Total's LNG plant in the Afungi peninsula of Mozambique. Picture: Mozambique LNG
Total's LNG plant in the Afungi peninsula of Mozambique. Picture: Mozambique LNG

In what might be considered the culmination of years of failure by Mozambique and its regional partners, and to absolutely no-one’s surprise that has been vaguely following developments in the country’s northernmost province, Cabo Delgado, Islamist extremist insurgents brazenly attacked the town of Palma last Wednesday.

The attack, which looks to have exceeded all prior levels of brazenness, can still not be fully evaluated as dozens of locals and expatriates are still unaccounted for and feared dead.

It appears the death toll would have been much higher had a desperate rescue effort undertaken by a private military contractor with SA links, the Dyck Advisory Group, not intervened to ferry hundreds of contractors to safety.

Most, if not all, of the contractors were working on Total’s giant LNG plant near Palma. The northernmost town in the country is at the centre of one of the world’s largest investments that has the ability to transform the country from a vast impoverished nation to one that could begin to offer upliftment to its citizens.

With rescue activities still under way on Monday, it is still some time before a long and painful postmortem can be conducted to establish if and how the expatriates, the bulk of which are suspected to have been South African, were abandoned by the Mozambican army and Total’s own security contractors.  

While the incapacity of the Mozambican government to deal with the situation at a socioeconomic and political level from the beginning is understood to be one of the main reasons for the conflict, its inability to counter the security threat posed by the insurgents is now clear for all to see. Unfortunately, so is SADC’s reluctance to engage in the matter, despite Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi’s request for assistance tabled at a troika summit of the political bloc last May.

The situation has now morphed beyond a serious provincial issue into a full-blown regional catastrophe. Consider that at the start of last year, there were 90,000 internally displaced persons (IDP) that had fled the violence in the northern parts of the province. Just more than a year later, this had risen to more than 650,000, according to the UN.

Displaced persons are reliant on other citizens, the government and aid agencies for humanitarian support. It would not be hard to conceive that this challenge will increase substantially following this seminal event.

From an economic perspective, the giant investment hangs in the balance. Total, owner of the giant onshore LNG facility being constructed on the Afungi Peninsula just south of Palma, had just greenlighted the resumption of activities last week when the well-organised attack was launched.

It has now suspended operations indefinitely as it weighs its response.

The investment into the infrastructure required to exploit the huge reservoirs of gas in the Rovuma basin off the coast was heralded as being a transformative event for the country that remains one of the poorest in the world.

Besides the direct benefit of gas revenues to Mozambique, the fortunes of hundreds of other economic actors in the region are tied to the successful commencement of production from the projects. They include some of our commercial banks and an obscure state-owned enterprise called the Export Credit Insurance Corporation.  

But looming ever nearer to this already desperate situation is the possible “Iraqification” of the conflict as two sworn enemies attempt to enter the fray carrying their own agendas.

Isis on Monday formally took responsibility for the attack. Couple this with the US military recently announcing a partnership to train Mozambican security forces, and you can begin to see how a conflict that up until this point has been rooted in local issues, could end up morphing into a proxy war between Isis and its sworn enemy, regardless of what the locals think.

Mozambique’s unprecedented luck is now turning into a nightmare. Any student of insurgencies knows that these problems rarely go away quickly, the government needs to dig in and dig deep with capable partners to see this out, or risk losing its future.

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