SIM REPORT: Insurgency in Mozambique to continue hampering LNG projects
The government claims it has weakened the Cabo Delgado insurgency, but recent attacks and details from the security agreement with Total indicate that militants will continue to threaten LNG operations and delay their roll-out.
Growing counter-insurgency capabilities and recent successes: a turning point?
Since the end of January, the government is claiming a series of successes against the Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado, commonly referred to Ahlu al-Sunnah wal-Jamaah (ASJ) or ‘al-Shabaab’. The tempo of counter-terrorism operations has remained high since December 2020 after the ministry of defence bought new equipment, including combat helicopters from South Africa-based Paramount Group (the company sells Super 17 or Nighthawk models according to its website). Media reports have also indicated that armoured personnel carriers (APCs) of the Marauder model, manufactured and sold by the same company, are being used in the region. These APCs were reportedly also equipped with turret-mounted machine guns, suggesting the APCs would be used in combat operations.
Since mid-January, the operations have targeted areas around Mocímboa da Praia, Muidumbe, and Macombia districts. All three are strongholds of the insurgency. The use of helicopters appears to be extensive, potentially due to the inaccessibility overland as the ongoing rainy season has rendered some roads impassable.
The claims, which are mostly made by pro-government media outlets, are difficult to corroborate. Additionally, there are questions about whether insurgent activity has declined as a result of the military’s operations or because of the rainy season, commonly between December and March. Mobility during this time is difficult, and access to resources like food and finances are complicated. These are factors that have likely played a role in hampering ASJ’s kinetic capabilities.
Other indicators undermine the government’s confidence. The number of attacks in January 2021 were only moderately lower than the number of attacks in the same month in 2020. This followed five months of record-number attacks by ASJ, ranging between 30 and 43 attacks per month between August and December 2020. In addition, the Islamist militants have struck increasingly close to ongoing development work of liquefied natural gas operations on the Afungi peninsula, a logistical hub for oil and gas majors, like France’s Total.
Accepting long-term logistical woes
At the beginning of January, Total evacuated its staff from Cabo Delgado, citing high risks of infection from COVID-19 and mounting terrorism risks. This came days after the insurgents struck the village of Quitunda, less than 1km south of the Afungi airstrip.
While most companies with, or due to begin, operations in the area have ostensibly accepted that insecurity will be part of the current and future operating environment, the evacuations have further delayed construction of LNG facilities that will support Total’s offshore operations in Area 1. Total plans to have a combined workforce of 10,000-15,000 people in the country from 2022, but only 1,000 are currently in the country. Most of them are contractors. Another logistical impediment is that insecurity has made overland transport between Afungi and the ports at Mocímboa da Praia and Pemba dangerous, if not impractical, requiring costly armed security escorts. It is worth noting that insurgents have repeatedly targeted commercial cargo intended for local communities in the region, despite the security escorts provided by the Mozambican armed forces.
The acknowledgement of long-term security threats is underscored by a security agreement between Total and the government, which was formalised in August 2020. Some details of the agreement surfaced in February, including Total’s request for a 25km security perimeter around Afungi. In addition, unconfirmed reports have suggested Total is considering moving some of its logistics and rotation of staff to the island of Mayotte – a French overseas department located about 540km east of Afungi. That would in part replace the Mozambican islands of Rongui and Tecomaji which are both within 20km of the LNG site. However, shipping staff by air an additional 500km would incur greater costs.
It is too early to say whether the increased military operations will be able to degrade ASJ’s capabilities enough to resume full LNG construction operations over the coming months. Based on conflict trends in 2020, ASJ’s operations ebbed and flowed throughout the year, but intensified at the end of the rainy season in March and again from August. While the improved military capacity through recent procurement is a positive indicator for the government, the insurgents have in the past demonstrated an ability to take down sophisticated combat equipment provided by the private military companies supporting the Mozambican security forces. This is a realistic possibility also this year.
Furthermore, the government’s narrow focus on counter-terrorism fails to address the grievances at the root of the insurgency: lack of economic opportunities, inter-ethnic tensions, organised crime, and a perception of corruption with impunity of Maputo-based elites and FRELIMO members and cronies. As such, any military successes achieved in the first quarter of this year may prove futile in the longer run, indicating that security spending will remain elevated. In fact, expenses may increase over the coming years, as commercial operations in the area appear to become more bunkerised and separated from the local community. This in turn elevates the likelihood of further exacerbation of local grievances and expansion of ASJ’s recruitment pool among the Mwani community and foreign fighters.