In the early 2010s, the fossil fuel industry discovered Africa’s largest natural gas deposits off the remote northern coastline of Mozambique.
The discovery led to a massive wave of investment — and almost immediately, a corruption scandal involving Credit Suisse.
The development of the gas field and LNG plant has been criticized for evicting locals and destroying livelihoods, while failing to deliver on promises of jobs and welfare.
In late March, the town of Palma near the oil facility came under attack from a jihadist group, and on Monday French energy giant Total declared force majeure on its operations.
On Monday, French energy giant Total declared force majeure on its multibillion-dollar light natural gas (LNG) project in northern Mozambique, formally withdrawing all of its employees from the region and indefinitely suspending its operations. The declaration came after heavily armed militants carried out a surprise attack on the nearby town of Palma, a commercial center in the northern coastal province of Cabo Delgado, in late March. Days of sustained fighting in the town took place just 10 kilometers (6 miles) from Total’s worksite, a $20 billion offshore LNG facility that is currently the largest foreign investment project in Africa.
The attack on Palma and Total’s subsequent retreat has brought a rush of attention to the growing insurgency in Cabo Delgado, where more than a century of neglect, corruption and abuse has accompanied the extraction of its abundance of lucrative natural resources.
The Islamist militia responsible for the assault calls itself Ansar al-Sunna, but is widely known to locals as al-Shabaab (“the youth” – no relation to Somali militants of the same name). Since 2017 the group has waged an increasingly sophisticated and violent campaign against the Mozambican government, targeting police stations, infrastructure and towns throughout the coastal province. At least 2,700 people have been killed in the conflict so far – half of them civilians – with an additional 700,000 forced to flee their homes, according to the most recent figures from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Just hours before the attack on Palma, Total had announced it was resuming its operations after suspending them in January due to security concerns. Afterwards, the company said it would again halt work on the gas infrastructure, this time evacuating its entire staff. With its declaration of force majeure, there is now no clear timeline for when – or if – work will resume.
“Total remains committed to Mozambique and to the development of Area 1 when conditions allow,” a spokesperson for the company told Mongabay. “Total will continue to follow the evolution of the situation with great attention, in close contact with the authorities.”
The fighting in Palma may prove to be a turning point in the crisis. Days afterwards, six heads of state from the Southern African Development Community convened an emergency meeting in the Mozambican capital, Maputo, to discuss a shared response to the crisis, while former colonial power Portugal said it would send troops to Mozambique to train its soldiers in counterinsurgency tactics, joining a detachment of U.S. special forces already there.
Longtime critics of the gas project say that while the insurgency is rooted in the complex political and religious history of Cabo Delgado, so far Total’s operations fit a long-standing pattern of wealth being extracted from the province with little benefit to the people living there. What has been billed as a bonanza of jobs and development for this neglected region, they say, may instead prove to be a catalyst for the misery and chaos that have accompanied so many other extractive mega projects on the continent.
The coastline of the Quirimbas Biosphere Reserve in Cabo Delgado, courtesy of UNESCO.
‘It’s not the time for you to complain’
Cabo Delgado is bordered on the north by Tanzania and to its east by the turquoise, coral-filled waters of the Indian Ocean. Along the coastline lies the Quirimbas Archipelago, which includes a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and national park that contains a latticed network of mangrove forests, islands and breeding grounds for sea turtles and whales.
The province is among the poorest in Mozambique, with most of its residents earning a living through subsistence farming or fishing. Once a favored target of slave traders, during Portugal’s colonial reign its majority-Muslim population was repeatedly pressed into forced labor for the production of cotton and other cash crops. After the first shots of Mozambique’s independence war were fired in Cabo Delgado, the mostly-Christian Makonde group from the province’s highlands went on to play a central role in the subsequent Marxist Frelimo government, while the coastal Muslim Mwani people were largely sidelined.
Cabo Delgado has long been home to vast swaths of Mozambique’s natural resource wealth. Illegal logging, often carried out by Chinese companies backed by well-connected Maputo-based elites, has led some forests to be nearly clear-cut, although there have been efforts to crack down in recent years. The largest known graphite deposits were found in the province in 2014, and nearly half of the world’s rubies lie under its soil. Artisanal miners who discovered those rubies in 2009 were violently evicted from the region by Mozambican security forces to make way for a joint partnership between a U.K.-based company and one owned by powerful figures with ties to the ruling Frelimo party.
