Is an obsession with gas profits leading African countries to neglect the security of local populations?
The discovery of large gas deposits in the Rovuma Basin off the coast of northern Mozambique in 2011 made Mozambicans dream of prosperity. They hoped the country would become one of Africa’s largest producers and exporters of liquefied natural gas, with state revenues estimated at US$100 billion over 20 years.
Seven years later, however, a deadly armed insurgency emerged in the region, largely driven, locals believe, by the gas discovery. To date, more than 4 000 people have died and close to one million have been displaced.
The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) has previously expressed concern about the prevalence of conflicts related to natural resources in Africa. At a meeting in December 2019, it stressed the imperative of effective and transparent management. It called for equitable distribution of a country’s natural resources to ensure the interests and wellbeing of the local population, communities and the country.
This followed an AU ministerial conference in Bamako, Mali, the previous month to discuss the threat posed by disputes over access to natural resources. Some AU member states tried to establish frameworks and processes to ensure equitable distribution of wealth from natural resources. However in many cases, as the Mozambican example shows, natural resources are a curse rather than a benefit.
Over 4 000 people have died and nearly a million have been displaced since Mozambique’s insurgency began
The exact link between the gas discovery and the insurgency is yet to be demonstrated, but the Maputo government has taken several unpopular measures to grant gas exploration rights to multinational oil companies. Measures have included limiting coastal communities’ access to the sea for fishing and taking thousands of hectares of land from local citizens without proper public consultation and fair compensation.
Historically, exploration of natural resources in Mozambique has been associated with conflicts between host communities and multinational mining companies involving access to livelihoods. The government has backed the companies in almost all conflicts, deploying special police units to suppress popular uprisings with violence, often causing injuries and deaths.
Apart from expropriating land to give it to gas exploration companies, the government also seemingly prioritised the protection of gas investments when the Cabo Delgado insurgency started. This left neighbouring populations exposed to further attacks.
As the conflict spread in northern Cabo Delgado, the gas exploration companies, led by the North American Anadarko and the Italian Eni, saw their investment totalling US$30 million at risk. They told the government they wanted to hire private military contractors to protect their assets. According to military sources interviewed by the Institute for Security Studies, the government rejected this, instead deploying contingents of the Mozambique armed defence forces and special unit police to provide security.
Mozambique’s government has backed mining companies in almost all conflicts with local communities
Agreements were signed between the government and the companies allowing the deployment of hundreds of highly trained military and police officers to protect the gas projects. In return, the gas companies paid fees to government agencies.
When the French TotalEnergies bought a stake in Mozambique’s liquefied natural gas project and replaced Anadarko as the operator, it updated the agreement with the government to increase the number of officers deployed. Through these agreements, the government guaranteed the protection of gas projects, but left local communities unprotected. Thus, while the projects were relatively safe, insurgents could attack. They occupied the city of Mocímboa da Praia, about 80km south of the gas projects, for a year.
From there they planned a successful attack on Palma in March 2021, forcing TotalEnergies to suspend exploration, despite its project never having been directly targeted by the insurgents. This situation shows that neglecting the security of the local population ultimately threatened the gas projects.
Arrangements for the protection of Afungi, where the liquefied natural gas projects are located, clearly contributed negatively to the defence of other areas of the province, as the best human and material resources were used to protect the projects. With these investments, the government prevented Afungi from being attacked but couldn’t guarantee the security of its surroundings, eventually prompting TotalEnergies to suspend its operations.
After the Palma attack, which interrupted TotalEnergies’ construction of a gas exploration and liquefaction plant, Mozambique asked that Rwanda and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) help fight the insurgency. The PSC endorsed this deployment during its meeting in January 2022.
The war in Ukraine has raised the stakes for gas-producing countries such as Mozambique
Around 2 000 Rwandan soldiers and police, the largest contingent and the first deployed to Cabo Delgado, went to secure the gas exploration zone in Palma and Mocímboa da Praia. The districts without gas were assigned SADC forces, again showing that the government’s priority was protecting gas projects rather than the local population.
About a year after the deployment of foreign troops to Cabo Delgado, attacks are again escalating, but with greater intensity outside the gas exploration zone. President Filipe Nyusi has apparently shown little concern for the citizens of the rest of Cabo Delgado. He stressed that security had already been restored in the gas-rich district of Palma and called on multinational gas companies to resume work in Afungi.
While the interest in gas exploration is justified by its importance for the country’s economy, protecting projects should not mean sacrificing the security of communities or putting them second.
The PSC should again put the issue of natural resources and conflicts on its agenda. It should, as it did in December 2019, remind AU member states to domesticate AU legal instruments to manage these resources. It should also reaffirm its support for the SADC Mission in Mozambique and help it by raising funds. This could help save lives in Cabo Delgado.
The war in Ukraine has raised the stakes for gas-producing countries such as Mozambique. High demand for gas due to sanctions against Russia has increased incentives to speed up production. Eni has started exporting gas from its offshore project in the Rovuma Basin. The AU can help to ensure that gas produced in Africa doesn’t lead to more human suffering.
Borges Nhamirre, Consultant, ISS Pretoria
This article was first published by the ISS’ PSC Report.