Mozambique's Islamic Insurgency Spooks Global Gas Industry - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Global energy groups have committed themselves to billions of dollars in investment in the country since the world’s largest offshore gasfield was discovered off Cabo Delgado in 2011.
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With the world's largest offshore gas field, Mozambique has a shot at economic success. An extremist movement is threatening that.

By Joseph Coterill

An escalating Islamist insurgency in Mozambique’s far northeast is intensifying the risks facing the country’s vast new offshore gas developments at a time when the coronavirus pandemic is decimating demand.

The militants — until recently an obscure group mounting low-level attacks across remote villages in the Cabo Delgado province — have this month swept through major towns and declared their ambition to replace the secular authorities represented by the government of President Filipe Nyusi with an Islamic state. 

They [the insurgents] have gained confidence, and they seem to have gained capacity as well.

Adriano Nuvunga, Centre for Democracy and Development

The attacks have been ferocious: Mozambique’s armed forces confirmed on Tuesday that 52 people were massacred in one incident. The insurgents’ new boldness was signaled in a message left scrawled on a bank ransacked in a separate attack: “Money is from Al-Shabaab (Islamist government), Islamic state in the entire world.”

“They [the insurgents] have gained confidence, and they seem to have gained capacity as well,” says Adriano Nuvunga, the director of Mozambique’s Centre for Democracy and Development.

Global energy groups have committed themselves to billions of dollars in investment in the country since the world’s largest offshore gasfield was discovered off Cabo Delgado in 2011.

The insurgency is rooted in the grievances of an isolated region in one of Africa’s poorest countries where many have expressed concern over how the coming gas bonanza will be shared. 

Hundreds have been killed since the conflict began in 2017, and more than 100,000 have been displaced in what Pope Francis called a “grave humanitarian crisis” in his Easter message this year.

Civic leaders in the Muslim-majority province have long warned that youth frustration over corruption, lack of education and inability to escape subsistence farming were boiling over into extremism. 

“Cabo Delgado is in a situation of isolation and it does not even seem that we are part of Mozambique,” Luiz Fernando Lisboa, the Catholic bishop of Pemba, the province’s capital, recently said. “If they don’t involve the population, if they don’t bring jobs to the youth, the [gas] resources end up becoming a curse.” 

The insurgents have not targeted the gas industry directly since last year, when an Anadarko Petroleum consultant was killed and several people were injured in separate attacks on convoys.

But the upsurge in violence is adding to the headwinds facing the industry as coronavirus lockdowns across the world slash demand. Earlier this month, ExxonMobil delayed a final decision on investing up to $30 billion in one Mozambican LNG project, which it co-owns with Eni, as it cuts spending in response to the oil market collapse. Crude prices benchmark the pricing of LNG.

The start of ExxonMobil’s natural gas production had been set for 2025 but may now take many more years and require cuts to costs, analysts say.

“That said, Mozambique is very strategic. These are long-life projects supported by credible partners with strong balance sheets able to weather the current price crash,” says Juma Mlawa, a Wood Mackenzie analyst.

The coronavirus pandemic has also affected existing operations, with most of Mozambique’s few dozen confirmed infections linked to an outbreak at a Cabo Delgado LNG facility under construction by Total. The company has cut personnel and scaled down activity to minimize the risk of further transmission, it said.

Nyusi said this month that he was working “night and day” to defend the country from the insurgents. But capacity in a government beset by corruption and poor finances, including the legacy of a debt default, is weak. 

Although Mozambique’s police commander said last week that there were “no areas that can be said to be in the hands of insurgents,” the recent attacks suggest militants are free to roam unmolested by demoralized security forces, observers say.

“Apparently, the state does not have either the capacity or the motivation,” says Nuvunga.

“Some of these young soldiers in the army, because they are not well equipped, pay is not there, and logistically they are not well taken care of — in the evening they take off their uniform and mingle with the population or go into hiding,” he adds.

Nyusi has instead increasingly used mercenaries to fight the insurgents. Russia’s Wagner Group, a paramilitary company, entered Cabo Delgado last year but reportedly suffered heavy losses. South African replacements recently arrived.

A media blackout by security forces — including arbitrary detention of journalists — has made it difficult to establish whether the government has a clear strategy. 

This month Ibrahimo Abu Mbaruco, a community reporter, became the latest local journalist to go missing after reporting that he was being harassed by soldiers.

“The crackdown on formal news coverage in Cabo Delgado at the same time that there is widespread social media reporting — with inaccuracies and fake news — makes it very difficult to confirm what is happening in the civil war,” says Joseph Hanlon, a Mozambique expert at the U.K.’s Open University.

Meanwhile, thousands have fled the insurgents, with many heading for the provincial capital Pemba, which is reportedly under a military curfew.

Analysts say the rebels are unlikely to mount frontal attacks on cities but could try to infiltrate neighboring provinces — expanding a conflict that Nyusi is already failing to tackle.  “It’s like a pilot starting a plane without properly mapping the course of the flight,” says Nuvunga. “I see more muddling through . . . more militarization.”

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By Joseph Coterill

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