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Mozambique’s resource curse

Temporary UNHCR sheltors for people displaced by the conflict in Nampula, Mozambique

How natural gas blessing is turning into a curse

| THE INDEPENDENT | When dozens of local and foreign citizens were killed in an assault by insurgents in the northern Mozambique town of Palma in Cabo Delgado province in the last week of March, security observers described it as a “fresh wave of attacks.” They have witnessed similar attacks since at least 2017.

But insurgency activity has intensified since 2020 with attacks increasingly targeting activities in the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) sector. Over 2,600 people, mainly locals, have been killed and nearly 700,000 have been displaced.

The March 26 attack was the first seen to be targeting foreigners directly. Most were among about 200 people holed up in the Amarula Palma Hotel, a famous haunt for foreigners. Many were expatriate workers connected to Mozambique’s huge LNG projects. They were attacked as they attempted to escape from Amarula. Initially up to 60 people were reported missing.

The attack, seen as the eruption of new violence, could not have come at a more inopportune moment. It was the second time in a space of three months that the French energy major, Total, was being forced to beat a retreat following an attack by the insurgents. Total had in January evacuated its workers from its nearby site on the Afungi peninsula on the Indian Ocean coast. It was attempting to restart operations when the insurgents pounced again.

Total, which has invested heavily in Mozambique’s LNG sector, was again forced to suspend operations in the area.  Although it had set 2024 as the year of production, that appears not to be a possibility at the moment because of the shift in attacks.

Robert Besseling, founder and CEO of the intelligence company Pangea-Risk was quoted saying “there is a clear shift in strategy on the way.”

“You could almost certainly expect more attacks on LNG assets and personnel in the immediate future,” Besseling told the international business publication, Great Trade Review (GTR).

Extreme wealth, shocking poverty

The Cabo Delgado province is home to some 10 trillion cubic feet of natural gas which was confirmed in 2006 in its Rovuma Basin. Huge international capital has been attracted to the area since Anadarko, the U.S. energy company in 2010 discovered huge LNG deposits below the offshore deep waters in the Indian Ocean.

The area is now home to Africa’s three largest LNG projects: the Mozambique LNG Project (led by Total, formerly Anadarko) worth US$20 bn, Coral FLNG Project (led by ENI of Italy and ExxonMobil of the USA) worth US$4.7 bn, and Rovuma LNG Project (led by ExxonMobil, ENI and China National Petroleum Corporation [CNPC]) worth US$30bn.

Numerous public and private financiers like the export credit agencies of South Africa, Japan, China, Italy and Holland, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, Credit Agricole, BNP Paribas, as well as several major Chinese banks have signed agreements to purchase and exploit gas from the area.

Despite these vast investments, Cabo Delgado remains one of the country’s poorest provinces. Most youth are either farmers or fishermen. Many are unemployed. One theory is that the youth who are angry form the majority of the army of insurgents. The youth are said to resent the foreign firms and their expatriate workers who appear to be enjoying wealth from the LNG projects while locals wallow in poverty.

Although the violence in Cabo Delgado has been raging for about five years, it is still not clear what is behind it. Although some intelligence and conflict experts say a group commonly referred to as al-Sunnawa’a Jama’a (Islam roughly translated as “adherents of the prophetic tradition”) is pursuing Jihad or fighting oppressors in the same way as the Al-shabab in Somalia or Boko Haram in Nigeria, many others find the radical Islamic element confusing.

Fuelling a brutal war

Instead, according to a recent article in the democracy advocacy journal, Open Democracy, titled ‘War in Mozambique: a natural gas blessing, turned curse,’ mounting evidence points to the fact that the discovery of gas fields by foreign multinationals and subsequent pouring in billions of dollars -worth of investment could be a factor in the brutal war that has broken out in the Cabo Delgado province. Multinational corporations, Islamist extremists, the government of Mozambique and the Cabo Delgado locals are all seeking to cash in on the LNG discoveries, regardless of the socio-political costs.

Local populations in the province, who have not benefited from the gas discoveries, feel that the thousands of government troops deployed are there only to protect the interests of foreign firms rather than citizens.

The increased scale of attacks against state military facilities and government buildings is a mirror of the complex nature of the conflict pitting government forces against Islamist insurgents, albeit with the indirect influence of foreign capital.

This is partly because Mozambique is a predominantly Christian country with only 18% of the population reported to be Muslim. Until now, it has not been hit by any form of Islamist insurgency and no convincing explanation shows why that should change now.

Moreover, in the early years, President Filipe Nyusi called the attackers youths who have “been turned into instruments” by unidentified “people who don’t want the development of this country and this province.”

The Islamic link stuck possibly because the attackers often sport beards and white turbans and carry black flags. But this could be more of a fashion than religious attire, according to some observers. A popular claim is that a local ethnic group in the province, the Mwani who are majority Muslim, see themselves as historically, politically and economically marginalised by the majority ethnic group in the region, the Makonde, who are majority Christian. There have been attempts to link the Mozambique attackers to the al-Shabab of Somalia and ISIS of Iraq.

