Mozambique’s two civil conflicts are both results of the country’s defining challenge: managing its transition into becoming a fossil fuel economy.

Since the 2009 discovery of massive natural gas reserves off the shore of northern Cabo Delgado province, Mozambique has gone from facing no civil wars to being confronted with two. In 2013, the longstanding peace deal between the government and the opposition Renamo party fell apart, leading to intermittent attacks by Renamo in Mozambique’s central provinces. In 2017, with a ceasefire pausing the Renamo conflict, a homegrown Islamist insurgency erupted in Cabo Delgado.

Since then, Cabo Delgado insurgents have taken up the ISIS banner and killed over 570 civilians and soldiers. A new peace deal with Renamo, signed in August 2019, was supposed to bring stability and political reforms. It has instead resulted in a split within Renamo and renewed attacks on civilians in central Mozambique.

While it is tempting to view these ongoing conflicts as isolated developments arising from leadership competition within Renamo or rising Islamist sentiment in Cabo Delgado, both conflicts are in fact best understood as indirect results of the 2009 natural gas discoveries.

Renamo pursued peaceful political competition with the incumbent Frelimo party in a highly centralized political system for over two decades before tearing up the Rome Accords and returning to violence in 2013. By the time of the first Renamo attacks, the potential revenues from gas investment had become the key issue in Mozambican politics, and Renamo’s capacity to gain power through elections seemed to be on the wane. Violence offered Renamo a way to demand reorganization of the Mozambican state that would grant it greater political power and therefore more access to the fruits of future gas exploitation.

In Cabo Delgado, the announcement of the natural gas discoveries and the concomitant promise of economic growth raised local expectations sky high. Many believed that jobs and public infrastructure investments would soon flow into the impoverished province. Instead, the gas projects have created few jobs and produced mostly displacement and disappointment for local residents. That disappointment, combined with increasing environmental degradation and political repression, resulted in high levels of grievance in the province. Though the strength and character of the Cabo Delgado insurgency took analysts by surprise, in retrospect, it is unsurprising that the province experienced a political uprising.

Gas infrastructure continues to be built despite the violence, but the gas itself, and the revenue it is expected to generate, has not yet begun to flow. Mozambique’s security struggles, therefore, appear to be a case of what Leigh Elston dubbed the “presource curse,” where the mere expectation of sudden natural resource wealth brings about negative effects. One of the factors differentiating presource curse situations from more conventional instances of a resource curse—in which the prevalence of natural resources creates opportunities for corruption that undermine governance—is uncertainty over the size and character of future returns. When resources have been identified but the infrastructure to extract them does not yet exist, it is hard to know exactly how profitable the extraction will be or the people and institutions who most stand to benefit from it. That uncertainty makes it difficult to find negotiated solutions to problems. Because the government does not know how much it can give away in negotiations while still satisfying its core constituencies, it tries to give away nothing. Such a strategy has resulted in the Mozambican government pursuing a maximalist approach in both conflicts.

In Cabo Delgado, the government’s response to the insurgency has been overwhelmingly securitized. Foreign mercenaries have joined Mozambican troops in an attempt to stamp out the rebellion through military means alone. Two years into the conflict, the only effort on the government’s part to engage with local grievances in Cabo Delgado as drivers of the insurgency has been the recently announced Northern Integrated Development Agency, which ostensibly aims to increase youth employment in the province, but which local media has criticized as another vector for government corruption. Overall, the government’s securitized approach has led to frequent human rights abuses against civilians, journalists, and suspected insurgents, only exacerbating local grievances.

So far, military-only approaches to countering the Cabo Delgado insurgency have been in vain and there is little reason to believe the military situation will improve going forward. Cabo Delgado is sparsely populated, heavily forested, and shares a highly permeable border with Tanzania, all of which are ideal conditions for a rural insurgency. Conversely, the Mozambican military is under-resourced, operates mainly on roads, and struggles to gather intelligence in an area where distrust of authority is high and few soldiers speak the local languages. While Russian mercenaries have introduced helicopters and drones to augment the security force’s capabilities, their tactics are optimized for the vast open spaces of Ukraine and Syria and have already been exposed as ineffective under the dense cover of Cabo Delgado’s landscape.

For a time, prospects for a negotiated peace seemed stronger in the Renamo conflict than in Cabo Delgado. Mozambican president Filipe Nyusi and Renamo leader Ossufo Momade signed a peace agreement in the run-up to the 2019 national elections that appeared to offer a productive way forward for managing Mozambique’s central political cleavage. The central tenets of the agreement were that Momade would guarantee an end to Renamo violence, and in exchange constitutional reforms would defer more political power to Renamo in its base provinces in the center of the country by instituting direct election of provincial governors and a wider array of municipal leaders. The added political power would guarantee Renamo access to a portion of the public sector spoils of natural gas exploitation once the gas projects came online.

This peace-for-federalism trade was President Nyusi’s signature first-term accomplishment, and Momade seemed to bet that it would deliver results to strengthen his shaky grasp on power within Renamo. At its first major test, however, it failed. During national elections in October, the first to feature direct election of provincial governors, Renamo did not win a single governorship, even in Renamo’s political heartland of Sofala province where they were widely expected to claim a victory. This might not have been a deal-breaker, but the elections were also marred by widespread fraud and intimidation from the incumbent Frelimo government. The perception that Frelimo stole the election makes it difficult for Renamo hardliners to believe that the government negotiated the peace deal in good faith.

It is impossible to know which surprising Frelimo victories are attributable to vote rigging and which to Renamo weakness, but losing the election so badly has prevented Momade from being able to deliver on his side of the bargain. A breakaway faction within Renamo, calling themselves the Renamo Military Junta, has rejected Momade’s authority and begun attacks against civilians in Renamo’s name, aiming to scuttle the peace deal. So far, the deal remains technically in effect, but neither Momade nor the government have shown an ability to end the Junta’s violence.

Neither of the conflicts in Mozambique is likely to end very soon, and both will shape Mozambique’s transformation into a natural gas-oriented economy. What remains to be seen is whether the funds from the gas, when they do arrive, will provide the certainty necessary to achieve negotiated solutions to the problems that the prospect of gas profits produced in the first place.

In the meantime, however, the Mozambican government would do well to ensure that regular Mozambicans have more input into how the costs and benefits of the gas projects are distributed. After years of being marginalized by Maputo technocrats, Mozambicans need assurances that their voices and votes can produce changes in the government’s approach to the gas projects.

Successfully prosecuting, rather than promoting, police officers involved in murdering an election observer would be a step toward restoring faith in Mozambique’s democratic system. In the absence of credible elections and fair dispute resolution mechanisms, violence will only become more enticing to those who feel left behind by Mozambique’s fast-approaching future.



Sam Ratner is a contributing editor at Zitamar News, where he covers southeast African security issues, and a founding editor of Fellow Travelers Blog. He earned his MPA in international security policy from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs. He lives in Brooklyn and tweets at @samratner.