If foreign interventions fail to control the Cabo Delgado jihadist insurgency, Mozambique risks becoming a failed state.
In a nutshell
- Mozambique’s promising natural gas industry is paralyzed by terrorism
- Foreign intervention may help control the insurgency, but risks remain
- Corruption issues have also damaged the country’s reputation abroad
For more than a decade, Mozambique has been living with the expectation of developing its significant natural gas resources, mostly located offshore of the northern province of Cabo Delgado. One notable discovery from Italian energy company Eni, for example, is the Mamba South Field, containing up to 425 billion cubic meters of gas. But the awaited energy boom that would rapidly transform the country’s economy and the lives of its people has so far failed to materialize.
Old tensions from the civil war
There are complex reasons why this energy boom did not take place. Mozambique has a political past fraught with turmoil. In 1975, the East African country declared its independence from Portugal. A guerrilla war against the colonial power was carried out by the Front of Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO) – a Marxist-inspired armed movement that, once in power, imposed a one-party system under President Samora Machel.
After independence, the population protested against the new communist power supported by Mao’s China and its brutal repression. Tribal divisions helped create a strong opposition, led by the National Resistance of Mozambique (RENAMO). Also, the white minority regimes then in place in the region – Ian Smith’s Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa – seized the opportunity to destabilize Mozambique, whose economy unraveled after the Portuguese settlers were expelled from the country.
The civil war went on for nearly 20 years. In October 1992, thanks to the informal mediation of the Community of Sant’Egidio of Rome, a deal was reached. International institutions later endorsed the results, and a peace agreement was signed in Rome between the FRELIMO government and the armed opposition of RENAMO. It was signed by President Joaquim Chissano on behalf of the FRELIMO government, and RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama. Following the treaty, RENAMO successfully transformed itself from a guerrilla movement into a political party.
However, as has often happened in sub-Saharan democracies, once the FRELIMO government began ruling, it started to use any means necessary to keep its grip on power.
Facts & figures
New energy possibilities
In the early 2010s, Mr. Dhaklama and RENAMO went back to their guerilla methods, frustrated by FRELIMO’s repeated electoral victories. The country did not exactly return to civil war, but it was also not at peace. Roads became unsafe. This security threat dealt an unexpected blow to natural gas exploration projects, which had already begun with major oil and gas companies such as France’s Total, the American ExxonMobil, China’s CNPC and Italy’s Eni.
Today, with the revolution in international energy markets after the invasion of Ukraine, oil and gas prices have rocketed. Mozambique, with its proven gas reserves, looked poised to become an important energy player.
But on top of the classic problems of corruption, mismanagement and bureaucratic delays that plague many developing nations, the country faced two additional obstacles. The first was the rise of jihadist activity in the north of Mozambique. The other was the “ghost loan” corruption scandal.
Approximately 60 percent of Mozambique’s 32 million inhabitants are Christian. Some 20 percent are Muslim; most of the latter live in the north of the country. In recent years, a radical movement anchored in fundamentalist Islam emerged in the northern and central regions, which encouraged young people to travel abroad for indoctrination in Somalia, Sudan and even Persian Gulf countries. Upon their return, they brought with them money, weapons and a mission to build new mosques and preach radical ideas based on the ideology of groups such as al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
The Mozambican jihadists call themselves Ansar-al-Sunna (Followers of Tradition). They have found fertile ground for radicalization among marginalized groups that feel exploited by politicians and businessmen from the capital, Maputo.
Another contributing factor is the ineffectiveness of the Mozambican police and military forces. Relations with Tanzania are tense, and the border is porous. Thanks to these security liabilities, rebels were able to destabilize the entire Cabo Delgado province by terrorizing villagers, burning dwellings, beheading people, kidnapping children, and forcing civil servants to flee to the provincial capital, Palma. But even Palma was attacked and partially sacked in March 2021.
Eventually, insurgents declared independence for the occupied territory, naming it the Islamic Central Africa Province (ISCAP). After that, ExxonMobil and Total froze their exploitation projects in Mozambique.
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The Rwandan intervention
This demonstration of power by the terrorists also mobilized foreign countries like Rwanda and members of the South African Development Community (SADC) to send military support.
Faced with the weakness of its army, Mozambique tried to secure external support. Maputo hired several private military companies. Russian mercenaries linked to the Wagner Group arrived in Mozambique in September 2019, but could not stabilize Cabo Delgado. Later, a South African private security company, the Dyck Advisory Group, also failed to put an end to the violence.
In July 2021, through the mediation of French President Emmanuel Macron and Rwandan President Paul Kagame, a contingent of 1,000 Rwandan troops arrived in Mozambique. At that time forces from the SADC were already present as well.
The Rwandan intervention was initially successful, and the terrorists retreated to nearby areas. But the situation required an increase in the Rwandan contingent, which by December 2022 numbered over 2,500 men, according to Mr. Kagame himself, paid entirely by Kigali. “It is the money of our country that we use,” underlined the Rwandan president.
In a statement at the end of 2022, President Filipe Nyusi reaffirmed his goal to salvage the country’s economy by going forward with LNG exploitation.
Reaching this goal would require a military capacity that the country currently does not have. Following what some observers call a pan-African strategy, President Nyusi counts on the Rwandans and SADC forces, led by Pretoria. But South Africa is also facing serious social and economic problems.
Many in Mozambique now advocate for more Chinese, Russian and Indian involvement. At the United Nations, Maputo abstained from condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The ‘ghost loans’
In addition to terrorism, the country was rocked by a massive corruption affair involving important members of Mozambique’s establishment as well as European bankers and businessmen – the so-called “ghost loan” scandal.
In 2013, it was revealed that a $2 billion loan to Mozambican companies had been misappropriated. Among the people arrested were the son of President Armando Guebuza, the leader’s private secretary, and top security officials.
The case dealt a terrible blow to Mozambique’s reputation, rapidly degenerating into a crisis with international donors. At the time, Mr. Nyusi was defense minister and the “ghost loans” case strengthened his wing in the party. First elected president in 2015, he won a landslide victory in September 2022, and there are now rumors that he wants to change the constitution to run for a third term.
Mozambique may be able to bring the Cabo Delgado insurgency under control thanks to the military efforts of Rwanda and SADC. Then, oil and gas giants would resume exploration projects, boosting the country’s economy. This scenario appears unlikely since rebels are currently expanding to the neighboring provinces of Nampula and Niassa.
Tensions between FRELIMO and RENAMO have apparently been resolved because the opposition guerilla fighters have now agreed to demobilize, accepting the government’s proposal to integrate into the police forces.
But the security problem now is jihadist terrorism. The country’s entire future depends on the capacity of international forces to stop terrorism and insecurity. For that, Mr. Nyusi needs to unite his own party and pave the way to an understanding with RENAMO. If the jihadists continue to wreak havoc in the north, energy companies will withdraw for good. Mozambique would then risk becoming a failed state.