EXPLAINER: Gas and guns: What’s going on in Mozambique, and should Zimbabwe be worried?

A woman holds her child after an attack on her village in Macomia, Cabo Delgado (Photo: MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

On April 30, President Emmerson Mnangagwa flew to Chimoio to meet Mozambican president Filipe Nyusi. Top of the agenda; the security crisis in Mozambique.

According to a communique released after the meeting: “The two Heads of State addressed the security situation in Cabo Delgado and parts of the provinces of Manica and Sofala where terrorists and armed groups carry out attacks, murders and destruction of public and private infrastructure and strongly condemned these acts, which seek to undermine efforts towards peace and development.”

Zimbabwe currently chairs the SADC organ on politics, defence and security cooperation. The country hands over the Troika to Botswana in August, as the SADC chair itself passes from Tanzania to Mozambique itself. 

In May, Mnangagwa said the Mozambican crisis needed “an enhanced joint action (by SADC) given the transnational nature of the terrorist groups” operating there.

So, what exactly is going on in Mozambique, and should Zimbabwe be worried? In this brief, we summarise the situation in Zimbabwe’s neighbour.

Where is this all happening?

Mozambique is facing security threats on two fronts. The first in Cabo Delgado, the northernmost province of the country. The second trouble area is in the Manica and Sofala provinces, in the centre.

Cabo Delgado borders Tanzania in the north. The province has 17 districts. A violent group has emerged in the Macomia and Mocímboa da Praia districts. The population in these areas are mostly Mwani and Makwe speakers, many of whom practice Islam.

(image: FT)

Who are the fighters?

A group called the Ahlu Sunna wa Jama, which claims ties to Isis, has emerged in Cabo.

While attacks escalated in 2017, violence was reported in 2014 and 2015 in Mocímboa da Praia, after groups of youth rebelled against older religious leaders and set up their own mosques.

“There were at least two years of social and psychological work to recruit, indoctrinate, brainwash and transform the youth,” according to a 2015 report by the Institute of Security Studies.

Some among the militants are from Tanzania and Somalia. Tanzania has since deployed its forces to the border regions. 

How bad is the fighting?

The conflict has killed hundreds of people. However, because the government has imposed a media ban on the area, it is impossible to know the true scale.

According to the UNHCR, at least 100,000 people have been displaced by the attacks in Cabo Delgado province since 2017. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) says over 900 people had been killed by March.

ACLED says Mozambique saw the biggest rise in Islamist-militant attacks last year, compared to any other place globally. The number of attacks have risen by 300% in the first four months of 2020.

A woman in Cabo Delgado looks at her home, torched by militants (pic: Jorge Marcos)

On March 23, the attackers raided Mocímboa da Praia by land and sea, and raised the Isis flag over a police station. They attacked an army barracks, robbed a bank and burnt down dozens of homes. In Quissanga, they appeared on video denouncing “the wealth of this world” and calling for Sharia law. Some 30 army officers were reportedly killed in that raid.

On April 7, militants killed 52 civilians in the town of Xitaxi for refusing to join them. The group has beheaded many villagers.

The government says 39 militants were killed when they tried to invade Muidumbe on April 7. Another 59 were killed in a gun battle in Querimba islands on April 10. Between April 11 and April 13, another 31 were killed on Ibo Island.

[UPDATED August: On August 12, militants occupied the port of Mocimboa da Praia, after fighting that claimed dozens of lives. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 250,000 people had been displaced by the end of July, double the number from March]

What’s life like in Cabo?

Cabo Delgado is the country’s poorest province, providing a breeding ground for extremism among the jobless youths.

According to Mozambique’s national statistics agency, 55.9% of youths in Cabo Delgado are out of school. Some 60.7% of people in Cabo are illiterate, well above the national average of 45%.

What of the gas boom?

Mozambique is on the verge of a major gas boom.

It is estimated that the offshore and onshore natural gas investments, which are in Cabo Delgado, could earn the country some US$100 billion over the next 25 years. That’s more than seven times Mozambique’s GDP.

Large American companies control the biggest assets. ExxonMobil, for example, has a US$30 billion LNG project in the area. Because of the crash in oil prices, a result of COVID-19, it has had to delay implementation of the project.

An LNG plant is to be built in the Palma district of Cabo, via a consortium that includes McDermott from the United States, Saipem from Italy, and Chiyoda from Japan. There have been attacks near this installation, the Afungi plant.

“Mozambique is very strategic to the oil companies…”

Many in Cabo fear they will not reap rewards from this energy boom.

“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, is quoted as saying. “If they don’t involve the population, if they don’t bring jobs to the youth, the [gas] resources end up becoming a curse.” 

