Mozambique: The Return to Cabo Delgado - Gas, War, and the Emergence of Total Land


While TotalEnergies remains coy about restarting the $20bn gas project, Mozambicans are coming home in the conspicuous absence of the state.

In recent months, tens of thousands of displaced people have begun returning to their homes in north-eastern Cabo Delgado. Years after being forced from the restive region in northern Mozambique - home to one of Africa's biggest natural gas projects - the returnees are visibly weakened and apprehensive. While relieved the area is finally secure enough to resettle in, many residents have come back to find their homes destroyed, hospitals and schools vandalised, and government buildings looted.

They have also returned to a Cabo Delgado in which the state is virtually absent. Civil servants, officials, and doctors are mainly concentrated in the district headquarters, without equipment to work. In the villages, the only sign of the government is still just the presence of a few primary school teachers. In Mocímboa da Praia, some official buildings remain abandoned and strewn with clothes left by insurgents.

Within this vacuum, TotalEnergies has taken on some of the functions of the state. Trying to stabilise the region, the French oil major behind the nearby $20 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) project has become involved in humanitarian support, economic recovery, infrastructure reconstruction, security, and more.

How did Cabo Delgado arrive at this situation? What does it mean for the region, the controversial LNG project, and Mozambique?

Complex origins of the war

In October 2017, a militia armed with Islamist rhetoric started a guerrilla war in Cabo Delgado. They first attacked government targets, before turning to isolated villages, causing thousands of people to flee. It was only in March 2021, however, that the conflict garnered significant international attention as the militants occupied Palma and came within metres of the fence to the huge LNG project. Previously, the conflict had only affected poor rural communities. Now, hundreds of foreign workers were at risk. TotalEnergies declared force majeure and suspended the project.

Since the start of the war, many commentators trying to understand the conflict have pointed to the discovery of gas in the early 2010s as the cause. The reality is more complex and goes back much further.

For centuries, northern Mozambique has been a place of economic marginalisation. From the intensification of slavery in the 19th century to forced labour on plantations under Portuguese rule, the region also has a long history of brutality. It is no coincidence that Frelimo's struggle for liberation, which succeeded in 1975, began in the north. After independence, this region became the great site for experiments in the construction of communal villages. It was also home to re-education camps, where all those accused of dissidence, colonial or unproductive vices were taken. These often violent experiences increased poverty that was capitalised on by Renamo, which began a guerrilla war against the government soon after independence.

In 1992, the civil war finally came to an end with a peace agreement. As northern Mozambique enjoyed greater security in the following decades, demand for its abundant natural resources, especially from Asia, grew. Much of the economic activity that resulted was illicit. For instance, thousands of Mozambicans - from scouts to customs officials - became involved in the illegal logging industry. Meanwhile, thousands more rushed to the area in the late-2000s as rubies and other precious stones were discovered in Montepuez, Cabo Delgado. The scene was like something out of the Wild West as young people dropped out of school or farming to either engage directly in mining activities or profit indirectly by providing transportation, renting houses, or turning to sex work.

This risky but profitable industry, however, ended abruptly around 2016-17 as formal mining companies lobbied the government to end informal small-scale mining. Security forces swept through the region, expelling miners and traders, and engaging in torture, rape, and extrajudicial killings.

Once again, northern Mozambique was the site of instability and violence. As a resident of Montepuez told us: "We suffer, suffer, suffer. Everyone beats us. The security guards of the ruby mines beat us. The police beat us. The armed forces beat us. The [government allied] militias beat us. The criminal gangs beat us."

It was around this time that the $20 billion LNG project began to ramp up. The development promised to economically transform the country. But, in Cabo Delgado, people found that all the best jobs were filled by foreigners or Mozambicans from the extreme south. With few other opportunities for employment left, young locals competed for poorly paid jobs as domestic workers and guards or turned to informal trade.

It was in this context of continued exclusion, deepening inequality, lack of public services, and government corruption that an Islamist militia managed to find support. The armed group didn't have a coherent political project, but it did promise sharia, which for many Muslims, simply means "justice".

Will Total Land break the pattern in Cabo Delgado?

Two years since the Islamist militants attacked Palma, a degree of security has returned. Rwandan forces, invited in by the Mozambican government, have successfully pushed back the insurgents, who have turned to attacking neighbouring districts and ill-prepared Mozambican soldiers. Displaced locals have begun to feel safe enough to return.

TotalEnergies too is considering resuming the LNG project but is so far sending mixed messages. The energy major's CEO and chair, Patrick Pouyanne, visited Mozambique in February and appointed humanitarian expert Jean-Christophe Rufin to independently assess the situation in Cabo Delgado. The fact Rufin's report was never made public suggests its contents may be politically embarrassing. Either way, on 27 April, Pouyanne told investors "we are not in a hurry" to return to Mozambique. These comments came the day after President Filipe Nyusi had declared that "the working environment and security in northern Mozambique makes it possible for Total to resume its activities at any time". Despite Pouyanne's stance, the movement of construction machinery around the LNG site has increased speculation among locals that a restart of the project is coming sooner rather than later.

For residents of Cabo Delgado, this level of uncertainty is far from unusual. They are used to being subjected to the whims of big corporations and distant officials, who they see as profiting from the region's natural resources as locals watch on.

TotalEnergies may have recognised that changing this widespread perception will be essential for stability to last. This partly explains its role in supporting people to return and its decision to take on various state functions. Its strategy is building trust among a population that has lost trust in many other institutions and actors. As one Cabo Delgado resident told us, "when the Rwandans leave, our military must leave first. We just want to stay with Anadarko [the energy company that sold its shares to TotalEnergies]".

Yet it remains unclear if the LNG project can and will truly benefit Mozambicans. Can a mega fossil fuels project change Cabo Delgado's longstanding pattern of marginalisation and brutalisation? TotalEnergies' growing spending on security and development will need to be paid off before the country starts receiving revenues - which will not be for many years - and could give the oil major a stronger hand in negotiating tax benefits. The absence of government oversight in Cabo Delgado increases the risk of corruption, abuses, and increased social inequalities. And the carbon emissions associated with the gas development are simply incompatible with a 1.5C pathway. Mozambique is considered to be among the most vulnerable countries to climate change in the world and is already suffering from more intense cyclones, droughts, and flooding.

João Feijó is a sociologist and researcher at the Observatory of Rural Areas Institute, a Mozambican research institution and think tank.

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