Putting Mozambique’s resource curse back on the agenda

The discovery of large deposits of gas in Rovuma Basin, off the coast of northern Mozambique, at the beginning of the last decade made Mozambicans dream of prosperity. They hoped the country would become one of the largest producers and exporters of liquefied natural gas (LNG) in Africa, with state revenues estimated at US$100 billion over 20 years.

Seven years later, however, a deadly armed insurgency emerged in the region, largely driven, the locals believe, by the gas discovery. To date, more than 4 000 people have died and close to 1 million have been displaced.

The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) has previously expressed its concern about the prevalence of conflicts related to natural resources on the continent. At a meeting in December 2019, it stressed the imperative of effective and transparent management. It called for equitable distribution of a country’s natural resources to ensure the interests and wellbeing of the local population, communities and the country.

This followed an AU ministerial conference in Bamako, Mali, the previous month to discuss the threat posed by disputes over access to natural resources. Some AU member states tried to put in place frameworks and processes to ensure equitable distribution of wealth from natural resources. However, in many cases, as the Mozambican example shows, natural resources are a curse, rather than a benefit.

Disputes over livelihoods

The exact link between the gas discovery and the insurgency has yet to be demonstrated, but the Maputo government has taken several unpopular measures to grant gas exploration rights to multinational oil companies. Measures have included limiting coastal communities’ access to the sea for fishing and taking thousands of hectares of land from local citizens without proper public consultation and fair compensation.

The government prioritised the protection of gas investments when the insurgency started

Historically, exploration of natural resources in Mozambique has been associated with conflicts between host communities and multinational mining companies linked to disputes of access to livelihoods. In almost all conflicts, the government backed the companies, deploying special police units to suppress popular uprisings with violence, often causing injuries and deaths.

Apart from expropriating land to give it to gas exploration companies, the government also seemingly prioritised the protection of gas investments when the Cabo Delgado insurgency started. This left neighbouring populations exposed to further attacks.

Protecting projects at all costs

As the conflict spread in northern Cabo Delgado, the gas exploration companies, led by the North-American Andarko and the Italian Eni, saw their investment totalling US$30 million at risk. They informed the government that they wanted to hire private military contractors to protect their assets. According to military sources interviewed by the PSC Report, the government rejected this, instead deploying contingents of the Mozambique armed defence forces and special unit police to provide security.

Agreements were signed between the government and the companies allowing the deployment of hundreds of highly trained military and police officers to protect the gas projects. In return, the gas companies paid fees to the government agencies. When the French TotalEnergies bought a stake in Mozambique’s LNG project and replaced Anadarko as the operator, it updated the agreement with the government to increase the number of officers deployed.

Through these agreements, the government guaranteed the protection of gas projects, but left local communities unprotected. Thus, while the projects were relatively safe, insurgents were able to attack. They occupied the city of Mocímboa da Praia – about 80km south of the gas projects, for a year.

Neglecting the security of the local population ultimately threatened the gas projects

From there they planned a successful attack on Palma in March 2021, eventually forcing TotalEnergies to suspend exploration, despite its project never having been directly targeted by the insurgents. This situation shows that neglecting the security of the local population ultimately threatened the gas projects.

Clearly, the arrangements for the protection of Afungi contributed negatively to the defence of other areas of the province, as the best human and material resources were protecting the gas projects. With these investments, the government prevented Afungi from being attacked, but was unable to guarantee the security of its surroundings, which eventually prompted TotalEnergies to suspend its operations.

Foreign military intervention

After the Palma attack, which interrupted TotalEnergies’ construction of a gas exploration and liquefaction plant, Mozambique asked that Rwanda and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC) help fight the Cabo Delgado insurgency. This deployment was endorsed by the PSC during its meeting in January 2022.

Around 2 000 Rwandan soldiers and police, the largest contingent and the first deployed to Cabo Delgado, went to secure the gas exploration zone in Palma and Mocímboa da Praia. The districts without gas were assigned SADC forces, which showed again that the government's priority was protection of gas projects rather than the security of the local population.

The AU can help to ensure that gas produced in Africa doesn’t lead to more suffering

About a year after the deployment of foreign troops to Cabo Delgado, insurgents’ attacks are again escalating, but with greater intensity outside the gas exploration zone. President Filipe Nyusi has apparently shown little concern for citizens of the rest of Cabo Delgado province. He stressed that security has already been restored in the gas-rich district of Palma and called on multinational gas companies to resume work in Afungi.

While the interest in gas exploration is justified by the importance it represents for the country’s economy, the protection of projects should not mean sacrificing the security of communities or relegating it to a secondary position.

Options for the PSC

The PSC could again put the issue of natural resources and attendant conflicts on the agenda for discussion. It should, as it did in December 2019, remind AU member states to domesticate AU legal instruments for the management of these resources. It should also reaffirm its support for the SADC Mission in Mozambique and assist it by raising funding. This could help save lives in Cabo Delgado.

The war in Ukraine has raised the stakes for gas-producing countries such as Mozambique. A high demand for gas, due to sanctions against Russia, has increased incentives to speed up production. Eni is set to start soon exporting gas from its offshore project in Rovuma Basin. The AU can help to ensure that gas produced in Africa doesn’t lead to more suffering for communities and individuals.

Image: © Willem Els/ISS

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