approve the strategy, and his military response hasn't ended or significantly reduced attacks.

With little relevant government experience or people he trusts to work with, Chapo's first Cabinet will probably comprise Nyusi's recommendations, and initially continue Nyusi's approach to the insurgency.

After a year or two however, the new president might question or terminate the secret agreements - made without parliamentary approval - between Nyusi and Rwandan President Paul Kagame governing troop deployments to Cabo Delgado. Rwandan troops helped dislodge militants from Mocímboa da Praia, which was occupied for almost a year, and from several other bases. This brought relative stability for gas and mining companies, and allowed hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people to return home.

But the deployments created localised security only around big economic ventures. Violence has since spread to the rest of the province, affecting hundreds of thousands of poor people living far from the areas of natural resource exploitation.

The new president could, however, balance the security response with social and economic development projects in Cabo Delgado, which would help keep local youth away from radicalisation. A new strategy providing holistic interventions and humanitarian support - something Nyusi hasn't done since the insurgency began - could be drafted and implemented.

New leadership could also reduce the police's role in responding to the conflict. Police special units are currently being resourced to fight insurgents in the forests and control national borders - tasks better suited to the military. A new president could also reconsider existing initiatives to use dialogue to resolve the conflict, which Nyusi's government rejected.

Partners working for stability and peace in Cabo Delgado could influence positive change under a new leader. The Southern African Development Community, for example, could postpone the phasing out of SAMIM as the new president develops his security approach. For now, there are encouraging signs that South African and Tanzanian troops might remain in Cabo Delgado even after SAMIM's withdrawal.

Whatever course of action Mozambique's next leader chooses, immediate change is unlikely, leaving Cabo Delgado's people vulnerable to further attacks and instability.

Borges Nhamirre, Consultant, ISS Pretoria

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