Insurgency haunts Mozambique gas fields

A local islamist insurgency is threatening to derail Mozambique's path to economic recovery.


Mozambique’s Rovuma basin contains gas reserves that could generate significant wealth, but the government faces a security challenge from Islamist militants in the region. Tendai Marima reports.

Impoverished by years of neglect and under-development, the discovery of large natural gas fields in Mozambique’s northern Rovuma basin has the potential to create significant wealth in the region, but the struggle against a local Islamist insurgency could threaten investment. Since 2017, attacks on villages, government structures and local transport networks have been launched by Islamist militants, who thrive in a region beset by poverty.

The historic roots of discontent in the northern region date to a perceived economic bias towards the south of the country that began under Portuguese colonists and was later exacerbated by the ruling Frelimo party. Poverty, unemployment and lack of education in the north have allowed insurgent leaders to exploit feelings of bitterness and marginalisation among local communities. Yet the motivation behind the attacks, which commenced in late 2017, remains unclear. Locally the group is known as Al Sunna wa Jamma’ah (ASWJ), while others refer to it as Al Shabaab, despite no known links to the Somali jihadist network of the same name. Its attacks have largely targeted civilians.

According to reports of police arrests, the disparate group, which consists mostly of locals with some foreign militants from Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya, have killed over 250 villagers and destroyed local businesses. On at least two occasions, buses carrying oil workers have been attacked along key trading routes connecting Mocimboa da Praia, the port closest to the offshore gas sites, to other villages in Cabo Delgado. While analysts suggest the incidents were isolated events, the recent recruitment of Russian military contractors suggests that the government is increasingly concerned by developments.

An ambush in Cabo Delgado’s Muidumbe district in October reportedly resulted in the death of 20 Mozambican troops and five security personnel employed by the Wagner Group, a private Russian military firm that is active in many conflict zones around the world and is widely held to act as a proxy for the Russian government.

While ending the insurgency is crucial for Mozambique, which hopes to exploit its vast energy reserves in order to revive the fortunes of the neglected region, an excessive response by a government seeking to impose its will could inflame the situation and exacerbate violence. In an essay for the Lawfare blog, researchers Hilary Matfess and Alexander Noyes argued that the government’s response has been “extremely heavy handed and militarized,” including shutting mosques and detention without trial.

“Mozambique needs to handle this growing security challenge in a way that will tackle the problem instead of exacerbating it with heavy-handed tactics justified as being “tough on terrorism.” A more comprehensive approach, which focuses on shared socioeconomic development and leverages international partnerships, would be more effective in fighting extremist groups like ASWJ,” they argue.

Gas-fired developments

The insurgency comes at a time when the government is hoping to ramp up investment in oil and gas projects. The government believes that LNG projects have the potential to create over 15,000 jobs while supporting offshoot projects including electricity generation. A 2019 World Bank report on poverty assessment in Mozambique notes that GDP grew at an average rate of 7.2% per year between 2000 and 2016. However, poverty rates remained largely unchanged in the Cabo Delgado region.

In October ExxonMobil confirmed that it plans to invest more than $500m in the initial construction phase of its LNG project, a planned $30bn venture to be jointly operated with Italy’s Eni. The project will have a capacity of more than 15m tonnes a year.

ExxonMobil did not respond to questions from African Business about the security of its investment in the region, but the company’s website describes Rovuma LNG as “a project designed for success… [which will] pave the way for industrialization that will benefit generations to come.”

Local grievances

Despite the promise of such investment, local citizens accuse President Filipe Nyusi of prioritising the safety of foreign companies over ordinary northerners. Augusto Omarr, 68, a shop owner in Pemba, the capital of Cabo Delgado, says that the government’s blindness to local grievances continues to stoke tensions.

“It’s like all they want to do is to protect the oil, but the local people are not safe. Almost everyday, you hear a village has been attacked because the government doesn’t seem to be able to stop Al Shabaab… They will just arrest anyone they think is involved with Shabaab, but still we are not safe.”

Zenaida Machado, Angola and Mozambique researcher with Human Rights Watch says that the security forces’ inability to deal with the problem risked creating more discontent: “Security forces should engage communities and build an environment of trust and collaboration instead of committing abuses against them by arbitrarily arresting and ill-treating anyone they suspect to be an insurgent.”

President Nyusi and the ruling Frelimo party were re-elected in an October contest in which he promised peace and prosperity to the people of the north. Over the next five years, Nyusi will attempt to court further investment while ensuring the low-level conflict in the north does not escalate.

Khaled Sherif, vice-president for regional development, integration and business delivery at the African Development Bank, has suggested that Mozambique could create a sovereign wealth fund to manage future revenues for the benefit of the nation and local communities.

“At this point, Mozambique might consider setting up a sovereign wealth fund or other financial vehicle as a cushion against future shocks and to help the Mozambican people,” he told Lusa, the Portuguese news agency, in November.

Companies can also play their role, according to Matfess and Noyes, by urging the government to respond in a responsible manner.

“International corporations operating in the region can play a role and could be encouraged to engage with local communities through corporate social responsibility programs and fair labour practices. They can also use their influence to help push the government in the right direction.”

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