In the last three years, the Mozambican Government has been facing a growing instability in the province of Capo Delgado (located in the north of the country at the border with Tanzania) because of violent actions perpetrated by an insurgent group called “al-Shabaab” (“the youth” in Arabic, but not affiliated with the homonymous and more famous Somali jihadist movement). The first episode was registered in October 2017, with an attack in the city of Mocìmboa da Praia and the destruction of the police station and of other public buildings.
Since then, the attacks have multiplied all over the province, growing by number and dimension, initially targeting small cities, military posts, road connections, and then culminating in a well-coordinated large-scale attack on the city of Palma on March 24, 2021. Inhabited by 110,000 people (67,000 residents and 43,600 people who fled other areas), Palma is located less than 10 km from the Afungi Peninsula, where the Total plant for the production of liquefied natural gas (LNG) is currently under construction.
The insurgents took the city, killed an unspecified number of people, and forced tens of thousands of men, women, and children to flee trying to get to safety without the help of any institution. They fled on foot to the forest or paid for transportation by sea on any type of boat available. The occupation lasted only for some days but, even after two months, the area was far from being safe.
This latest episode has alarmed not only the Mozambican Government but also the neighbouring countries and even the western ones, concerned about the investments of the oil companies in that area and about the growth of a movement that, in July 2019, had declared its affiliation with ISIS. In reality, the consistency of this affiliation is not clear. Instead, the effects of this insurgence are tragically evident: more than 2,550 deaths and 750,000 displaced people, according to UN estimates. For this reason, the problem has expanded beyond the border of Mozambique and the SADC countries (the regional entity of Southern Africa) as well as the United States, France, Portugal, and the European Union which have offered military support to sustain the inefficient Mozambican army. The issue is, of course, very delicate. While there are no concerns with obtaining military support or troops training, the option of an external military intervention is divisive within the Government.
What is being fought for
To explain the origins of the conflict, analysts have examined different hypotheses: the extreme marginality of the area, the harsh competition for resources, the ethnolinguistic conflicts, and the process of Islamic radicalisation. In Capo Delgado, this radicalisation (Muslims are about 18% in Mozambique but more than 50% in that province) has started well before 2017, as reported by the November 2017 Conference of the Islamic Council of Mozambique, a traditional Islamic entity that collaborates with the Government. At that time, protests had already been recorded and harshly repressed by the police, with riots influenced by preachers from Kenya and Tanzania.
This preaching skilfully exploited the wide social malaise and the feelings of exclusion from political, governmental, and power positions of the Mwani ethnic group as opposed to the Makonde ethnic group, a historical component of the Frelimo party that has always been in power. In fact, the young people who joined al-Shabaab are not as attracted by the religious message (of which, as opposed to their leader, they don’t know much) but rather they are attracted by its practical dimension: “We are fighting for something”.
All of this is happening at the same time as the discovery of gas fields, generating investments that are detached from the local economic fabric and have very little impact on the growing poverty but are enough to cause, instead, additional inequalities and new conflicts for the land.
Mozambique has been independent since June 25, 1975, following the collapse of the Portuguese regime (the “Carnation Revolution”). and the years of armed combat led by the Liberation Front of Mozambique (FRELIMO) under the leadership of Samora Moises Machel (after the assassination of the founder Eduardo Mondlane). The new government had to immediately face the rebellion of the Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO), created by the Rhodesian secret services in retaliation for the support that Mozambique guaranteed to Mugabe and to the liberation movements. After the independence of Zimbabwe (1980), support to RENAMO was offered by South Africa, and the FRELIMO tried to find a direct agreement with the apartheid regime. When the attempt failed (Nkomati agreement), the Mozambican government, unlike Angola, avoided the direct support from Russia and Cuba and simply accepted the military support from Zimbabwe. The FRELIMO party was not as skilled in internal policy as they were in foreign policy (balancing the Soviet bloc and the western one). This encouraged the transformational process of RENAMO, which took advantage of the government’s mistakes (in particular, the relationship with the rural sector and the “traditional powers”) and the marginalisation of the populations in the centre and North of the country. The situation stalled until, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the strong ties with the mediation of the Italian Government and the Community of Sant’Egidio opened the way for negotiation. After the multi-party elections of 1994, won by the new president Joaquim Chissano (Machel died in 1986 in a mysterious plane crash), Mozambique lived a long period of stability which opened the way for the foundation of a new party, MDM, which was untouched by the war. This period of stability was interrupted in 2014, when Dhlakama, leader of the RENAMO, restarted a violent protest to obtain the election of the provincial governments as the RENAMO, a minority party at national level, was the majority in some central provinces. Dhlakama died suddenly, before the new elections, and his passing facilitated the monopoly of power by the FRELIMO. The lack of a strong opposition party is among the causes of the widely spread corruption. The scandal of the “hidden debt” involved even Chissano’s successor, Armando Guebusa. The Islamic rise in the North might delay the exploitation of gas, for which 120 billion worth of investments are expected in the next few years, with the risk of production becoming effective only when the market will be saturated or less appealing than it is now. The growing indebtedness and the fight against the rebellion in the North are difficult challenges that the current president Filipe Nyusi is called to face.
key figure or organization
Alda Salomao, environmental protection activist who runs the “Terra Viva” Centre, defends the rights of the communities of Palma, in particular the ones living in the 7,000 km² of the Afungi Peninsula, where the industrial complex for the liquefaction of gas is currently under construction. According to her, the Government has not properly negotiated the expropriation and transfer of the populations to other villages. Instead, the Government is accused to have led the process in an authoritarian way by using intimidation widely and by building villages without involving those supposed to go live there. In one case, a cemetery was forcibly moved with a simple and offensive monetary compensation. In addition, the Government should have established training courses in advance, in order to allow young people to find job opportunities, from which they were actually excluded. This contributed to the growth of a sense of rebellion.
FOCUS 1 – Energetic raw materials
The construction of the liquefied natural gas (LNG) plant in the Afungi Peninsula has been interrupted again following the attack on Palma. Personnel was reduced to a minimum, pending the restoration of minimum safety conditions.
This decision delays the implementation time and creates issues to the sustainability of what is, at the moment, the largest private investment in Africa (more than 20 billion dollars). Security costs and, consequently, operational costs are bound to increase even if, according to the experts, this should not have a significant impact on the project’s profitability. However, it will certainly make it difficult for the first LNG cargo to leave by the beginning of 2024, as had been promised by the Mozambican government.
Different is the case of ENI, whose project is much smaller and should allow for the production of LNG already at the beginning of 2022. In fact, the project entails a floating LNG platform located on top of gas fields at 80 km from the coast. The fuel will be transported in tankers, so to avoid the difficult issues that arise on the mainland.
FOCUS 2 – Terrorism and repression
Military action is never enough to eradicate terrorism alone. On the contrary, in many cases, it has counterproductive effects because of its tendency to act indiscriminately, without any respect for human rights. In the case of Mozambique, besides the South-African mercenaries, even the troops deployed by the South have been perceived as “foreigners” (Capo Delgado is at the other end of the country), and they act as such. In fact, after the attack on Palma, not only were the military not able to help the fleeing population but also, once arrived, they ransacked the area indiscriminately, turned upon the survivors and devastated even the installations of a Swedish company.