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From Gospel to Curse - Fossil Fuel Extraction in Mozambique

Lisa Åkesson | 21 September 2020

A previous version of this post in Swedish appeared at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs' Utrikesmagasinet.

One Sunday morning, I accompany a Mozambican colleague from the Eduardo Mondlane University to her church, an evangelical congregation that caters to the middle class in Maputo. After praise and gospel singing, the sermon begins. The pastor grabs the microphone and talks about the importance of hard work and family values. He promises that this will pay off because now all righteous Mozambicans are facing a better future: The large investments in gas extraction in northern Mozambique will lead to prosperity and wealth for all who choose to follow God’s will.

For the worshippers who share the middle-class experience of hovering uncertainly between privileges and vulnerability, and who constantly feel that their relative financial security is threatened, the pastor’s words serve as a promise that the future, after all, will be bright.

At the same time in northern Mozambique, 250 km from Maputo, the situation makes the pastor’s “gas gospel” appear like a curse. In Pemba, the capital of the province of Cabo Delgado, where the gas deposits are located, the streets are full of displaced people who have been forced to flee by armed groups known in Mozambican media as “jihadists” and “terrorists.”

According to the UN disaster relief agency UNOCHA, at least 250,000 people have fled violence and insecurity, and extreme weather conditions driven by climate change exacerbates the situation. Many refugees are short of food and water, and cholera is rampant. Maputo is far away, and state support for refugees and local authorities is mostly rhetorical.

Mozambican media has not reported much about the so-called jihadists, and the state has been reluctant to give journalists access to the region. According to Amnesty International, authorities have detained and tortured local journalists who tried to spread information about the events.

The attacks began in 2017, and Mozambican authorities have been quick to accuse “foreigners.” Locally, the group goes by the name “Al Shaabab,” which is a well-known and feared name of jihadist groups in East Africa. International media, however, reports that an IS-affiliated group called Ansar al-Sunna is behind the attacks. IS has taken responsibility for some of Ansar al-Sunna’s recent attacks, and the organization is increasingly emerging as one of IS’ “franchisees.” By publishing films in which group members wave the IS flag, the group strengthens its violence profile.

Initially, the attacks targeted poor and defenseless villages in northern Cabo Delgado, on the border with Tanzania, but, in recent times, they have also targeted military and state facilities, and thus the group has been able to increase its stockpiles of weapons and ammunition.

In northern Mozambique, the majority of the population is Muslim, while the majority of Mozambicans are Christians. Across the country, coexistence between Muslims and Christians has traditionally been conflict-free, and there are many families with both Christian and Muslim members. The majority of Muslims in Mozambique are Sufis, while Ansar al-Sunna has been characterized as Salafist and a supporter of Sharia law.

In 2020, the group intensified its terror and carried out more than 20 attacks per month according to ACLED (Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project). Recently, they occupied the port of Moçimbo da Praia, which is used for transport to the gas fields at sea. Locally, the group has recruited young, frustrated and unemployed men who feel forgotten by a corrupt and absent state, a pattern that is recognizable from the emergence of, for example, Boko Haram in Nigeria, IS in the Sahel region and al-Shabaab in Somalia. The Mozambican state has hired mercenaries from Russia and South Africa to fight the uprising, but, so far, this has been unsuccessful.

Many observers believe that expectations that the gas deposits will lift the region out of poverty and oblivion have been decisive for Ansa Al-Sunna’s growth. The fossil fuel finds became public ten years ago and, at the time, raised great hopes for jobs and public infrastructure. The gas deposits are some of the largest in the world, and according to the “gas gospel,” they will convert Mozambique into a global superpower in terms of fossil fuel.

The residents of Cabo Delgado, however, have not seen any improvements. Instead, they have seen an increased number of SUVs driven by people who obviously do not come from the region, and they have noted that well-guarded luxury homes have been built for the SUV owners. They have also witnessed the destruction of entire villages to pave the way for new infrastructure, and they have realized that the few new jobs that have opened up have gone to the family members of local politicians.

The displaced villagers have not yet gained access to new land, and the food subsidies they initially received have been withdrawn. In an interview, a representative of the small farmers’ co-operation association says that people “at first thought the gas deposits would be a blessing, but instead they have brought with them a curse.” In the wake of this curse, more and more young people are choosing to join the jihadists.

The violent developments in Cabo Delgado also have to do with climate change and the fossil fuel industry. Last year, two violent cyclones hit the country, one of which struck Cabo Delgado, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes and farms. In total, the two cyclones affected arable land on an area larger than the whole of Sweden. As a result, there is today a shortage of food and famine is threatening, which contributes to the desperate situation in the province and increases recruitment to jihadist groups. The UN has rated Mozambique as one of the three countries in Africa that is most exposed to climate change. The country is already hard hit by droughts, floods and cyclones and these are increasing in strength. Behind this is climate change driven by fossil emissions, including emissions from extraction, transport and combustion.

Presently, a consortium led by the French multinational oil company, Total, is about to sign a contract for fossil fuel extraction in Mozambique worth a total of $20 billion. Seven countries are behind the project through export credits, namely the USA, Japan, Italy, the Netherlands, South Africa, Vietnam and the United Kingdom. Several of these countries claim to be pioneers in the fight against climate change.

The UK is hosting the UN’s major climate summit in 2021, and has officially called for much more ambitious climate plans globally. These should be in line with the Paris Agreement and thus keep global warming below two degrees and preferably no more than one and a half degrees. At the same time, The Production Gap Report (which measures the gap between the goals of the Paris Agreement and the countries’ planned extraction of oil, coal and gas) shows that global planned extraction of fossil fuel over the next 20 years is 47% higher than what is compatible with two degrees warming. In addition, the UN has decided on zero emissions from 2050. New fossil fuel investments in Mozambique thus appear unsustainable from both local and global perspectives.

The World Bank and the IMF are also involved through technical assistance to the Mozambican government. The World Bank announced as early as 2017 that it would stop supporting oil and gas extraction. But, since the technical support in this case is packaged as support for improved state governance, their support continues. However, the intensified jihadist attacks have slowed down implementation and temporarily halted investment. Exxon Mobil and Total have demanded that the Mozambican government deploy troops to guard their facilities, which means even less security for the local population.

Mozambique is already suffering from vast national debt and the loans for fossil fuel projects are threatening to make this debt uncontrollable. The Mozambican Ministry of Finance expects to make profits based on an oil price around 70 dollars a barrel by mid-2020 and up to 150 dollars a barrel by 2050. Today, the oil price is around 40 dollars a barrel, which probably means that the whole project is based on wishful thinking.

So far, the fossil fuel projects in northern Mozambique have contributed to jihadist attacks, massive displacements and violations of press freedom. In the long run, increased corruption and unsustainable government debt await. The global scenario points to fossil fuel extraction contributing to increasingly extreme weather situations that threaten the lives and livelihoods of the 75% of Mozambique’s people who make a living from agriculture.

Yet, it is hard to blame the pastor of the evangelical church in Maputo for trying to spread some hope to troubled parishioners. Nor does the Mozambican government bear the heaviest blame, at least not for the global climate crisis. Instead, the gas industry and its investors in the United States and Europe should realize their responsibility.


Lisa Åkesson is a professor of anthropology at the School of Global Studies.


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