Mozambique, like other countries in mainly-Christian southern Africa, has largely escaped the ravages of Islamist militancy that have plagued East and West Africa for nearly a decade.
But escalating attacks that began in October could scare away much-needed investment in its nascent liquefied natural gas sector.
The brutal killings of scores of people by machete-wielding gangs, likened by locals to Somalia’s Al-Shabab, mark the latest crisis for a country that still bears the scars from a protracted civil war that killed more than a million people and damaged its infrastructure.
Mozambique possesses one of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas. But it is also one of the poorest countries, hurt by a drawn-out conflict between the ruling Frelimo party and the opposition Renamo that began in 1977, two years after independence from Portugal.
The civil war left roads, railway lines, hospitals and schools in ruins before a ceasefire in 1992, adding Mozambique to the long list of African countries whose economies failed to take off after the end of European colonial rule.
Peace has largely prevailed in Mozambique since the conflict ended, and the country has conducted largely democratic elections, although political tensions have spiked intermittently over the last five years.
But half of its nearly 30 million citizens, most of whom live in rural areas, remain in poverty, and frequent floods have harmed agriculture and added to damage that war inflicted on infrastructure. Meanwhile, government mismanagement has burdened the economy with heavy debt.
Donors froze support to Maputo after the exposure in 2016 of more than US$1 billion in hidden loans to public companies, and the country has defaulted on its debt.
The discovery of vast reserves of natural gas has thrown the country a much-needed lifeline. Anadarko Petroleum of the United States won approval earlier this year to develop a $20 billion plant expected to rake in billions of dollars in taxes once production of liquefied natural gas begins in four to five years.
Last week, Anadarko said it had signed a heads of agreement with Japan’s Tokyo Gas and Britain’s Centrica for the annual supply of 2.6 million tonnes of LNG from the start-up of production until the early 2040s.
Exxon Mobil and Italy’s Eni are also expected to sign contracts with Mozambique to start drilling probably next year.
But attacks by armed groups in the northern province of Cabo Delgado, which Human Rights Watch says have killed at least 39 people and displaced more than 1 000 since May, could put a spanner in the works.
The rights group says hundreds of families fled their villages after suspected members of an armed Islamist group burned down houses in night-time attacks. The group is known locally as both Al-Sunna wa Jama’a and Al-Shabab, although it has no publicly known connection with the Somali group of the same name.
It is thought to have been formed in predominantly Muslim Cabo Delgado about four years ago.
Earlier this month, Amnesty International urged Mozambican authorities to take action after at least 10 people were hacked to death by jihadists in Cabo Delgado.
Beyond the loss of human life, the attacks could also take an economic toll, with the International Monetary Fund noting several shootouts involving armed fundamentalists and the police in the north of the country, where natural gas mega projects are set to be developed.
The US embassy in Mozambique has warned its nationals to consider leaving the district of Palma in Cabo Delgado, citing the likelihood of imminent attacks on government and commercial centres.
The government has been reluctant to link the attacks to terrorism, but crisis-weary locals fear they could be the start of a campaign of violence like those that have wreaked havoc in West and East Africa. In Nigeria, Boko Haram militants have killed more than 30 000 people and forced over two million to flee their homes, while Al-Shabab has terrorised rural areas in East Africa since 2009.
Sub-Saharan Africa has suffered a sharp rise in Islamist militant attacks, with incidents jumping from 317 in 2013 to 1 549 between April 2017 and April 2018, according to global consultancy Control Risks.
Somalia suffered 879 attacks over that period, while Nigeria experienced 220, Mali 194, Cameroon 96 and Kenya 79.
“Although the total number of Islamist militant attacks in southern Africa was relatively low – 56 incidents in total, 43 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, 12 in Mozambique, one in South Africa – the rise in attacks, particularly in Mozambique … is concerning,” Control Risks said this week.
– African News Agency (ANA)/News-Decoder