Faltering insurgency in Mozambique still threatens lives – and gas projects

COMMENT

Attacks have resumed in Mozambique’s north-east, after a lull in April. These include in the district of Palma — home to the liquefied natural gas projects that carry the hope of transforming Mozambique’s economy (if they go ahead, and if the money is not stolen by elites).

Insurgents raided the village of Olumbe, 20km down the coast from the gas project site on the Afungi Peninsula. But the raid, although backed by the threat of violence, was not a murderous one. Instead, the insurgents — along with women and children hostages who accompanied them — had arrived to take food. 

A source said that the unrest in Olumbe began in the late afternoon of 6 May, when militants “accompanied by women and children fired several shots into the air”, forcing the local population, which had recently returned to the village, to flee again. “The people who had returned and had started their lives over, were left with nothing again.”

The incident is not a positive sign for the insurgency, which seems to be struggling this year during the lean months that follow the rainy season. 

In addition to the raids to steal food, there are also increasing numbers of reports of hostages being released — fewer mouths to feed — and even of fighters surrendering en masse, unable to tolerate the privations of life in the bush. 

But an attack in the district of Palma is a setback for any hopes that French oil company TotalEnergies will restart work on the Mozambique gas project this year — or that ExxonMobil will take a final investment decision on the even bigger project it plans to build next door. 

Any such decision will only come after TotalEnergies returns, Exxon and its partners have made clear. Speaking in France last month, TotalEnergies chief executive Patrick Pouyanne reiterated that work will not restart until he can safely visit not only the project site but also the towns of Palma and Mocímboa da Praia. 

Moreover, he said, “we don’t want to restart our activity surrounded by refugee camps”. The raid on Olumbe notwithstanding, the key districts of Palma and Mocímboa da Praia have been largely peaceful since the arrival of Rwandan troops in 2021. But to achieve the “sustainable security” that Pouyanne wants, Cabo Delgado needs more than just regular patrols by the Rwanda Defence Force.

Attempts to ramp up security are generating controversy. The Centre for Public Integrity, a Mozambican think-tank, last week issued a report accusing the government’s Cabo Delgado Reconstruction Plan of favouring Palma and Mocímboa da Praia, the two districts vital to the gas projects, over the rest of the conflict-hit region. 

Palma and Mocimboa are key districts and economically important,” points out Tomás Queface, a Mozambican analyst on the Cabo Ligado project that monitors the conflict in northern Mozambique. 

“Mocímboa and Palma had more infrastructure destroyed than districts such as Nangade and Quissanga,” he says, pointing to Mocímboa’s port and aerodromes in Mocímboa and Palma as examples. 

Either way, the reconstruction plan is only a partial solution. A more holistic response has been drawn up by the Mozambican government with the support of the United Nations, the European Union, the World Bank and the African Development Bank. 

But its plan hasn’t yet been approved by Mozambique’s Council of Ministers. Some from the conservative wing of Mozambique’s ruling party, Frelimo, apparently find the plan’s conclusions on the causes of the insurgency unpalatable. At issue is the idea that Frelimo, which has ruled the country since independence in 1975, shares the blame for the discontent that fuelled the insurgency.

The strategy paper has a section on “the endogenous factors of the conflict”, which include “socioeconomic asymmetries, the frustration of social expectations related to the exploitation of natural resources”. It notes that “the youth, in particular, feel in a constant state of waiting” and that they are excluded from decision-making. That contradicts the official government narrative that the insurgency is a foreign import. 

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.

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Luis Nhachote, The Continent
Luis Nhachote is an award-winning investigative journalist, editor and researcher, specialising in organised crime and the extractive industries

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