Review & Mail Writer
Rumours of war have spurred Zimbabwe into Mozambique to stem the potential of a faction that has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State.
There are legal questions to this deployment and the Harare regime has only recently offered feeble denials. The government may have rushed into this war believing that this is going to be a fast job. It is not going to be and worse, there is a danger that a purely military response will actually aggravate the situation.
Lessons from the Boko Haram conflict, among other conflict situations, are enlightening.
Make no mistake, violent extremism is dangerous and should be countered with all tools available. Currently, this might look like a problem for Mozambique only, but soon, this has the potential to proliferate into a regional problem. It is argued that a failure to attend to this issue is negligence, but a failure to use lessons learnt from other countries, such as Nigeria, will be worse: gross negligence.
The Boko Haram started as a fad at universities, colleges, mosques and other public places in North East Nigeria. It was an underestimated phenomenon. This was a mistake. The group used discontent and a perception of marginalization in North East Nigeria to recruit committed cadres. The Goodluck Jonathan administration scarcely gave the growing discontent attention. The major lesson for Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and most certainly SADC as whole, is that it is not a good idea to ignore outbreaks of violence. Violent extremism cannot be wished away.
The international community only noticed Boko Haram after 276 girls from Chibok were kidnapped from their dorms at a secondary school in Borno State. This crime spurred the world into notice, but not much action was directed towards addressing the problem. In any case, this was too late. Millions had already been displaced, interests entrenched and the narrative distorted.
SADC governments should converge as soon as possible to create a robust response before it’s late. The response does not necessarily have to be a violent one. This is an even more important lesson from the Boko Haram conflict. Initial perfunctory military responses resulted in human rights violations and incited even more grievances amongst the marginalized Kanuri communities. The militants used these acts of egregious violence to mobilise volunteers. Sympathisers turned into committed funders, fighters, supporters and members due to the perception that had been created by the military’s incompetent and often corrupt intervention. Communities could not stand the degrading treatment they experienced at the hands of their military.
Worse, these attacks resulted in militants retreating into thick forests and crossing borders into Cameroon, Chad and Niger. Dragnet operations in North Mozambique will drive militants into rear bases, extremities of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi. This is why the response must be comprehensive and a bottom-up approach. The aspirations of the people of Cabo Delgado, who feel marginalized and forgotten by the Maputo administration, must be at the centre of the response. Dialogue with communities should be comprehensive and complete.
Using military force should be a last resort. Significantly, the prosecution of the war must be professional; respecting the rules of war.
We are not savages. Rules of war do not permit indiscriminate targeting of civilians, civilian infrastructure, property and personal effects. Combatants who are demobilized due to illness, capture or injury or lay down their arms should be treated according to the law. Victimization of entire communities for their perceived support to insurgent groups is illegal – a war crime. A failure to respect these basic laws will exacerbate the situation by driving a wedge between the communities in the affected communities and their governments, to tragic consequences.
Not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done. Governments must hold to account forces who violate international laws. Protecting war criminals is going to reduce governments’ moral standing into that of savages and play right into the hands of the insurgents.
One hopes that a long drawn out war can still be avoided. Wars will result in millions displaced, livelihoods destroyed and families broken. Communities and national fabric will be shattered. Women and children will die in an endless bloodbath. Billions will be spent on the war effort. Our region as we know it will change. Surely, no one wants that.
Isolating the armed groups from the communities they are embedded can help avoid this bleak scenario. This can only be achieved by addressing the underlying aspirations, hopes and fears of communities such as Cabo Delgado. If the Mozambique government and the entire SADC region fails to do so, then we might as well be prepared for decades of bloodshed.
Christopher Nyamandi, is an aid worker with experience from Afghanistan, Nigeria, Iraq, South Sudan and Sudan (Darfur). He writes in his personal capacity.