French oil major Total has stepped up security co-operation with the Mozambican government in an effort to combat an Islamist insurgency that threatens the development of vast offshore gasfields.

After insurgents with ties to Isis took over a key port in northern Mozambique last month, Total said it would provide logistical support to a government “joint task force” to strengthen security at liquefied natural gas facilities. Total told the Financial Times on Wednesday that this task force would be run by the Mozambican ministries of defence and the interior, which oversee the army and police.

“It is a defining moment” in the “Iraqification” of the conflict, said Piers Pigou, a southern Africa consultant with the International Crisis Group. Total’s security deal, which will allow for the defence of its facilities on the Afungi peninsula in the province of Cabo Delgado, underlined “the dangers of a security approach that ironclads the green zone [of LNG development] and does very little for the rest of the country”, he said.

A war has raged in Cabo Delgado for nearly four years, killing more than a thousand people and displacing about 250,000 or one in 10 of the people who live there. Despite government pledges to avoid the “resource curse”, analysts say Mozambique increasingly resembles other fraught hotspots for energy majors such as the Middle East and Niger Delta where violence and sabotage of oil-related facilities is common.

Total is one of several companies committed to pouring a total of up to $50bn into gasfields discovered over the past decade in investments that could transform Mozambique’s economy. Total this year secured about $15bn in financing to develop liquefied natural gas in the southern African country. In 2019, Mozambique had a gross domestic product of only $15bn and a GDP per capita, in dollar terms, of $484, according to the IMF.

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“Protecting these companies at all costs is priority one for the government,” said Jasmine Opperman, Africa analyst at the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. 

Civil rights groups have questioned Total’s security deal with the government. Under the memorandum of understanding “it basically means the privatisation of the sovereignty of Mozambique”, said the Centre for Democracy and Development, a nongovernment organisation based in Maputo, the capital.

Total told the FT it could not reveal details of the arrangement “due to the confidential nature of the terms of the MoU, and since it is a sensitive security issue”. It would not comment on whether the agreement involves funding arms or soldiers’ pay. Though the government has used mercenaries in the conflict, Total said the joint task force “does not make use of private security”.

Total said it would train security forces on its sites in protecting human rights and that the new agreement showed its “commitment to meeting its development milestones in a secure manner while simultaneously bringing meaningful social and economic benefits for the local communities”.

Mozambique map showing gas fields

The insurgency has its origins in rifts between local Islamist groups as hardliners scorned the secular state controlled by President Filipe Nyusi’s Frelimo. That rejection turned into violent conflict three years ago with an armed attack on Mocímboa da Praia. Only last year did Isis begin claiming credit for the Mozambican group’s attacks through its “Central Africa Province” division.

The group’s military sophistication has risen markedly in recent attacks, though it is yet to directly assault facilities linked to gas investments. Mr Nyusi has dismissed the insurgents as “bandits”, but the group is proving ever more able to resist under-resourced security forces.

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“These are not bandits. They are trained. There is a leadership here that is well experienced,” said Ms Opperman.

The recent fighting illustrates gaps in the army’s resources and how it works with hired guns. Analysts said troops ran low on ammunition and South African helicopter mercenaries struggled to provide air cover.

As the fighting has spread this year, towns that were once refuges are no longer safe, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. “It is simply not fair that people who built these towns [in Cabo Delgado] see themselves ignored because the priority is to defend these big investments,” said Zenaida Machado, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

So far, the government has avoided requesting regional military support. South Africa and Angola, with the region’s two biggest militaries, have strained finances. “There is no capacity nor capability to move in . . . even if they wanted to, even if Maputo allowed it,” Ms Opperman said. 

Via Financial Times