The Mozambican army is fighting Islamist militants in the province of Cabo Delgado. Picture: African News Agency (ANA) Archives
The Mozambican army is fighting Islamist militants in the province of Cabo Delgado. Picture: African News Agency (ANA) Archives

Mozambique conflict a thorn in side of AU peace initiatives

By Opinion Time of article published Mar 19, 2021

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Mushtak Parker

When outgoing AU chairperson President Cyril Ramaphosa handed over the reins to DRC President Felix Tshisekedi at the 34th AU summit in Addis Ababa in February, one of the key priorities for his successor was to strengthen peace and security on the continent.

It was left to Moussa Faki Mahamat, re-elected for a new term as chairperson of the AU Commission, to elaborate on a topic which African leaders find difficult to articulate.

Mahamat lamented to his political bosses that terrorism, community conflicts, violent extremism, violent electoral crises, transnational crimes and trafficking have hampered the development of the continent.

“We must,” he urged, “put an end to these tragedies that stick to the continent and degrade its image, in order to restore hope to Africans and build the Africa we want.”

DRC, Somalia and parts of northern Nigeria are in a near permanent state of civil war and swathes of countries in East and West Africa and the Sahel region are plagued by community conflicts.

In Mozambique, a violent militant insurgency has been gaining a foothold in the northern Muslim majority enclave of Cabo Delgado since 2017 in Africa’s 21st-century scramble for resources following the discovery of natural gas worth US$60bn in 2010 and the abundance of vast mineral resources including titanium, ilmenite, cobalt, zircon and rubies.

The latest attack occurred only last week in the northern town of Palma in Cabo Delgado.

The result, though tragic, is predictable. Reliable witness statements and reports, including by NGOs, the BBC and MSF, talk about murder, mayhem, displacement, and sadly in International Women’s Month, the abduction and rape of young girls.

For Mozambique’s beleaguered President Filipe Nyusi it’s a sense of Groundhog Day Syndrome.

Burnt-out huts are seen at the scene of an armed attack in Chitolo village, Mozambique. File picture: Mike Hutchings/Reuters

We’ve been here so many times in the past four years. The sheer chutzpah and lawlessness of the militants evokes a huge human and economic cost, which suggests that this fight is more over control of natural resources rather than a commitment to a misplaced jihadist ideology.

Despite its natural resources, Mozambique is classified by the World Bank and Islamic Development Bank, a mutual member country, as “one of the poorest countries on Earth.”

While Cabo Delgado burns, President Filipe Nyusi fiddles. His figurative mood music resembles the Maputo Reshuffle.

Last week he fired his army chief, Major-General Ezequiel Isac Muianga, and air force chief Major-General Messias André Niposso, offering no explanation for his action.

Villagers have testified that the army is not doing enough to protect civilians, villages and economic assets, and the army chain of command is wilfully unfit for its purpose.

The new chief of staff, Major-General Cristovao Chume and the air force chief, Brigadier Candido Jose Tirano, have the unenviable task of saving the graces of their president and the lot of Cabo Delgado’s suffering citizens.

Not so long ago it was the port town of Mocimboa da Praia, gateway to the offshore natural gas fields, which the militants captured from an incompetent and under-resourced Mozambican army.

Since the insurgency in Cabo Delgado started in 2017, almost 2 500 people, mainly civilians and the poor, have perished and more than half a million people have been driven from their homes in the past year.

Mozambique’s ‘resource curse’ is a magnet for a motley of foreign investors. Oil and gas companies, ECAs including US Exim, UK Export Finance, AfDB, SACE of Italy, the Export Credit Insurance Corporation of South Africa and Atradius of Holland, financial institutions, investment insurers and even rating agencies are salivating at the prospects of huge rewards, spinning the line that the LNG projects remain largely unaffected by the insurgency.

Thanks to them and the inability of Mozambican troops to deal with the insurgency, foreign security contractors (mainly burly white men, Russians and Afrikaners) are already on the ground protecting LNG installations and mining operations.

To what extent they will be joined by AU and SADC troops and military technical personnel from Portugal, the country’s ex-colonial power, remains to be seen.

A potential game-changer could be the designation last week by the Biden administration of Al Ansar al-Sunna, known as al-Shabaab in Mozambique, as a foreign terrorist organisation.

“Among other consequences, all property and interests in property of those designated that are subject to US jurisdiction are blocked, and US persons are generally prohibited from engaging in any transactions with them," said the US State Department.

Maputo awarded exploitation rights to three LNG projects, of which the first – the US$24bn Golfinho-Atum gas field in the offshore Rovuma basin – is being developed by a consortium led by France’s Total and is set to come on stream in 2024.

LNG contracts, however, are far from transparent. Very little of the proceeds from the investments are filtering through to the local people of Cabo Delgado, already impoverished and marginalised by decades of civil war which only formally ended in 2019, poor governance compounded by entrenched corruption and state capture, the effects of climate change including perennial floods, funnel caterpillar and locust invasions threatening crops, precious stone smuggling barons, the ongoing insurgency and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

As if the insurgency is not enough! The rising number of cases of Covid-19 has already affected work at LNG installations and at several mines, including the Moma titanium mine in northern Mozambique operated by Irish titanium feedstock producer Kenmare Resources, forcing some international personnel to be repatriated.

* Parker is an economist and writer based in London.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of IOL.

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