Mozambique’s energy sector caught in Southern Africa’s first terrorist insurgency

By James Hall

Analysis in brief: Southern Africa’s first terrorist insurgency is casting doubt on progress to commercially exploit Mozambique’s promising natural gas deposits. Mozambique’s government has been unable to thwart the terror attacks, offering little hope for relief to multinational energy giants at work in the country.

The reaction of two of the largest oil companies at work in Mozambique, Total and ExxonMobil, to the insurgency of Islamist militants in the country’s northern Cabo Delgado province has signalled their perception of where the conflict is headed. Meeting with government authorities, the company officials did not press for a cessastion of violence that was threatening their investments, but merely for the deployment of more troops to guard their operations. Some oil installations have already been attacked. By their request for security, the oil majors were admitting there was no immediate solution to the terror operations now five years old, or their faith that government has a plan or ability to suppress the insurrection. Rather, the oil firms want protection beyond what their private security companies can provide. Clearly, they believe Mozambique is being challenged by a long-term problem; one that the Southern African Development Community has finally admitted has regional repercussions. Ironically, through their unkept promises to the people of Cabo Delgado, the energy companies are also responsible for their unsettled security situation.

An insurgency from the north takes root in Southern Africa

If energy companies are nervous about the Cabo Delgado insurgency, they require introspection regarding their own culpability. Reports have documented the disatisfaction of the region’s residents that they have not received the promised benefits of oil production and have suffered evictions, loss of livelihoods and environmental destruction. The militants have exploited these grievances to gain adherents and to prolong their insurgency. Attacks on oil infrastructure have been a distant after-thought for the Ansar al-Sunna (“Supporters of the Tradition”). The followers of Kenya’s radical cleric Aboud Rogo settled in Tanzania after his death in 2012 before moving southward one more country and appearing in Cabo Delgado in 2015. Five years before, in 2010, the US energy company Anadarko discovered a major gas reserve off the Cabo Delgado coast. Another large field was found by Italy’s ENI the following year, 2011. A rush followed as the world’s major energy companies descended upon the province with assurances that the locals would be impoverished no more. That was not to be, as local populations were evicted from ancestral lands to make way for oil and gas facilities, and jobs on a large scale failed to materlise. Meanwhile, Ansar al-Sunna announced itself by storming mosques with weaponry, declaring that the Islam practiced in Mozambique was unfaithful to their vision of the Prophent Mohammed, and that they would set up an Islamic Caliphate in the area. When local populations rejected their movement, years of brutal attacks on civilians ensued. Beheadings were the terror act of choice, and schools and clinics were targeted as being instruments of Western culture that was opposed by the extremists. Since the terror campaign against civilians began in 2017, 700 people have been killed and many more injured. Insurgents are believed to finance their activites through trade in illegal drugs and ivory.

People who have been displaced gather as food is distributed in Mocímboa da Praia, Cabo Delgado
Image courtesy of The New Humanitarian/ Eduardo Burmeister

Mozambique’s military, distracted by political infighting, sometimes armed, between the ruling Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO) party and the perennial opposition party the Mozambique National Resistance (RENAMO), mounted a desultory counter-insurgency. The militant group’s disorganisation – Ansar al-Sunna split into as many as eight separate cells – prevented a coherent anti-state campaign but permitted attacks to continue in an ad hoc manner. Mercenaries from Somalia’s terror group al-Shabaab were hired by Ansar al-Sunna to assist with attacks, although there was no formal alliance between the two groups. Nor was ISIS an ally, at least until mid-2018 when that group announced its presence with an attack on security forces.  By this time, the counter-productiveness of bloody attacks against civilians was tacitly acknowledged by Ansar al-Sunna, which changed tactics by appealing to widespread resentment against social injustices. One of the people’s greviences – widespread youth unemployment despite the energy sector boom – was successfully exploited to recruit youth members. Portuguese, the official language of Mozambique, replaced East African Swahili as the group’s means of communication, and foreigners have been outnumbered by Mozambican members, mostly from the districts of Macomia, Mocimboa da Praia and Palma. Thus, what began as a foreign incursion into Cabo Delgado motivated by a religious agenda has now become a militant social movement. The most potent counter-insurgency, then, would be state programmes focused on reducing poverty, improving social services and providing youth employment. However, such a plan is not only difficult for an impoverished country devastated by cyclones in 2019, but is the type of massive people-oriented project that has proved beyond the ability or interest of a corruption-plagued government.