It was this history that experts say the international oil and gas industry inserted itself into when it began looking for energy reserves off Cabo Delgado’s shores.
“The big investors that came to that particular area even from the beginning when they were first starting to explore, some Mozambican NGOs were complaining about ocean grabbing,” said Fredson Guilengue, a researcher and journalist who has written extensively about Cabo Delgado.
Total’s LNG project traces back to the mid-2000s, when a spike in energy prices that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq kicked off a wave of hydrocarbon exploration across the world. Between 2010 and 2013, a consortium of investors that included U.S.-based Anadarko and Italy’s ENI discovered huge offshore natural gas fields beneath the coral-rich waters of northern Mozambique.
By some estimates, those fields contain as much as 125 trillion cubic feet of gas, potentially placing the country in the top tier of global LNG producers. Not long afterward, senior officials in the Mozambican government, including the country’s former finance minister, secretly borrowed $2 billion from European investment banks to purchase a fleet of fishing boats. The loans bypassed the national legislature and were hidden from the public. When the corrupt deal came to light three years later, it set off a crisis as the IMF and other donors stopped aid payments, causing shortages of medicines in public hospitals and forcing deep cuts to other services and civil servant salaries. Repayment of the secret loans was premised on the prospect of billions of dollars that Mozambique stood to earn from the gas discoveries.
“The reason why the loan was approved was speculation and projected income from the gas,” said Daniel Ribeiro, a researcher with the Mozambican environmental watchdog group Justicia Ambiental. “If the gas didn’t exist, those loans would have been far more complicated to get approved.”
Three bankers working with Credit Suisse, which pocketed $200 million in fees, eventually pleaded guilty to violating U.S. anti-corruption laws, and half a billion dollars of the loans still remain unaccounted for.
In Cabo Delgado’s Afungi Bay, where the gas deposits were found, trouble started early in the exploration phase. Underwater seismic explosions used to measure and locate gas reserves prevented communities in the area from fishing in May 2009 and reportedly killed a number of sea turtles and marine mammals.
Coral reefs in the Quirimbas Biosphere Reserve in Cabo Delgado, courtesy of UNESCO.
Later, acting at the behest of Anadarko and other investors in the gas project, Mozambique’s government ordered around 500 families to be resettled to make way for an onshore gas storage facility. Most of the families were forced to move miles inland, cutting off their access to the sea along with their fishing livelihoods. Although the families that were resettled to make way for Anadarko’s operations were given compensation and in some cases new houses, Ribeiro said the payments didn’t account for the impacts of being forced to relocate far inland and away from the coast.
Joshua Dimon, a U.S.-based academic who observed Anadarko’s consultation process for the resettlements, said it was marred by intimidation and pressure by local government officials.
“People were comfortable talking about their grievances in their homes and privately, one-on-one,” he said. “But they were not comfortable talking in public. There was a pretty significant fear of retribution.”
Dimon said community leaders who were opposed to the resettlement were marginalized by the government in favor of more pliable local authorities, and those who spoke out were intimidated and pressured to stay silent. Mozambican security forces attended some community meetings, sending an ominous message to dissidents.
“Around 2014 or 2015, the new district administrator started holding consultations about the resettlement with the military and police surrounding the community,” Dimon said. “And he literally told them at the beginning of the meeting, don’t stand up and complain about the project. This is for us in Mozambique, and our future, and it’s not the time for you to complain.”
According to Ribeiro, a secondary wave of land grabs in Cabo Delgado also took place around the LNG operating site, as well-connected entrepreneurs, often from outside the province, sought to capitalize on the multibillion-dollar investment.
“The minute the project was confirmed in 2012 through 2014, a lot of elites realized the land was going to be valuable and grabbed it,” he said.
Still, some of the region’s poor residents held out hope that the LNG project would be transformative, bringing rare opportunities to an area where few existed. Mozambique’s government assured Cabo Delgado’s residents that they would benefit from jobs and a more robust local economy. But according to Ribeiro, programs set up to train people in the province for those jobs were poorly implemented and plagued by corruption, with some applicants paying large sums of money up front only to find that the jobs never appeared or instead were given to transplants from other parts of the country.
