What’s Happening in Mozambique – and Why You Should Care  


What’s Happening in Mozambique – and Why You Should Care  

It is admittedly hard to know what to care about right now. Or perhaps to put it more precisely: there is too much to care about right now. A global pandemic has infected over 5 million and killed over 300,000 and is far from being contained: the WHO said last week South America was COVID-19’s new “epicenter” and India is setting daily record highs of new cases. U.S.-China relations have been in freefall since the beginning of the month and appear to be worsening by the day. The United States decided to leave the Treaty on Open Skies and the Trump administration is apparently discussing whether the US should conduct a nuclear weapons test for the first time since 1992. The largest ever storm ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal smashed into India and Bangladesh; France and Germany are trying to save the European Union from itself; Israel might soon annex the West Bank.

Amidst all this (and more), it is easy to look past what has been happening in Mozambique in recent months. There are, after all, limits to human reserves of caring and attention. And Mozambique, though the third largest holder of proven natural gas reserves in Africa and the site of Africa’s three largest liquid natural gas (LNG) projects, is not exactly the first country that comes to mind when one starts talking about “geopolitics.”

By just about any standard metric, Mozambique is unimportant. In terms of economic size, Mozambique is roughly “middle-of-the-pack” for sub-Saharan Africa, but even that is slightly misleading. The size of the Mozambican economy is roughly equivalent to that of Gabon or Namibia – small countries with less than 3 million people. Mozambique has almost 30 million, and in terms of GDP per capita, it is the sixth poorest country below the Sahara. The 1977-1992 Mozambican Civil War was never truly resolved and a deep and pernicious level of political corruption afflicts the country.

To the extent that global observers without a particular or professional interest in natural gas know anything about Mozambique, it is because they watched Anthony Bourdain (z”l) eat there in 2012, and now magazines like Cook’s Illustrated publish grilled chicken recipes using the country’s famous piri piri sauce so that adventurous westerners can enjoy the exotic culinary delights Mozambique has to offer without actually having to go there.

Which makes it all the more curious that suddenly, Mozambique is very much “in the news.” Like most countries in the world, Mozambique is struggling with COVID-19, and in terms of medical infrastructure and resources, there are few nations as dismally prepared as Mozambique. But the country’s current issues go deeper than COVID-19. The deteriorating security situation in Mozambique was the primary topic of a meeting of the Southern African Development Community last Wednesday. South Africa recently expressed its desire to help directly. The week before that, the Export-Import Bank of the United States (EXIM) amended a September 2019 direct loan to support U.S. exports to Mozambique and allocated an additional $1.8 billion to a Total LNG project to include not just onshore but offshore production – and explicitly said its goal was to “prevent ceding ground to countries like China and Russia.”

In other words: Mozambique is a geopolitical “epicenter” in and of itself, an unwitting ground-zero and staging ground for some of the most important forces currently reshaping the international political order, the balance of power in the Indian Ocean basin, and the political realities of sub-Saharan Africa and especially East African geopolitics.

Religiously, Mozambique is a “borderland” – its border with Tanzania is where Islam gives way to Christianity in sub-Saharan Africa. Agriculturally, Mozambique is a microcosm of the challenges facing most sub-Saharan African nations, as they are growing and urbanizing quicker than they are modernizing, leading to increased levels of dependence on food imports and of malnutrition and hunger in society at large. Politically, Mozambique still bears the scars of colonialism, with borders that were drawn without regard for ethnicity, tribe, or community. Its latent civil war is rooted in both a north-south political and economic divide – and reflects a previous foreign interference in Mozambican affairs. The disputed result of last October’s elections casts doubt on the viability of an August peace agreement between the two primary factions at each other’s throats – the ruling Frelimo and the opposition Renamo – as does Renamo’s ideological future after the death of its long-time leader Afonso Dhlakama in 2018.

And yet despite all this, Mozambique is making global waves is because in an age of renewed great power competition, East Africa is one of the most strategically important and up-for-grabs regions in the entire world and Mozambique is critical to its control:

  • The United States has made what it calls the “Indo-Pacific” its “priority theater” – and Mozambique is arguably as important a part of that overall theater as Australia.
  • China is still primarily concerned with asserting its power and influence over nearby Taiwan and in quashing rival territorial claims in the South China Sea – but it is also preparing for success on both those fronts by building the superstructure for Chinese power in the Indian Ocean. In recent weeks, China has even been relying on Mozambique’s ports to get copper and cobalt out of the Democratic Republic of Congo after South Africa closed its ports due to COVID-19 restrictions.
  • India – by far Mozambique’s second-largest export destination (China is a distant third) – has interests in making sure China does not realize its ambitions and is the most powerful country in the Indian Ocean.
  • Russia never likes being left out of a party and had mercenaries running around northern Mozambique as recently as November 2019.
  • The European Union is always hungry for new markets and for access to gas that can allow it to reduce dependence on Russia.
  • South Africa sees Mozambique as within its own sphere of influence.
  • Tanzania is nervous enough about its border with Mozambique to deploy its military to the border.
  • Even the Islamic State and the forces of global jihadism view Mozambique’s weak political structure and the potential for internecine religious strife as an ideal environment to exploit to their own ends.

It is that last potential interest that has many caring all of a sudden. After all, it is much easier to think in terms of yet another Islamist insurgent group rampaging its way through yet another weak and politically fractured state. Especially in the West, that is a narrative that we all know well and have gotten used to telling ourselves. It “makes sense.” 

And there is something to the narrative. A group called “Ahlu Sunnah Wa-Jamo” (ASWJ) formed in 2015 and has been carrying out a low-level insurgency in northern Mozambique since 2017 (the now-deceased inspirational leader of ASWJ’s founders was linked to the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairboi and Dar es Salaam). This group has stepped up its attacks since the beginning of the year and, more worrying, has reportedly changed its tactics from hit-and-run brutality to holding territory and building relationships with local communities. The Islamic State even started taking credit for ASWJ successes in March, and while overall information is scant (in part because Mozambique was not a safe place for journalists even before Islamists starting making their presence felt), there are predictions of a serious “escalation in the violence in the three mountain outlook, with coastal areas between Mocimboa da Praia and Pemba being particularly at risk” – far too close to the aforementioned LNG projects for foreign energy companies’ liking.

But even though the threat posed by ASWJ and by Islamist insurgents is very real – it is also far too simplistic a lens through which to view everything that is happening in and around Mozambique right now. The proliferation of Islamist ideology and attacks is a symptom of the crumbling of Mozambique’s already diminished political structure, as neither Frelimo or Renamo have been able to deliver a modicum of peace and prosperity. Meanwhile, Mozambique’s position as a strategically located country blessed with an extensive reserve of a resource that external actors covet make it a competition ground for global interests as the US, China, India, Russia, South Africa, and others “scramble” to assert their influence and build up their position. 

This is what zero-sum competition in a geopolitical world looks like. As great power competition increases and as globalization gives way to the geopoliticization of global affairs, Mozambique is both a critical potential zone of current and future great power conflict – and a depressing glimpse into the future of what the world will look like for weak countries like Mozambique caught in the middle.