Médecins Sans Frontières camps for refugees fleeing violence in the northern Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado. Picture: MSF
Médecins Sans Frontières camps for refugees fleeing violence in the northern Mozambique province of Cabo Delgado. Picture: MSF

Cabo Delgado province in the northern-most part of the long Mozambican seaboard is now home to Africa’s three largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects. These have attracted many of the world’s major multinational energy companies, accompanied by massive LNG investments.

There can be little doubt that the discovery of rich LNG reserves is a potential game-changer for Mozambique’s economy and the development agenda of the country. It is potentially an opportunity for the rapid advancement of a country that ranks close to the bottom of the UN’s human development index. World Bank data annually ranks Mozambique among the poorest countries in the world. 

Since 2011, rich LNG reserves have been discovered off the coast of Cabo Delgado in the Rovuma Basin. With the discovery of major offshore gas fields many observers have been prompted to suggest that Mozambique has “hit the jackpot”. Recently it was claimed that by the mid-2020s Mozambique could become one of the top 10 LNG producers globally. Together, the gas projects are estimated to be worth $60bn, and this could obviously revolutionise Mozambique’s $15bn economy.

However, despite the billions in investments by major multinational energy companies since 2012, the people of Cabo Delgado are yet to see the material benefits from these projects.

One of the biggest risks for international investors in the LNG industry is the many unknowns associated with the threat posed by the militant Islamic movement Ansar al-Sunna, which has been especially active in Cabo Delgado since 2017.

Whereas Ansar al-Sunna, locally known as Al-Shabaab, initially advocated the “purification” of Islam in Mozambique by preaching a move away from the practices of the mystical traditions of Muslim Sufis — the majority of Muslims in Mozambique — and projecting Sufis as degenerate, the movement eventually made it clear that its goal was to impose Sharia law (Islamic law) in the province.

Bloodshed and beheadings

Since independence in 1994, the central government of Maputo has lacked a monopoly over the means of violence in its territory and its long coastline. In this context, Renamo regularly clashed with the central government in a 16-year civil war that claimed more than 1-million lives. Fast-forward to the present and Ansar al-Sunna, with its Islamic State links, now poses the main security threat to the Mozambican government and its armed forces.

The escalation of violence and armed conflict since early 2020 has raised some pressing questions over the future of LNG investments, and even put the future of the LNG industry at high risk. Obviously, foreign companies with their substantial investments, feel threatened, especially at the current stage where final investment decisions have to be taken.

In recent months, the situation in Cabo Delgado has gone from bad to worse. In November, dozens of people were reportedly beheaded by Islamic militants in northern Mozambique. Now the beheadings and bloodshed have spread to the town of Palma. This is not good news for the LNG industry in Mozambique, as Palma is supposed to become the manufacturing hub where hundreds of skilled workers will be located.

Amid the development of an increasingly alarming human rights situation towards the end of 2020, including the killing of civilians by insurgents, UN high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet has appealed for urgent measures to protect civilians in what she described as a “desperate” situation and one of “grave human rights abuses”. She also stated that more than 350,000 people have been displaced since 2018.

There is little doubt that Islamist insurgents have managed to increase the scale of their activities in Cabo Delgado, and that the lack of governance and a proper security response by both the Mozambican government and Southern African leaders make this a case of high political risk, which can potentially jeopardise the successful unlocking of the country’s resource wealth.

Until now, the main LNG installations and sites have not been targeted or directly affected, but the security risks to these vast investments — and Mozambique’s development potential — are certainly on the increase and pose a real threat to the LNG industry.

• Prof Neethling is with the department of political studies and governance at the University of the Free State.


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