Potential Hot Spots: Mozambique Goes Malignant

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August 20, 2020: On August 11th several hundred gunmen belonging to the local Islamic terrorist group Ansar al-Sunna seized the northern Mozambique port town of Mocímboa da Praia. This is the third time Ansar al-Sunna has attacked this town. A 2017 attack was repulsed but an attack in March 2020 briefly succeeded. The August attack worked because the army garrison withdrew after several days because the troops had run out of ammunition. The army says it will retake the town but so far that has not happened. Mozambique has always been poor, with a per capita GDP of under $500. The military has 15,000 personnel, 80 percent of them in the army which is organized into ten light infantry battalions and some support units. The air force and navy are much smaller and have few operational aircraft and ships. The army received a lot of weapons from Russia from 1975 until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. China has since been selling Mozambique some weapons and ammo but most of the military gear is elderly and often unusable. “Running our of ammunition” is not unlikely here, especially with the corruption associated with the government budget.

While the port town of 30,000 is not itself very important, the nearby natural gas fields are. That’s why the government has hired several hundred Russian military contractors (experienced veterans, often with combat experience) to safeguard the natural gas facilities. These Russians have clashed with Ansar al-Sunna but the main job of the Wagner force is protecting the natural gas operations.

Ansar al-Sunna has been particularly active since 2017, carrying out several hundred operations, mostly in Cabo Delgado province. This has left over a thousand dead and over 100,000 driven from their homes to avoid the fighting. The four factions that comprise Ansar al-Sunna finance themselves via smuggling, extortion and outright theft. The recent defeat of the army garrison in Mocímboa da Praia provided the Islamic terrorists with a lot of abandoned military gear, including some weapons. Ansar al-Sunna can afford to buy ammunition.

Since Ansar al-Sunna was formed in 2015 it has operated in the northern province of Cabo Delgado. This province of two million people is majority Moslem. Cabo Delgado is adjacent to Tanzania, a nation of 56 million and a larger (35 percent) Moslem minority. Islamic radicals from northern neighbors Tanzania, Kenya and Somalia were the key to creation of Ansar al-Sunna. Moslems are a minority in East Africa but an aggressive one when it comes religious matters. That’s a major reason why most East Africans are either Christians or follow ancient local religious practices.

What gave the Mozambique Islamic terrorists a major boost was the failed promise of prosperity from the offshore natural gas fields that were discovered in 2010 and have only seen major development and production in the last few years. Long-term the government expects to obtain nearly $100 billion in revenue from natural gas and oil in the next 25 years. That’s for a country with an annual GDP of $14 billion. Those optimistic forecasts are already fading because of the decline in world oil prices that began in 2014 and have not recovered much at all. The price of natural gas is linked to the price of oil and all producers of these fuels are suffering. The current covid19 recession only made it worse.

Residents of Cabo Delgado province were led to believe that the natural gas would bring quick benefits like more jobs, roads and other infrastructure. That was not the case. The foreign companies developing the offshore natural gas deposits have had to borrow $15 billion to build the facilities to extract the oil and get it to foreign markets. Many of the new jobs went to foreigners who had skills none of the locals possessed. Too many of the unskilled jobs for locals went to friends or family of politicians and government officials. In other words, Cabo Delgado residents are angry about their continued poverty despite all the money being spent on the new oil facilities, which are near the port town of Mocímboa da Praia. This pattern is not unique in Africa, where most nations with oil or natural gas or any valuable exportable raw material see most of the export income stolen by corrupt politicians. This is the rule, not the exception in Africa.

Because of this Mozambique seems to be headed for yet another civil war. There are the usual causes; corruption, poverty and newly discovered natural gas fields. Mozambique has been suffering wars or threats of war since the 1960s. Mozambique is a largely coastal country north of South Africa and south of Tanzania. Most of the coastline runs parallel to the large island of Madagascar. The population of 30 million is a lot larger, and less prosperous, than the six million living there in 1950. For over a thousand years Mozambique has, like many other parts of East Africa, consisted of coastal cities that prospered by serving as a market places where people from the interior could obtain all manner of foreign goods. Mozambique was part of a vast trading network using dependable seasonable winds to allow ships to move good from East Africa to the Persian Gulf, India and Indonesia.

In the 1500s Portugal, using new technologies (cannon and superior sailing ships) created the borders for Mozambique, which explains why the country consists largely of coast and interior areas reachable via rivers. What ended Portuguese rule was an anti-colonial rebellion that lasted from the early 1960s, when other European colonizers were departing, until 1975 when Portugal finally got rid of its colonies. This meant nearly 300,000 Portuguese left Mozambique, taking with them a major portion of the new nation’s technical personnel and skilled administrators. In Mozambique a local government was elected and only lasted two years before fifteen-year long civil war began. This civil war was far more damaging than the shorter, and less successful anti-colonial war. The civil war killed over a million people and drove more than 20 percent of the population from their homes for months or years. Nearly two million of those refugees fled the country.

