Three years ago, on October 5, 2017, fighters with the Al Sunnah wa Jama’ah (ASWJ) entered the town of Mocímboa da Praia in northern Mozambique. They attacked three police stations, and then withdrew. Since then, this group—which has since proclaimed its allegiance to the Islamic State—has continued its battle, including capturing the port of Mocímboa da Praia in August 2020.
Mozambique’s military has floundered. Under pressure from the International Monetary Fund, Mozambique’s government has cut the salaries of government employees, including the military. It now relies on private security companies hired by multinational corporations to do its fighting; this outsourcing of defense is permitted by the IMF and the wealthy creditors. That is why Mozambique’s Ministry of Interior has hired the South African Dyck Advisory Group (DAG), the Russian Wagner Group, and Erik Prince’s Frontier Services Group. Colonel Lionel Dyck, the head of the Dyck Group, recently told Hannes Wessels that “The Mozambican Defence Forces are unprepared and under-resourced.”
Dyck, Wagner, and Frontier Services Group are joined in northern Mozambique by a range of other mercenary security forces (such as Arkhê Risk Solutions and GardaWorld) hired by the French energy company Total and the U.S. energy company ExxonMobil. Both firms have interests in the gas fields in Area 1 and Area 4 of Mozambique’s Rovuma Basin, which increases the country’s natural gas reserves to 100 trillion cubic feet (third only to Nigeria and Algeria in Africa). These firms are to invest more than $55 billion in the extraction of natural gas and in the construction of liquefaction plants.
Total, the French firm, and Mozambique’s government signed a deal to create a joint force to provide security to these gas fields. Mozambique’s minister of mineral resources and energy—Max Tonela—said that this deal “reinforces security measures and efforts to create a safe operating environment for partners like Total.”
The narrative fed by Total, Mozambique’s government, and the private security firms is that the conflict in northern Mozambique is authored by the Islamists, and that all measures must be taken to thwart this three-year-old insurgency.
The Forgotten Cape
This area of northern Mozambique—Cabo Delgado—is known colloquially as the “forgotten cape” or Cabo Esquecido. A study of government statistics shows that the people of this part of Mozambique—where the anti-colonial war against the Portuguese broke out on September 25, 1964—experience all the traps of poverty: low income, high illiteracy, and low morale. Lack of opportunities alongside social aspirations led to the emergence of various forms of economic activity, including artisanal mining for rubies and trafficking of Afghan heroin toward South Africa. The arrival of Islamism simply provided another outlet for the deep frustrations of sections of the population.
It is called the “forgotten cape” because not much of Mozambique’s social wealth has come into the communities of the region; it is not forgotten by the oil and gas companies. These companies—and their predecessors such as Texas-based Anadarko—as well as the other large multinationals such as Montepuez Ruby Mining (owned by the UK-based Gemfields) have participated in the eviction of thousands of people from their homes and livelihoods. Given permission by the government in Maputo to settle the land to remove the rubies and the natural gas, these firms have returned little to the people of the north.
The Phantom of ISIS
There’s nothing like the appearance of Islamist groups that fly the flag of ISIS to allow Western firms to set aside their own role in the creation of poverty. Everything becomes about terrorism. In June 2019, two Mozambican scholars—Mohamad Yassine of the Higher Institute of International Relations (ISRI) and Saíde Habibe, who co-authored a 2019 study on Islamic radicalization in northern Mozambique—said that ISIS will not find fertile ground in northern Mozambique; this is largely because the Muslim population in that region is small. These so-called Islamists, Habibe said, are better known for their role in the illicit trades than in the creation of an Islamic State.
A French NGO—Les Amis de la Terre France—published a report in June 2020 that made the point that the insurgency “was built on a tangle of social, religious, and political tensions, exacerbated by the explosion of inequalities and human rights violations linked to gas projects.” The militarization of the conflict to protect the gas installations, the NGO argues, “contribute[s] to fuel the tensions.” Indeed, “Human rights violations are on the increase in [these] communities, caught between insurgents, private military and paramilitary forces, multinationals or their subcontractors.”
South Africa’s Institute for Security Studies published a report in October 2019 called “The Genesis of Insurgency in Northern Mozambique.” The institute is known to be quite hawkish when it comes to security issues. But reality is too difficult to avoid. This report cautions that “a lasting solution to the extremist violence in Cabo Delgado cannot be brought about by hard power and military might.” Social inequality is the main problem. The introduction of the energy firms, rather than bringing prosperity to the people, says the institute, “appears to have brought discontent.”
Just off the coast of Mozambique is the island of Mayotte, which is a French possession with a French military base (and which is facing unrest). The governments of France and Mozambique are considering a maritime cooperation agreement, which could eventually allow direct French intervention to protect Total’s investments.
At a briefing on drug trafficking in Africa, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Heather Merritt said that the issue of the heroin trade is very significant, and that the U.S. is willing to assist the government in Mozambique in any way.
South Africa’s intelligence chief Ayanda Diodlo has said that her government is “taking very, very seriously” the threat in northern Mozambique. South Africa is considering a military intervention, despite a warning from ISIS that it would open up a new front inside South Africa if this happens.
Such interventions—by France, the United States, and South Africa—will not solve the problem of northern Mozambique. But they will certainly provide a reason for Western countries to create a military foothold on the continent.
Meanwhile, for the people of Mocímboa da Praia, it would be business as usual.
Vijay Prashad is an Indian historian, editor and journalist. He is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the chief editor of LeftWord Books and the director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research. This article was produced by Globetrotter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.