Mozambique's government recently made headlines by signing a peace agreement with the longtime rebel group, Mozambican National Resistance (Renamo). The deal has since been hailed as a harbinger for greater stability in the country. But a new insurgency in Mozambique's far north now poses a much greater threat, given its proximity to the East African nation's burgeoning offshore energy sector.
Since late 2017, unknown assailants have attacked dozens of villages and some government positions in Mozambique's northern Cabo Delgado province. The crude tactics are often the same: militants swarm a village and shoot or behead residents unable to flee quickly enough, before setting fire to homes and businesses. The attackers have yet to list any public demands, though there are rumors they may have regional or international jihadist connections. (Locals are calling them "al Shabaab" and "Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Hamo.") But while much remains unknown, understanding the environment from which the conflict has emerged could provide hints as to what might be driving it — and whether the government will be able to stop it before foreign oil and gas firms in the region start to pull their operations.
Mozambique has made big strides since the end of its long civil war in the early 1990s. But weak institutions, the lingering costs of war and deep social schisms continue to threaten the country's long-term progress. This has been evidenced most recently by the bloody conflict in Mozambique's far north, which risks jeopardizing nearby oil and gas projects.
A Region Ripe for Radicalization
There are a number of factors that may explain why the Cabo Delgado province has become Mozambique's latest hotbed for terrorism. For starters, the region is isolated from the rest of the country. Its capital city of Pemba, for example, is more than 2,440 kilometers (1,500 miles) from the Mozambican capital of Maputo, which is located on the opposite end of the country in the far south.
This geographic remoteness has helped build a sense of cultural "otherness" among Cabo Delgado's inhabitants as well, which dates back to the 19th century. Northern Mozambique is home to the majority of the country's Muslim population, including a small set of radicalized Islamists. Meanwhile, the wealthier and more developed southern regions of Mozambique remain predominately Christian.
But there are factors prevalent not only in Cabo Delgado but also across all of Mozambique that are likely adding fuel to the militancy fire. These include fledgling and corrupt local institutions, corrupt and brutal security forces, real or perceived land or natural resource grabs by local elites or foreigners, and other forms of oppression.
Flying Under the Government's Radar
It can be argued that the conflict unfolding in northern Mozambique first began festering in the early 2000s. At the time, the majority of local and international attention was centered on stemming Renamo's activities in central Mozambique, which risked disrupting local economies in the region. On Aug. 1, President Felipe Nyusi and his Renamo counterpart, Ossufo Momade, inked an agreement paving the way for the peaceful integration of the rebel group's fighters into civilian life or the country's armed forces. But the government's preoccupation with Renamo up until now explains why Maputo was largely caught flat-footed when the violence began breaking out in the country's north.
Despite Nyusi and other senior officials' repeated promises to crack down on the insurgency in Cabo Delgado, the government has yet to make a discernible dent in mitigating the militant activity, as small-scale attacks on villages throughout the province continue apace. There's a chance the recent Renamo-government peace deal could free up resources and security forces for Maputo to send to the conflict in the far north. But while this could help clamp down on the insecurity gripping the region, it likely won't address the deeper drivers fueling the conflict. If the government continues to struggle to put together a multidimensional approach and instead leans on possibly corrupt and disconnected local elites to solve the conflict, terrorist activity in northern Mozambique will likely persist for the foreseeable future.
A Multibillion-Dollar Risk
Continued violence in the far north, however, could have dire consequences for Mozambique's economy. According to local media, safety concerns have already forced an estimated 9,000 small landholders in Cabo Delgado to flee their farms. But perhaps most worrisome for Mozambique's government is the threat the ongoing insurgency poses to the multibillion-dollar energy investment projects that are being prepared offshore in Cabo Delgado.
The unfolding insurgency in northern Mozambique could end up costing the government billions of dollars in oil and gas investments.
Foreign energy firms operating in the region are increasingly finding themselves caught in the crossfire of militant attacks. In February, an attack on a vehicle convoy injured several contractors working with the U.S.-based Anadarko Petroleum Corp. In a separate attack shortly thereafter, militants allegedly beheaded another contractor with the same oil firm. While likely not lethal to the country's growing energy sector, such attacks nonetheless underscore the dangers posed to outside companies, and will undoubtedly force many to invest in extensive and costly security upgrades to protect their personnel and installations.
And there are signs the group's capabilities may be improving as well. In March, several soldiers were killed when an improvised explosive device was detonated in the Cabo Delgado city of Macomia. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, and the exact nature of the device remains unknown. But existing evidence points to a small handmade bomb — likely the work of the militant group.
Much more research and intelligence gathering are needed to discern who exactly is behind these attacks and what their actual aims are. But if Mozambique doesn't get its far north under control, insurgents' increasingly brazen and sophisticated tactics could damage the massive financial windfall poised to fill the government's coffers in the years ahead by prompting energy firms to take their operations — and their investments — elsewhere.