Why Mozambique Is Outsourcing Counter-Insurgency to Russia: Part Two – Hidden Loans and Naval Bases

Andrew McGregor

November 4, 2019 (Part One of this article was published on October 29, 2019)

At the heart of Mozambique’s reinvigorated relationship with Moscow (see EDM, October 29) is a financial scandal that almost ruined the country. Specifically, corrupt elements in the southeast African state’s Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) government and the Serviço de Informaçao e Segurança do Estado (SISE, Mozambique’s intelligence agency) secretly arranged for $2 billion in loans from foreign commercial banks for three state-owned firms without parliamentary approval in 2013–2014. Guaranteed by the government, loans from Russia’s VTB Bank and Credit Suisse were made to EMATUM, Proindicus and Mozambique Asset Management (MAM). The scandal severely undermined Mozambique’s currency and GDP growth as well as resulted in the imposition of strict new conditions on further International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank assistance. It also discouraged further foreign investment even as Maputo struggled to find up to $2 billion to finance its share of development of LNG reserves off Cabo Delgado (Macauhub.com.mo, October 18). Moscow’s VTB Bank is demanding repayment of its loan (over $500 million) by the end of the year (Clubofmozambique.com, September 9).

Mozambican Troops Inspect Terrorist Damage in Cabo Delgado (PetroleumEconomist)

As Mozambique’s state security forces—the Forças de Defesa e Segurança (FDS)—proved incapable of dealing with the lightly-armed terrorists in the north, Maputo began a search for military alternatives. Initially, Erik Prince’s Dubai-based Lancaster Six Group (L6G) private security firm was in competition with Russia’s Wagner private military company (PMC) and Eeben Barlow’s South African Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection International (STTEP) for security contracts in Cabo Delgado, with Prince promising to eliminate the terrorists in three months in return for a share of oil and natural gas revenues (Issafrica.org, November 20, 2018; Macauhub.com.mo, October 18, 2019). Prince also indicated he was interested in forming partnerships or making investments in the three state-owned firms involved in the hidden loan scandal in deals expected to lead to maritime security operations in the gas-rich Rovuma Basin (Deutsche Welle—Português Para África, June 4, 2019).

On August 20, Russia forgave 95 percent of Mozambique’s debt to the Russian Federation during a Russian-Mozambican business forum. Though the forum encouraged continuing growth in bilateral trade, some Mozambican businessmen expressed concern over the consequences of dealing with Russia while it remains under Western sanctions for its annexation of Crimea (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, August 22). Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi also encouraged Russia’s Gazprombank (specializing in financing oil and gas projects) to help invest in liquid natural gas (LNG) projects in the Rovuma Basin (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, August 22). Rosneft, a publicly-owned Russian energy firm, has three licensed exploration blocks in Mozambique and is seeking more.

Russian Cargo Plane Unloads Military Supplies at Nacala International Airport, September 26, 2019 (ClubofMozambique)

Prince and Barlow lost out in the security competition; in late September 2019, reports emerged of armed Russians, possibly from Wagner PMC, arriving in the northern cities of Nacala and Nampula (both in Nampula province, immediately south of Cabo Delgado), allegedly accompanied by drones and helicopters (see EDM, October 15). The reports followed an admission by Mozambique’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation that Russia was providing military equipment for use in Cabo Delgado (Noticias ao Minuto, October 5). Another report suggested the men were Russian regulars, 160 in number, who intended to create a mobile military intelligence (GRU) base and a permanent Russian naval base (Observador, September 28). The Russian embassy in Maputo has denied the presence of Russian military personnel in Mozambique (Sapo 24, October 3).

Russia’s ambassador to South Africa, Ilya Rogachev, recently defended the use of Russian PMCs in Africa, claiming critics see Russia “through colonial eyes,” overlooking Moscow’s perception of African states as “equal and not junior partners.” Rogachev added that “private military companies are not necessarily bad… I think it depends on the goals that are assigned to these companies” (Daily Maverick, October 17).

LNG Fields in Mozambique’s Rovuma Basin (BankTrack)

Though Cabo Delgado is deeply impoverished, organized crime runs lucrative operations there, trafficking in heroin, timber, wildlife and rubies (Globalinitiative.net, October 2018; Enact Africa, July 2, 2018). For now it remains unclear whether the terrorist attacks in the region are more closely connected to radical Islamists from the north or organized crime using Islamism as a cover. The intention could be to create enough insecurity to delay the development of a legitimate industry that could threaten their operations. It has been suggested elsewhere that the insurgency is designed to facilitate the entry of private military firms into the region and enable their exploitation of local energy resources (Deutsche Welle—Português Para África, June 13, 2018). Local journalists attempting to investigate the violence have faced intimidation, detention and even torture from government security forces (Mg.co.za, April 25).

