Picture: 123RF/ZABELIN
Picture: 123RF/ZABELIN

Dozens of soldiers clutching AK-47s and grenade launchers watch over roaring bulldozers on the white sand beach that meets a tropical turquoise sea. They’re guarding a $23bn project to export Mozambique’s natural gas from an area besieged by Islamist insurgents.

Companies led by Total will pump the gas from wells about 40km offshore, cool it to temperatures below minus 260°F so that it turns to liquid, then ship it to electricity plants from France to China. The consortium is about to finalise almost $16bn in project financing.

“The work is immense,” said Ronan Bescond, the 44-year-old French chemical engineer who Total chose to lead the project after a career of nearly two decades at the company. “The first cargo of liquefied natural gas must be in 2024. And we are on the right track,” he said to a handful of reporters in a prefabricated room at the site 32km south of the Rovuma River that marks the border with Tanzania.

The obstacles facing a project that is expected to transform the nation are huge.

To achieve the target of first production for an undertaking worth billions of dollars more than Mozambique’s entire economy, developers need to move thousands of tonnes of equipment through territory thick with insurgents aligned to Islamic State. At one stage a Covid-19 outbreak saw the Total site accounting for three in four of the country’s confirmed infections. All this as natural gas prices plunged to near 25-year lows.

Militants who first pledged allegiance to Islamic State in 2018 have carried out brazen attacks this year. Last week they raided Mocimboa da Praia for a third time and occupied the town for as long as three days. It’s a crucial supply hub just 60km south of the project site and the closest port.

As many as nine workers for Total subcontractor Fenix Construction Services died in the attack, Jasmine Opperman, an Africa analyst at Wisconsin-based Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, said in a Twitter post. The company didn’t answer seven calls and two e-mails seeking comment.

Before the gas discoveries and the insurgency, the remote coastline was more famous for luxury tropical island resorts. Last month one of the nearby hotels offered a discount price of $19,820 a night to hire an island as a refuge from the coronavirus.

The private military company that Mozambique hired in April to provide air support to government troops in the form of helicopters fitted with machine guns has struggled to quell the violence. Lionel Dyck, the founder of Dyck Advisory Group, the firm the government employed, declined to comment when contacted by mobile phone.

Governments including SA, the US and Portugal have indicated willingness to help fight the insurgency.

“The insurgency is a challenge but we’re happy that our defence and security forces have been playing their role,” Max Tonela, Mozambique’s energy & natural resources minister, told reporters during the site visit. “We all as Mozambicans must fight against this evil that comes from external attacks.”

About 1,300 people have died in the violence, with a further 220,000 displaced since the first attack three years ago, which also took place at Mocimboa da Praia.

For the second time, Islamic State referred directly to the projects in a weekly newsletter this month. The group said it would be “delusional” to think that the government could protect the investments, and warned other countries against getting involved.

The marginalisation of young men in a region that’s predominantly Muslim and 1,900km away from the capital, Maputo, has helped lead to radicalisation that’s fuelled the insurgency, say researchers including Saide Habibe at the Maputo-based Institute of Social and Economic Studies.

Total’s project will hire 14,000 people at peak construction, of which at least 5,000 will be Mozambican and many from the region, Bescond said at the briefing, wearing a surgical mask, as all visitors to the site must do to prevent another outbreak of the coronavirus.

The financial rewards are worth the cost to the government of the soldiers patrolling the vast compound and snipers on its perimeter fence. Total’s estimate is $50bn in direct and indirect revenue over 25 years for the $15bn economy.


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