Despite this, and the delays caused by COVID-19, the big companies are willing to ignore the conflict and press on with the lucrative projects.

“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,” Juma Mlawa, a Wood Mackenzie analyst, recently told the Financial Times.

Who is funding the gas projects?

Mozambique’s LNG is attracting the largest project financing ever seen in Africa.

The project financing so far includes direct and covered loans from at least eight export credit agencies, 19 international commercial banks, and a number of regional development banks.

The US government, through its Export-Import Bank, has granted close to US$5 billion in loans to help 70 American firms supply various goods and services to the Afungi LNG project.

French oil major Total has signed a US$14.9 billion debt financing agreement for its project, which is the largest project financing ever on the continent.

The UK Export Finance (UKEF) reportedly plans US$800 million worth of financing for the project. Other export credit agencies involved are Italy’s SACE, the Netherlands’ Atradius, the Export Credit Insurance Corporation of South Africa, Japan Bank for International Cooperation, Nippon Export and Investment Insurance, and the Export-Import Bank of Thailand.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) is providing a loan of US$400 million as part of a syndicate of banks. The African Export-Import Bank (Afreximbank) is committing up to US$400 million in guarantees and direct lending.

What of the Renamo threat?

Apart from the Islamic threat in the north, there is also another threat in the centre of the country. This one is from an old foe, Renamo, which was once led by the late Afonso Dhlakama.

In 2019, Renamo leader Ossufo Momade signed a peace deal with Nyusi. However, some in his party said Momade had sold out. Among them was Mariano Nhongo, leader of the military wing of Renamo.

“There will be war”: Mariano Nhongo, leader of armed Renamo splinter group (pic: Miramar)

Nhongo leads what he calls the “Renamo Military Junta”. He has warned that “there will be war” if Nyusi does not negotiate with him. He claims that his group is the legitimate Renamo. He also accuses Nyusi of rigging the 2019 elections, which the ruling party won with 73% of the vote.

“Ossufo and Filipe Nyusi are stealing what is ours and we will not accept going home with nothing,” said Nhongo late in 2019.

Over the past year, this group has launched a number of attacks in the Manica and Sofala. They have targeted trucks, cars and buses on the main roads in the two provinces.

Armed attacks reported on main roads in Mozambique (Pic: EPA-EFE / ANDRÉ CATUEIRA)

In March, Mozambique’s Interior Minister, Basílio Monteiro, announced a reinforcement of security measures in Manica and Sofala. However, attacks have continued.

Earlier this year, an attack on a bus reportedly left 10 people dead.

Is the Moza army prepared?

According to the Institute for Security Studies, one attack by the Ahlu-Sunnah Wal Jama’at in Cabo “met with little resistance, as there was only a handful of soldiers, some of them apparently asleep, at the time of the invasion”.

Adriano Nuvunga, the director of Mozambique’s Centre for Democracy and Development, told ISS: “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.”

Moza army: “Pay is not there, and logistically they are not well taken care of…” (Adrien Barbier/AFP) 

In January, at the UK-Africa Summit, Nyusi appealed for foreign help to deal with the security crisis.

Defense Minister Neto, who was part of the Nyusi delegation at the Mnangagwa meeting in Chimoio, has said: “Do we need reinforcement? Yes, and if we get them, we will use them.”

Are there mercenaries involved?

Various press reports suggest that the Mozambican government has hired mercenaries to try and deal with the militants.

Among these are Blackwater, a well-known private military company owned by Erik Prince. There have also been reports of the activity of 170 Russian fighters contracted by the Wagner Group, another mercenary group.

A September 2019 report said the Wagner contractors are said to have deployed from Nacala, with drones and Mi-17 gunships, only to be pegged back by the militants.  Mozambique then reportedly hired the Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), owned by former Zimbabwean Colonel Lionel Dyck, who helped defeat Renamo in the 1980s.

DAG has reportedly flown in helicopters to Pemba in Cabo Delgado on Mozambique’s northern coast, pushing back the militants in April.

Should Zimbabwe worry?

The Cabo group threatens to attack economic assets in Mozambique, including key trade routes and gas infrastructure, and establish Sharia. Over 100,000 people have been displaced already and an escalation could lead to a larger refugee crisis for the region.

The “Renamo Military Junta” is pledging more attacks until Nyusi recognises them as the legitimate Renamo.

Some of the attacks launched by the Renamo offshoot have been made on the EN6, the major highway that links the important port of Beira to Zimbabwe. The road is a major trade route into Zimbabwe, and is also critical for other SADC countries.