Mozambique never recovered from all the violence it has suffered since the 1960s. The rebellion against the Portuguese colonial government left about 60,000 dead, 94 percent of them rebels and civilians. The rebels were never a real threat to the colonial government. Mozambique became independent in 1975. Its first government was socialist and run by politicians who wanted to establish a communist police state “for the greater good.” This triggered a civil war in 1977 that killed over a million people, most of them civilians, before it ended in 1992. With collapse of European communist governments and the Soviet Union between 1989 and 1991, the Mozambique communists agreed to restore democracy. Some tensions between communists and democrats remained and there were brief outbursts of violence in 2013 and 2018. A 2019 agreement eliminated most of that tension just as a new threat, from Islamic terrorists, was developing.

The civil war was mainly about politics and tribal alliances. Religion was not a major factor because more than four centuries of Portuguese rule had left the population mostly (60 percent) Christian, with about 20 percent animist (ancient local religions) or not religious at all. About twenty percent were Moslem, mostly in the north, where huge natural gas deposits were discovered and are about to make Mozambique one of the largest natural gas producers in the world. That will make some people in Mozambique very rich and that is what got the current Moslem-led rebellion in the north is all about. In 2019 some of the Ansar al-Sunna factions pledged allegiance to ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) for reasons still unclear. One thing that is clear is that the fighting is all about whether corrupt Moslem or corrupt Christians gain control of the natural gas. An Ansar al-Sunna victory is unlikely as the Mozambique Moslems are outnumbered. The Islamic rebels say they are out to eliminate corruption. All Islamic rebels say that and none ever deliver. That has been demonstrated many times in the last few decades and Moslems have noticed.

The Enemy Within

Mozambique certainly needs a change in attitudes, and goals, among its elected officials and government bureaucrats. The primary problem is the pervasive corruption throughout the country, particularly in the government. Corruption and misuse of government funds are the main reasons Mozambique is such a wreck economically. The global aspect of this can be seen in the international surveys of nations to determine who is clean and who is corrupt. For 2019 Mozambique ranked 146th out of 180 nations in international rankings compared with 158th in 2018. Corruption in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/13, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/9) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (Finland, New Zealand and Denmark) are over 85.

The current Mozambique Corruption Perception Index score is 26 (versus 23 in 2018) compared to 26 (27) for Nigeria, 30 (30) for Ukraine, 45 (44) for Belarus, 58 (60) for Poland, 80 (81) Germany, 65 (61) for Taiwan, 39 (40) for Turkey, 41 (40) for India, 28 (28) for Russia, 59 (57) for South Korea, 14 (17) for North Korea, 37 (35) for Vietnam, 85 (84) for Singapore, 73 (73) for Japan, 40 (37) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 29 (33) for the Maldives, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 32 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (28) for Bangladesh, 26 (30) for Iran, 16 (15) for Afghanistan, 29 (30) for Burma, 71 (71) for the UAE (United Arab Emirates), 60 (64) for Israel, 69 (75) for the United States, 41 (39) for China, 44 (43) for South Africa, 20 (18) for Iraq, 39 (40) for Turkey, 53 (49) for Saudi Arabia and 28 (28) for Lebanon.

The Mozambique corruption score has gotten worse since 2012 when it was 31. All that corruption and fifteen years of civil war sharply reduced the living conditions in most of Mozambique. The extent of this can be measured compared to the rest of the world. The effectiveness of governments and the societies they represent is rated each year in the Human Development Index. The UN has compiled these ratings for 29 years. The index ranks all the world nations in terms of how well they do in terms of life expectancy, education and income. In 2019 Mozambique was 180 out of 189 nations. The rank of 0ther nations puts this into perspective; United States is at 15 (tied with Britain), China 89, Israel 22 (tied with South Korea), Saudi Arabia 36, Iran 65, India 129, Pakistan 152, Afghanistan 179, Bangladesh 135, Nigeria 158, Russia 49, Venezuela 96, Colombia 79, Mexico 76. Egypt 116, Lebanon 93, Syria 154 and Jordan 103. The top ten nations are Norway, Switzerland, Ireland, Germany, Hong Kong, Australia, Iceland, Sweden, Singapore and Netherlands. The bottom ten are Mozambique at 180th place (there are a lot of ties) followed by Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Eritrea, Mali, Burundi, South Sudan, Chad, Central African Republic and in last place, Niger. Most of the bottom ten have problems with Islamic terrorists, which usually includes an ISIL faction or two.

Africa is currently home of six major ISIL factions. These are currently present in Egypt, Libya, Somalia, Nigeria. Mali, and Mozambique. There are smaller ISIL factions in other African countries, some so small that they regularly cease to exist because of heavy casualties and are sometimes revived with reinforcements from a larger ISIL faction in a nearby country. The Mozambique ISIL affiliation was not universally accepted by all members of Ansar al-Sunna . That sort of response is not unusual and sometimes leads to the demise or reduction in the size of an ISIL faction and weakening of all Islamic terror groups in the area.

Ansar al-Sunna has one major disadvantage; its religious affiliation means it can only depend on about ten percent of the Mozambique population for support. Many Moslems do not support Ansar al-Sunna because the experience of the last few decades has made it clear that Islamic terror groups tend to kill more Moslems than non-Moslems. All that won’t eliminate the possibility of Ansar al-Sunna damaging the natural gas facilities and limiting exports. That will also be very unpopular nationwide because so many people see a chance to get a piece of the natural gas income. In other words, it’s not a war coming to Mozambique but rather another malignant side effect of the culture of corruption that prevails in the country.

 

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