In this file photo taken on 16 February 2017, a Mozambican woman walks in Palma, a small, palm-fringed fishing town in Mozambique © John Wessels/AFP

Mozambique says it is trying to help civilians forced to flee The March 25 attack by an Islamist armed group linked to the Islamic State (ISIS), in the gas-rich town of Palma in northern Cabo Delgado province. The government urgently needs help from the Southern African Development Community and the African Union.

The attack by the Ansar al-Sunna group killed dozens of civilians, wounded many more, and caused mass flight.  

Mozambique’s  Defense Ministry spokesperson, Omar Saranga, said in a statement  on Sunday  that the military was  trying to rescue civilians caught up in the violence. Mozambican authorities should move swiftly to protect civilians and take all the steps they can to ensure that those responsible for these atrocities are brought to justice.

The attack began hours after Mozambique’s government and the French oil and gas company Total announced the gradual resumption of work on the Afungi industrial project, near Palma, citing an improvement in security conditions. Total had suspended activities and evacuated non-essential staff from the Afungi site in January after a series of insurgent attacks nearby.

According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, an estimated 1.3 million people are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection in the three northern provinces of Mozambique—Cabo Delgado, Niassa and Nampula—due to attacks by the group, that began in Cabo Delgado in October 2017. The UN said that nearly 670,000 people were internally displaced in Cabo Delgado, Niassa and Nampula by the end of last year with more than 570 violent incidents recorded in 2020 alone.

 The group, also known as al-Shabab in Mozambique but not related to the Somalia group,  announced last year that it aims to turn the oil-rich region into a caliphate. It has attacked villages, carried out summary executions, looted, destroyed civilian property and infrastructure, including schools and health centers, and seized the strategic port of  Mocimboa da Praia.

Human Rights Watch and other groups have also documented  abuses by government security forces during operations against the insurgents, including indiscriminate use of force, killings, kidnappings, arbitrary detention, and ill-treatment of detainees. No one has been held to account for these abuses.

The rise in horrific attacks since October 2017 raises concerns that the attacks may spread to other provinces in Mozambique and neighboring countries. This makes it imperative for the SADC and AU   to take urgent measures to help  Mozambique  protect civilians and end the abuses. The SADC should immediately act by providing humanitarian aid to the affected people and training for security forces tasked with protecting people in Cabo Delgado and elsewhere in the country, in accordance with human rights standards.

As the current SADC chairperson, Mozambique’s president, Filipe Nyusi, should tap into regional support to ensure civilian protection against attacks and to restore security in Cabo Delgado. South Africa’s Department of International Relations, reacting to the latest deadly attack in Palma, tweeted that South Africa stands ready to work with the government of Mozambique in pursuit of lasting peace and stability. Mozambican authorities should take up the offer.

 The SADC Extraordinary Organ Troika Summit in November  “noted with concern” the atrocities in the region, particularly in Cabo Delgado province and expressed continued SADC solidarity with Mozambique. The  Summit directed the finalization of a comprehensive regional response and support to Mozambique. But there has been no action since then that would suggest that the SADC was taking the Cabo Delgado crisis seriously.

Following a request by Mozambique in October  for help to combat the Islamist armed group, the European Union promised  humanitarian, security, and development assistance. In December, the then-acting US undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, Nathan A. Sales visited Maputo to reinforce the United States government’s commitment to support Mozambique’s efforts to counter terrorism and violent extremism.

On March 15,  the US and Mozambique governments  began a two-month Joint Combined Exchange Training  under which the US Special Operations Forces will train Mozambican marines. EU and US involvement in the conflict should focus on ensuring respect for human rights and protection of civilians.

While the AU last year called for redoubling  efforts to silence the guns in Africa and create conditions for the continent’s development, it has been slow to act in Cabo Delgado. If the SADC and the AU are serious about finding African solutions to African problems, they should step up efforts to ensure the protection of civilians, end the abuses by armed groups and government security forces, and hold all those responsible for abuses in the Cabo Delgado crisis to account.

As a starting point, SADC and the AU should consider appointing special envoys to lead the process. SADC should also urgently convene a special summit on the crisis to map out ways to support Mozambique to restore security and protect civilians. The AU Peace and Security Council , should urgently place the issue of Cabo Delgado on its agenda. The council has the authority to coordinate efforts between regional mechanisms and the AU to promote peace, security, and stability.

Mozambique authorities, SADC, and the African Union need to demonstrate to civilians in Palma and the entire Cabo Delgado province that their security and the protection of their rights is a top priority. Failure to act now could have dire consequences for the people of Cabo Delgado and the entire southern Africa region.