The region of Cabo Delgado borders southern Tanzania and is reportedly a big smuggling conduit for drugs like heroine from Afghanistan, wildlife and gold. Tanzania has, as a result, sporadically been sucked into the conflict together with Mozambique’s historical rebels known as Mozambican National Resistance; RENAMO, which is now the largest opposition party in the country under Ossufo Momade.

Link with Islamic militants?

According to a recent article in the Mail & Guardian headlined: ‘A more complex reality in Cabo Delgado’ the Frelimo leadership in Mozambique is pushing the foreign terrorism line very hard. And it does not want anyone suggesting that the insurgency is linked to the greed of the Frelimo elite, marginalization of youths and Muslims, and growing poverty and inequality.

“In private, Frelimo is very clear: it wants support from individual countries and private military contractors that will provide military help and parrot the message of Islamic State terrorism,” the article said.

In particular, Frelimo does not want the involvement of international organisations such as the Southern African Development Community, the EU or United Nations, which are big enough to issue reports pointing out the root causes of the insurgency. Mozambique wants humanitarian aid, but again it wants to be in charge.

President Filipe Nyusi is from Cabo Delgado and is from the Makonde ethnic group and Catholic. Nyusi has had strong support from Pope Francis, who made an unprecedented visit to Mozambique during the 2019 presidential election campaign when Nyusi was standing against a Muslim candidate, Ossufo Momade of Renamo. And on 11 February the pope withdrew the outspoken Catholic bishop of Pemba, Luis Fernando Lisboa, whom Nyusi had publicly criticized because he was standing up for local people.

A March 07 report by Aljazeera titled ‘Mozambican journalists’ lives are on the line in Cabo Delgado’ recounted stories of how journalists who do not tow disappear without trace.

One case is that of Ibrahimo Abu Mbaruco.  According to the report, on April 7, 2020, Mbaruco, a reporter for the Palma Community Radio in Cabo Delgado, left work for home at about 6pm and shortly after texted a colleague to say he was “surrounded by soldiers”. He has not been heard from since.

For years, Mbaruco has been covering the violence in Cabo Delgado, where armed groups have been terrorizing civilians since 2017. The violence has left hundreds dead and forced more than 565,000 people to flee their homes and villages. Sadly, Mbaruco’s story is not an anomaly.

Many local journalists reporting on the violence, and its links to Cabo Delgado’s US$50bn multinational liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry, have been subjected to random arrests, unlawful detentions, torture and assaults by Mozambique’s military and police since 2018. Just a month before Mbaruco’s encounter with “soldiers”, another local journalist, Roberto Abdala, had disappeared in the same region.

Not only transnational fossil fuel giants, private banking institutions and foreign security firms hold stakes in the province’s lucrative gas industry.  Many Mozambican elites also do. This means anyone raising inconvenient truths and asking questions about the possible links between the industry and the ongoing violence is a threat to their interests.

Journalists can only safely report on the region if they agree to tow the government’s line – that the violence is a simple case of “foreign Islamist terrorists” trying to gain a foothold in Mozambique. The truth, of course, is not that simple.

Since the discovery of a vast quantity of natural gas off the coast of Cabo Delgado in 2010, transnational energy giants all but one took over the province. Thus far, more than 550 families have been displaced from their lands and fishing grounds to make way for the Afungi LNG Park which will house onshore support facilities for industry players the LNG projects.

Cabo Delgado province was the centre of fighting against Portuguese colonial rule and delivered Mozambique’s national liberation. The socialist ideology of the period has stuck and appears to clash with the capitalism of the current government and the multinational energy companies.

According to GTR, the involvement of the big international companies in the LNG projects has put the Mozambican government under pressure to control the insurgency. But, it says, there are longstanding criticisms of the country’s current counterinsurgency approach; especially the government’s use of its security forces and private military companies instead of accepting offers of military assistance from partners in the SADC region.

“There has been a lack of understanding of the insurgency, weak intelligence gathering, and often the counterinsurgency operations have been brutal, heavy handed and targeted the local population,” Besseling told GTR.

Following the March attacks, leaders of the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) to which Mozambique belongs met in its capital Maputo on April 08 and agreed to send a technical team to assess the threat in readiness for troops from a revived SADC Brigade to intervene by end of the month.

But President Nyusi had at that point not made an official request for external troop deployment as required by SADC rules. Instead Nyusi appeared to favour intervention by American Special Forces, Portuguese and other European Union troops. He wants them to train Mozambican troops to fight the insurgents.

Other SADC leaders reportedly are not in support of Nyusi’s plans. They fear the involvement of American and European troops will escalate rather than deescalate the conflict as has happened elsewhere.

Meanwhile, earlier on March 02, Amnesty International released a report documenting extensive human rights violations allegedly committed in Cabo Delgado by the Mozambican security forces, including widespread extrajudicial killings and torture of civilians suspected of collaborating with militants.

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