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Death, displacement, and despair in Mozambique after terror attacks

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A military convoy of South Africa National Defence Forces rides along a dirt road in the Maringanha district in Pemba. The Southern African Development Community (SADC) bloc is rallying behind neighbouring Mozambique, sending troops to battle jihadists wreaking havoc in the gas-rich north and posing a threat to other countries. Regional giant South Africa announced on July 28 it would deploy 1,500 to fight the terrorist insurgency that has left more than 3,000 people dead and halted Africa’s biggest private investment yet. – Picture: Alfredo Zuniga / AFP / Taken on August 5, 2021

By Kim Heller

At the COP28 United Nation’s climate conference in Dubai, in December 2023, the President of Mozambique, Filipe Nyusi, spoke optimistically about the country’s prospects. The President shared details of an eighty-billion-dollar energy transition plan that would help to position the country as a sustainable investment destination.

Mozambique has a treasure trove of offshore natural gas reserves, as well as hydroelectric, wind and solar resources. President Nyusi told delegates of the intent to leverage Mozambique’s “abundant renewable and natural resources to accelerate the trajectory of low-carbon socio-economic development”. The President shared his goal of attracting financial investment of close to three billion dollars in 2024. This in the creation of a brighter future for Mozambique.

2024 was looking bright indeed. The resumption of a massive hydropower project with TotalEnergies worth over twenty billion dollars was set to be a real win for Mozambique. This project had been put on hold in 2021 after attacks of civilians and infrastructure by insurgent group, Al-Shabab, in North Mozambique. TotalEnergies declared force majeure and construction was summarily stopped in that year. For years, large-scale investment such as this project, has been stillborn due to the ongoing security crisis in Mozambique.

TotalEnergies expressed interest and intention to return in 2024 after an address by President Nyusi in mid-2023 promised increased security. Other investors, including Exxon are considering re-entry at a later date if Mozambique stabilises. The re-entry of large foreign investors is key to the economic development of Mozambique.

But an outbreak of insurgent attacks in January and February of this new year by Al-Shabab seems to have put paid to hopes for peace and stability. For now, death, displacement and despair are the major social features of Mozambique, in the Northern Province of Cabo Delgado.

An official government announcement on February 27 confirmed that over 67, 000 citizens have had to flee their homes after a spate of violent attacks by the rebel Al-Shabab group. UNICEF places the displacement figure at over 70,000 people and has reported that 85 percent of these are women. Buildings, including schools, have been burned.

The recent outbreak of violence has once again triggered fears about Mozambique’s security and stability and investors may be scared off once again. Today Mozambique, ranks among one of the world’s poorest countries, despite its highly prized gas and hydrocarbon resources. Large scale investment, which ensures local beneficiation, drives employment, and boosts country revenue is required if the country is to enjoy a brighter tomorrow.

Gas-rich Cabo Delgado has been under siege since 2017 by Al-Shabab insurgents. It is estimated that since 2017, 4,500 people have been killed and over one million, displaced, mostly women and children. The terror attacks have crippled Mozambique’s capacity to harness the production of gas and positively impact on the country’s longer-term economic and socio-development objectives.

The last few years in Mozambique have seen a lull in terror attacks. The presence of troops from Rwanda (RDF) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) since 2021 has added considerable muster and military might to the Mozambique army, and the rebel movement has been significantly weakened. It is estimated that the number of Al-Shabab have reduced from around 3,000 to just 200 fighters. The RDF and SADC troops were largely successful in bringing stability back to the Palma district close to key ports as well as the TotalEnergies gas site. In September 2021, the President of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, said: “The rebels have been warned: We won’t let them come back and threaten the lives of Mozambicans.”

The decrease in the number of attacks in 2023 had brought a measure of optimism. But once again hopes for billion-dollar investments may be fading unless the insurgency is totally snuffed out. The rebels, although small in numbers, appears to be highly agile and equipped for sporadic guerrilla warfare against communities.

The plans for TotalEnergies to return are in jeopardy. Patrick Pouyanné of TotalEnergies said that they are scrutinising security and human rights reports on the situation as they begin to remobilise contractors and financing. He said, “I hope that the construction works will be able to kick off again some time half-way through the year. We are keeping a close eye on the situation. Again, what I want to avoid at all costs is to decide to bring people back on-site and then have to get them all out again.”

2024 is set to be a critical year for Mozambique. It could well be a make-or-break year. The desperately poor citizens of Mozambique will continue to be ravaged by insurgency and poverty unless the government intervenes with strong action, both on the military front and economic development front.

Despite Mozambique having the 14th largest natural gas reserves in the world. close to 50 percent of the population does not have electricity. Following the Russian Ukraine war, Mozambique’s gas resources became even more appealing and precious for European countries. Currently most of Mozambique’s gas and hydropower is exported, including to South Africa, although this agreement is nearing its end.

Moving forward, the President of Mozambique needs to put in place policies and plans whereby the citizens of the country become the chief beneficiaries of local resources and natural wealth. For now, Mozambique like most African states, continues to serve the interest of foreign nations while their own citizens languish in lingering poverty. The President needs to ensure that ordinary citizens as well as investors are afforded protection against insurgency. The possibility of increased and intensified attacks is likely especially in the face of imminent SADC withdrawal. This will necessitate an honest assessment of the capacity of the Mozambique military forces as well as highly accurate intelligence on the scale and strategy of Al-Shabab. To underplay the problem of insurgency and overestimate Mozambique’s military capability is to exacerbate rather than root out the problem.

It is election year in Mozambique. As President Filipe Nyusi prepares for the October poll, one hopes he will lay down a set of actionable policies which are geared towards protecting citizens from both the terror of insurgency and from unflagging poverty. In the words of the famous songwriter and singer, Miriam Makeba, ALUTA CONTINUA.

Kim Heller is a political analyst and author of ‘No White Lies: Black Politics and White Power in South Africa’.

This article was written exclusively for The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.