An artist’s rendition of the Cabo Delgado Afungi Bay LNG storage and refinement site from Total’s promotional materials.
“They oversold the project,” Ribeiro said. “They created stupidly unrealistic expectations without mentioning the impacts because they wanted consent. And at first, the youth was optimistic.”
As time passed by and new hotels and businesses sprang up — often owned by elites from Mozambique’s wealthier south — without a significant rise in opportunities for Cabo Delgado’s residents, perceptions of the project started to sour.
“When you have a group going through these difficulties, and then suddenly you see another group with this bubble of wealth, and their fancy hotels, cars, and incomes building houses suddenly, that causes a lot of frustration because you see this wealth being created and you’re not a part of it,” Ribeiro said.
But in Maputo, the frustrations of fishing communities near the project site were barely visible to senior Frelimo leaders when compared with staggering projections of billions of dollars in gas revenue. By 2019, some of the world’s most powerful banks, corporations and governments were in on the action, including ExxonMobil, BP and Shell, along with export agencies and state oil companies from the U.S., China, India, South Korea and others. In September 2019, Anadarko sold its 26.5% share in the Afungi Bay project to Total for $3.9 billion in a deal that the French company said “perfectly fits with our strategy.”
But by then, the project was facing far bigger problems than a botched resettlement process — and so was Cabo Delgado.
Jihad, rubies and revolution
The origins of al-Shabaab are still murky, but some experts believe the group predates the discovery of natural gas in Cabo Delgado and that its activities are unlikely to be a direct response to the project. One study, for example, traced its history to a small group of extremists who may have been inspired by fundamentalist preachers in southern Tanzania and who came into conflict with Cabo Delgado’s authorities beginning in the mid-2010s. The group clashed with more moderate Muslims over their ties to the Mozambican government, leading to a crackdown in which some of its members were jailed and their mosques destroyed. In October 2017, the group attacked police in the port city of Mocímboa da Praia.
Since then, the militants have gathered momentum, picking up recruits while carrying out brazen attacks against symbols of state authority as well as civilians in Cabo Delgado. To counter the insurgency, Mozambique has deployed soldiers and paramilitary police to the region — largely to little effect. Wary of appearing unable to control its own territory, up until recently Mozambique’s government has been reluctant to ask for help from its neighbors, but it has hired a series of foreign mercenaries to help it secure the province.
Russia’s secretive Wagner Group, a commando unit made up of former Spetsnaz soldiers, was first on the scene, but withdrew earlier this year after suffering heavy casualties. Another, the Dyck Advisory Group from South Africa, which has previously specialized in anti-poaching patrols, has provided air support from helicopter gunships.
In a recent report, Amnesty International said both sides of the conflict, as well as the mercenaries hired by Mozambique, have committed serious human rights abuses against an increasingly terrorized civilian population. Journalists and researchers have been barred from visiting the region, and others based there have described a climate of repression and fear.
“We had a community journalist we used to interact with in Palma disappear,” Ribiero said. “He sent a text saying ‘Some soldiers are coming towards me, I’ll call you back,’ and we never heard from him again.”
A mother and her child at the Metuge IDP camp in Cabo Delgado, Mauricio Bisol for UNICEF.
In 2018, al-Shabaab publicly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which confirmed an affiliation between the two groups on its official media channel in 2019.
But while the insurgents now fly an ISIS flag and there is evidence that fighters from Tanzania, South Africa and elsewhere have joined its ranks, observers familiar with Cabo Delgado say the group remains a distinctly local movement with its own identity, rooted in long-standing grievances in the province.
“I would say that this group is a new generation of previous groups, but it encountered a greater context in Cabo Delgado because of neoliberal reforms, land grabs, and frustration over exclusion from living prospects,” said Liazzat Bonate, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies and expert on the history of Islam in northern Mozambique.
So far, the militants have not expressed a concrete set of political demands. This has fostered speculation and conspiracy theories in Mozambique, with blame for the insurgency variously assigned to rival politicians in the ruling Frelimo party looking for a bigger share of gas revenues, the companies themselves, or shadowy outside forces and foreign influences.
