The violent escalation of an insurgency in northern Mozambique last month has whipped up fresh concerns about security in southern Africa, a region that has enjoyed relative stability in recent decades.

The recent escalation began when more than 100 well-armed rebels attacked Palma on March 24 and held more than half of the strategic centre for more than 10 days.

Islamic State-linked militants raided the coastal town of Palma on March 24, killing dozens and forcing thousands of residents to flee and pushing France’s Total to desert a nearby multi-billion-dollar gas project.

The deftly planned assault marked a major intensification in an insurgency that has wreaked havoc across Cabo Delgado province for over three years as the jihadists seek to establish a caliphate.

Nyusi announced Wednesday that government forces had regained control of Palma, after a prolonged battle with the rebels.

Five southern African leaders — the presidents of Botswana, Malawi, South Africa, and Zimbabwe met with Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi in Maputo on Thursday for emergency talks, as part of the 16-nation Southern African Development Community known as SADC, to tackle the disconcerting issue of the jihadist violence in northern Mozambique.

Botswana’s leader and SADC chair Mokgweetsi Masisi said there was a need for an “integrated and coordinated regional approach” to deal with terrorism.

Masisi said the violence represented a “serious threat to peace and security” not only in Mozambique but “but also to the whole region and humanity at large”.

The leaders said that they will consider regional response at a further summit in three weeks.

In a concluding statement, they said “such heinous attacks cannot be allowed to continue without a proportionate regional response”, but gave no details of their planned action.

Analysts say the stability of the wider region is at stake, as well as the spin-offs of a liquified natural gas (LNG) project on the Afungi peninsula — the biggest single investment in Africa, led by Total.

“The hope is that Mozambique will open its doors to some practical assistance,” said Crisis Group analyst Piers Pigou, noting that the country had so far only sought ad hoc help from other SADC members on a bilateral basis.

Convincing President Filipe Nyusi to stop playing “sovereignty politics” and cooperate with the bloc would be key to thwarting the insurgency, Pigou said.

“The question is whether it can be nipped in the bud at this juncture without spreading further,” he added.

On the eve of the SADC talks, Nyusi said his government was “evaluating” its needs for external support, cautioning: “It’s not about empty pride, it’s about a sense of sovereignty”.

The president added: “No war is won if it is not clear from the start, (about) what must be done by our country and what must be done by the allies.”

– ‘On our doorstep’ –

While Mozambique’s jihadists have so far remained relatively contained, their 2018 allegiance to the Islamic State group has raised fears of a more expansive agenda and more sophisticated tactics.

Mozambican civil society activist Adriano Nuvunga said the fallout of a worsening insurgency could be momentous.

“If Mozambique was to collapse, it could be used by all sorts of groups as a transit point to affect the region,” he warned.

The southeast African country on the Indian Ocean shares borders with Malawi, South Africa, Tanzania, Zambia, Eswatini and Zimbabwe.

“The borders with Mozambique are huge and not easy to manage,” said Tanzanian independent analyst Kennedy Mmari, warning that the insurgency could “accelerate” extremism in his country.

Mozambique’s jihadists have already targeted parts of southern Tanzania, including a deadly raid on the city of Mtwara last October.

Most of the group’s foreign recruits are thought to come from Tanzania.

“It’s on our doorstep,” said South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies researcher Liesl Louw-Vaudran.

“It would be a huge issue if there was a growing insurgency in southern Africa, where we haven’t really seen any violent extremism,” she said.

The most vulnerable countries are those adjacent to Cabo Delgado, Louw-Vaudran said, singling out Malawi alongside Tanzania.

But she noted the risk of territorial expansion remained “quite limited” for the time being, as the jihadists seemed more prone to spreading further into Mozambique than crossing borders.

– Gas at stake –

Security concerns are compounded by the insurgency’s proximity to the LNG project, originally scheduled to go on stream in 2024, before the Palma attack.

These “world-class gas reserves” were meant to turn Mozambique into an “energy giant” in a region seeking to boost and diversify its energy supply, Nuvunga said.

Analysts fear the unrest could push the international energy companies to fully abandon the LNG site, and deter future investments in the area.

Trade corridors are also threatened.

Analysts pointed to the corridor linking landlocked Malawi, Zambia and Zimbabwe to Mozambique’s Beira port, and the Cahora Bassa hydroelectric dam — the largest in southern Africa — located in northwestern Mozambique.

If the insurgency is not tackled, “it can hijack resource development in the region,” Nuvunga said.

More than 2,600 people have been killed and 670,000 displaced since the rebel insurgency started in 2017, creating a massive humanitarian crisis, according to UN agencies.

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