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Mozambique: War in resource-rich region threatens $25bn foreign investment

Pat Sidley, IBA Southern Africa CorrespondentThursday 23 June 2022

Image credit: Flag of Mozambique on military uniform/Adobe Stock

A war in the northern-most province in Mozambique – Cabo Delgado – that has killed almost 4,000 people and forced close to 800,000 to flee their homes, has barely made the news, though it has been on the boil since 2017. The Mozambique government itself did not acknowledge it for several years, even after pressure was exerted on it to do so.

Cabo Delgado province is rich in resources and has attracted much foreign investment though its people remain very poor, and when the war reached the town of Palma, killing scores of people and forcing thousands to flee, the French company Total found the war was threatening their $25bn investment. The company was developing a large gas deposit near the town and was going to begin shipping Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) in 2024. It was the largest foreign investment on the continent of Africa.

However, many of its workers and contractors lived in the town and have been forced out by the conflict, along with many deaths.  

In 2021, when the gravity of the situation became clear to Mozambique and its neighbours, troops from several countries (South Africa and Zimbabwe among them) joined a contingent from Rwanda which was already operating to restore order.

The situation had been deteriorating throughout 2020 and in April 2021 Total said it was suspending operations and declared force majeure. At the time, Total’s CEO Patrick Pouyanne said the company would only return if staff and residents of the area were able to do so in safety and security. It is a tall order and may not be entirely accomplished.

Rumours of a return to the development have waxed and waned with the movements of the insurgents. Until a month ago, violent attacks had calmed down, but within the past month, the violence has been on the increase again with reports that it has come perilously close to Pemba – the provincial capital. Despite this, it is hard to imagine Total not returning – but under different terms from those it has sought.

Rumours of a return to the development have waxed and waned with the movements of the insurgents

Claudia Santos Cruz, head of Oil & Gas at MDR Advogados in Mozambique, points out that violence in the area is not new. It goes back many decades to when Mozambique was plunged into a protracted civil war involving the ruling party Frelimo and the rebel movement Renamo, who controlled the mineral rich North. In more recent years and given the gas discoveries, the insurgency has been driven by many factors, including the region's political and economic marginalisation from the national government, external conflict forces and the displacement of local communities. She, too, remarks that this has produced many grievances which need to be adequately addressed to secure stability in the region. 

In the era of transition, gas has a significant role to play as a ‘bridge’ energy as we move to reduce carbon emissions. Mozambique is well placed given its abundance of both gas and renewable energy resources. Santos Cruz’s personal view is that Total is here to stay and apart from currently still investing in renewable energy projects, will also return to its LNG Area 1 project.

Alex Vines, Africa Programme Director at Chatham House, also believes Total will be back. The gas is of international grade, he says, and is not the only valuable deposit in Cabo Delgado which has other deposits of gas, minerals and gems. He says the war is ‘not all about gas’ but it is an exacerbating factor and has produced a sense of grievance among many who had hoped to see the fruits of the operation trickle down in their direction.  He says the operation would be the seventh largest producer of LNG in the world and ‘is truly transformative’.

Vines says there are several theories about who the insurgents are and what motivates them, including that it involves a regional jihadi group and that poverty in the local areas has produced the grievances and some have taken to the war in a popular uprising. Among the groups fighting there are militant Islamic insurgents from outside the country as well.

Longtime Mozambique observer, academic and author, Joe Hanlon, believes it is largely about resources, poverty and related grievances. He describes it as a ‘civil war’ and while ‘all civil wars are different, they all have a grievance’ present. Hanlon does not believe the grievances of the impoverished community in Cabo Delgado will disappear and thinks that the civil war will remain for the long term.

Hanlon says that as many as 24 countries have sent troops to Mozambique in addition to training operations by the US and EU.

Among the killings in Mozambique are scores of beheadings with locals forced to watch this at times. This is in addition to killings of unarmed civilians, rapes, gender-based violence and kidnappings. The human rights organisation Human Rights Watch says the situation deteriorated in 2020 and as well as reporting on the atrocities perpetrated by the insurgents, reported that the security forces ‘were implicated in serious abuses including arbitrary arrests, abductions, torture…and extra judicial executions’.  

In some areas, humanitarian organisations have had to stop operations because of the deteriorating situation. One of the reasons the war has been able to avoid any of the glare of publicity has been the fact that journalists have been harassed, at least one has disappeared and now before the president is a bill which would stop journalists from reporting on the war.

IBA President Sternford Moyo has called on the international community ‘to protect the people of Mozambique as they have in other regions’. He says: ‘The war in North-Eastern Mozambique resulted in thousands of civilians being killed, hundreds of women and girls being abducted, civilians being prevented from fleeing fighting in Cabo Delgado province, use of child soldiers by ISIS, allegations of aid for sex, and loss of a key town which fell under the control of “bandits”.’

He points out that the African Union only acknowledged the violence after a full year.

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