“The Mozambican public sphere has been in the throes of conspiracy theories of all sorts,” said Paolo Israel, a historian at South Africa’s University of the Western Cape.
Israel says that while resentment over the gas deposits is unlikely to be the sole or primary cause of the insurgency, the region’s history of exclusion from its natural resource wealth provides the group with an easy narrative and opportunities for recruitment.
“It’s poverty, people get thrown into this thing because they are poor and pissed off at the state and have been marginalized,” he said.
He added that the violent evictions of artisanal miners from Cabo Delgado’s Montepuez ruby fields in order to make way for international investors may even have provided the group with fighters, many of whom had reason to want revenge against Mozambique’s government.
“I’ve collected proof of a Makonde youth who disappeared from his village, went to the mines, and then three years later people saw him in the attacks on his own village,” he said.
According to Ribiero, civilians who have been captured and held by the militants report that state greed and corruption are a major theme of al-Shabaab’s recruitment lectures, and it’s not a coincidence that its attacks have begun to creep closer to Total’s LNG facilities.
“In their brainwashing, they mention the corruption and that they’re there to clean all that evil, so you have this notion that the government’s the target, and therefore anything that’s important to the government becomes a target,” he said.
So far, the group has not directly attacked Total’s operations, but in its assault on Palma it targeted a hotel frequented by contractors connected to the LNG project, ambushing and beheading a number of them. While there was early speculation that the attack on Palma was prompted by Total’s announcement that it was resuming operations in Cabo Delgado, Jasmine Opperman, an Africa analyst with the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, pointed out that the sophistication of the attack suggests it was planned well ahead of time.
Whatever the strategic calculus of the attack, it was the closest that the militants have yet come to Total’s doorstep. And while the energy giant has now turned off the lights and locked the door, potential gas revenues from the project continue to factor heavily into the Mozambican government’s response to the crisis.
People displaced by fighting in Cabo Delgado fetch water at the Metuge IDP camp, Mauricio Bisol for UNICEF.
With billions at stake, no clear end to the fighting in sight
In its announcement Monday, Total indicated that it will not return to Cabo Delgado until there is a sharp improvement in the security situation around its facilities. This raises the stakes of the crisis for Maputo. Mozambique is still on the hook for the debt incurred via the kleptocratic Credit Suisse deal, which it has agreed to pay down by peeling off a portion of its future gas revenues. If Total abandons the project, Mozambique will likely struggle to find another investor to take it over, particularly as LNG prices have declined and with pressure building for a global move away from fossil fuels.
Joseph Hanlon, a journalist and lecturer at the Open University, U.K., who has reported from Mozambique since the 1980s, said one option Total may consider would be to create a “Baghdad-style green zone” around its installation.
“[South Africa’s] Standard Bank is still saying all of the gas will go ahead — even post-Palma, they’re still saying it will all go ahead, everything’s fine,” he said. “So the Mozambicans could say, okay, even if we have to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars to secure the site, it’s okay, it’ll get paid off over the next couple of decades from the revenues.”
The large amount of capital that has already been allocated to the project by financiers like Standard Bank, along with some of the world’s most powerful governments and oil companies, virtually guarantees that a decision to completely abandon it will not come lightly. For those living in the vicinity of the project, this could lead to a nightmare scenario where they become trapped between insurgents on one side, and a heavily fortified extractive industry outpost on the other.
If the project is scrapped, however, the impoverished nation could face a new crisis. Investors and lenders could blame the Mozambican government for failing to hold up its end of the bargain and secure the region, triggering contractual requirements that it pay back a portion of what was spent on the development so far.
For Mozambicans in Cabo Delgado, the prospect of increasing violence between insurgents and the government is daunting. As foreign military powers enter the conflict and it becomes subsumed into the “global war on terror,” the likelihood of the transformative changes promised by government officials and oil executives in Cabo Delgado grow dimmer, as does a political solution to the crisis.
“I don’t know if the gas will ever benefit the people of Cabo Delgado,” said Guilengue, the journalist. “Because the global experience says no. I don’t know where local people actually benefit from this type of extractivism.”