How Mozambique’s history of violence is dashing hopes of economic progress

There is no saying that is so common in the minds of Mozambique citizens above the age of 40 than, “Here we go again.”

Ever since the Southern African country gained sovereignty from Portugal in 1975 following a bloody grueling war of independence, it has been plagued by successive armed insurgencies that have killed and wounded millions, and dashed fading hopes of economic progress.

But this latest insurgency is shaping up to be the worst – even in the country’s treacherous standards of war – rendering massive infrastructure projects untenable and pushing the state out of control of a huge chunk of its territory.

In mid-January, French oil firm Total begun removing some staff from the site of its planned liquefied natural gas (LNG) project on the Afungi Peninsula after Islamist insurgent attacks came close to the site. Sad enough to say, we all saw it coming.

The first traces of the Islamist insurgency that has now developed into a strong fighting force that rules major towns in the country’s northern province of Cabo Delgado erupted in 2016. At the time, it was a shadowy band of individuals with patchy weapons and an ideology that seemed misplaced even amongst the poor.

After all, Mozambique has a significant Muslim population –roughly 18-45% according to most estimates – and is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). “How could some insurgents use Islam, a peaceful religion, to start an offensive against a government that is run by their fellow brothers?” Ali Mustapha asked in a somber voice.

As the government rested on its laurels and focused on inviting investments from Western and Asian companies to the tune of more than $100 billion after the end of another civil war in 1992, little attention was paid to what was brewing in the province of Cabo Delgado.

Slowly by slowly, the Islamist group took over towns killing people in horrific massacres that sent shockwaves across the world. Now they are on the brink of taking over a gas project that Mozambique can’t risk losing.

A group of rebels from the Islamist militant group in northern Mozambique pose with their weapons. Courtesy: ISS Africa

The project is set to make Mozambique one of the largest exporters of natural gas in the continent and bring in billions of dollars to its struggling economy. Recent disasters that have hit the country such as Cyclone Idai and Kenneth have increased urgency for the project.

A direct assault on the project would be counter-productive for the Islamic extremist rebels, says Alexandre Raymakers, senior Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft in Cape Town. He says that the insurgents aim to take over major towns while tying down government forces at “hyper-defended” LNG projects.

President Filipe Nyusi is unsure what degree of foreign assistance he wants but is sure that he does not want “foreign boots on the ground,” says Raymakers. That suits Western powers such as Portugal and France, which are sure they don’t want to send them.

Some security experts suggest that the insurgency can be tackled with private security forces backed by foreign advice and training but it will take time. Meanwhile, “the civilian population is bearing the brunt” of the insurgency.

Banks and other financiers will take a wait-and-see approach before taking on further commitments. The banks may start to wonder how they can be repaid on time.

Mozambique’s pattern of insurgency began in the 1960s with the struggle for independence from Portugal. The ruling FRELIMO led by Dr. Edward Mondlane was founded in Dar es Salaam in 1962. Frelimo led a liberation march from River Rovuma in the north to the capital Maputo in the southern part of the country in the early 1970s. At the time Portugal was already stretched with financial troubles at home and similar independence struggles in other colonies like Guinea Bissau, Angola and Cape Verde.

After independence in 1975, the Rhodesian intelligence services and the apartheid government of South Africa in the 1980s funded and armed an insurgency called RENAMO that fought in the northern and central regions of Mozambique.

This current insurgency is able to finance itself having set up strong taxation systems among the communities it controls. The U.S. State Department have also accused the group of engaging in the international heroin trade as well as illegal gem mining.

Mozambique has been here before, and emerged stronger. Until historical and economic grievances are addressed, the main question that remains is, for how much longer can they take more rounds of violence?

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