Impact on the energy sector

Several factors impacting the future of Mozambique’s energy sector are occuring at a decisive time, when energy companies must fully commit with their Final Investment Decisions (FIDs). The stakes are huge. Africa’s three largest liquid natural gas (LNG) projects are in Cabo Delgado: Total’s US$ 20 billion Mozambique LNG Project, ENI/ExxonMobil’s US$ 4.7 billion Coral LFNG Project, and the US$ 30 billion ExxonMobil/ENI/CNPC Rovuma LNG Project. Falling energy prices worsened by the Covid-19 pandemic’s drag on energy demand is a discouraging but ultimately temporary matter. Such cycles are part of the energy business. More of a wild card is the Cabo Delgado security situation, which changed for the worse as the pandemic struck. On 23 March, militants took the fight to the military for the first time, attacking police and army installations in Ocimboa da Praia and routing the security forces. Then in another reversal of its previous tactic of terrorising civilians, Ansar al-Sunna fighters distributed food to villagers. Reportedly, the gesture contributed to local populations’ more receptive attitude toward the extremist group; an attitude grounded in growing resentment of the consequences of energy exploration. Cabo Delgado citizens are seeing that what is happening to them is a repeat of what occurred in Tete Province, when 60% of the residents’ land – farms, homes, shops, whole villages – were given to coal extraction companies. Locals now know that LNG extraction is occuring offshore, offering no jobs, while pipelines and on-shore support facilities are causing mass evictions. Physical relocation or loss of access to farmlands has affected 1500 families and some 3000 fishermen have lost access to fishing grounds. Relocated farmers are given fields near or overlapping fields of existing communities, causing conflict. Fishermen have been relocated 10km away from the sea.

Map of LNG discoveries, where insurgency is gaining momentum
Image courtesy of Petroleum Economist
Jihadist insurgents on Africa’s eastern shores
Image courtesy of The Economist

Societal security will lead to overall security

It seems inconceivable that the large energy companies could be so insensitive to the lives of local people, or offer jobs they knew would not exist or promise poverty alleviation without any plan. If the companies were relying on government to use energy industry revenues for anti-poverty and social welfare programmes, this seems willful naivete given government’s record of corruption and fiscal responsibility that was uncovered by the International Monetary Fund at the very time energy companies were making lease deals with government. However, a hopeful sign has come from government itself. President Filipe Nyusi has admitted that Ansar al-Sunna is finding support not through religious conversion or terror but because of “poverty and unemployment.” With the military proving unable to contain the insurgency, Nyusi has turned to the SADC for help. At an Extra-Ordinary Summit of the Troika on SADC Organ on Polics, Defence and Security Cooperation in Harare on 20 May 2020, SADC leaders agreed that an attack on any member country was an attack on all countries, and condemned the Cabo Delgao terror attacks. However, no troops were committed, and the summit concluded with a plan to “study” the situation in Mozambique.

None of this augurs well for an immediate cessation of insurgent violence. The energy industry’s short-term business decisions require a stable security situation now. However, only long-term programmes aimed at ending poverty and inequity will undercut the advances Ansar al-Sunna has enjoyed in 2020, with the increasing support of ISIS.

Critical points:

  • The Islamic insurgency of Mozambique’s Cabo Delgado Province is growing after five years, threatening the country’s new and promising energy sector
  • By failing to fulfil promises to end poverty and provide jobs, energy companies have worsened social welfare conditions and have generated support for insurgents
  • Government has been unable to mount an effective counter-insurgency, and military action to achieve security for the energy sector is insufficient without addressing the fundamental problem of poverty

The views expressed are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of In On Africa.