Moscow and Maputo signed an agreement simplifying the entry of Russian naval ships into Mozambican ports and a memorandum on naval military cooperation, on April 4, 2019. Mozambique’s defense minister, Athanasio Salvador Mtumuke, noted that “our national flag depicts the Kalashnikov rifle, which symbolizes the deep relations between our countries in the military area…” (Sputnik Brasil, April 5, 2018).

Alexander Surikov, Moscow’s ambassador to Mozambique, has emphasized the readiness of Russian energy firms to develop natural gas reserves in Mozambique’s north, adding, “We provide [military] assistance to them without threatening their neighbors and rattling the saber, we only do what our partners in Mozambique ask for” (TASS, October 25).

Port of Nacala (MacauHub)

Moscow undoubtedly has eyes on the port of Nacala, southern Africa’s deepest harbor, which lies roughly 200 miles south of the Rovuma Basin. The Mozambican town of Palma, close to the border with Tanzania, is slated for development as the main port for the Rovuma LNG industry, but it is unlikely to serve a dual purpose as a Russian naval base. Palma has suffered from attacks by the insurgents. Additionally, local demonstrations calling for a halt to LNG-related development until security is established have been dispersed by police gunfire (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, January 14). Mozambique’s most powerful neighbor, South Africa, will hold joint naval exercises for the first time with the navies of Russia and China in November.

Besides military support, the FRELIMO government is seeking strong allies as it battles internal dissatisfaction with electoral fraud, growing crime, emerging terrorism, internal political challenges and rampant corruption. While Russia may offer itself as a solution to some of these problems, the question is whether Maputo can overcome its traditional reticence to engage wholeheartedly with Moscow’s regional ambitions. Financial pressure and the lure of energy riches may be just enough to permit Russia to establish its long sought naval base in Mozambique.

This article was first published in the November 4, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Why Mozambique Is Outsourcing Counter-Insurgency to Russia: Part One – The Historical Relationship

Andrew McGregor

October 29, 2019

A new government offensive in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province is the latest attempt to eliminate shadowy Islamist insurgents in a region whose untapped energy reserves could reverse the country’s economic misfortunes and the damage inflicted by decades of civil war and on-again, off-again insurgencies (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, October 21). Unsuccessful in such efforts over the last two years, there are now reports Mozambique has turned to Russia for military aid (see EDM, October 15). But why Russia, and what would Moscow expect in return? The arrival of Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gamo in 1498 began a centuries-long colonization of a vast tract of southeastern Africa that came to be known as Mozambique. Modern resistance to the Portuguese began with the formation of the nationalist Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) in 1962. FRELIMO’s first attack on a Portuguese post occurred in Cabo Delgado in 1964. Pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist factions consolidated their control of FRELIMO in the late 1960s as a wave of mysterious deaths and assassinations eliminated nationalist leaders. This allowed the emergence of Marxist-Leninist hardliner Samora Machel as FRELIMO military commander.

Portuguese Patrol in Mozambique

By 1972, FRELIMO was being supplied with weapons from Moscow and Beijing. This allowed Lisbon to justify its campaign against the guerrillas by insisting they were controlled by the Soviet Union. Marxism was in many ways unsuited to Mozambique; the education of native populations was never a strong-point of Portuguese colonialism, and with most skilled labor done by Portuguese settlers, there was simply no working class to mobilize. Thus, the new socialist state that emerged with independence in 1975 was left open to the anti-Marxist armed opposition of the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO), supported by the fiercely anti-Communist states of Rhodesia and South Africa. FRELIMO’s poor performance against RENAMO later led to a major military intervention by Marxist Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia) to save the FRELIMO regime.

The wholesale departure of the Portuguese following independence left FRELIMO desperate for external assistance. Independence also brought about an important change in FRELIMO’s military approach. No longer fighting a guerrilla war, FRELIMO needed heavy weapons, air-defense systems and training in conventional tactics to fend off incursions by the Rhodesian and South African militaries. Unable to obtain such support from the People’s Republic of China, the party turned to Soviet, Cuban and East German sources, with thousands of military advisors arriving to train the Mozambican army and provide security for the president. Soviet arms, including 24 Korean War–vintage MiG 17 jet fighters flown by Cuban pilots, tended to be outdated Soviet surplus, much to the disappointment of FRELIMO leaders. This encouraged a lingering skepticism in the FRELIMO leadership regarding the depth of the Soviet commitment to a socialist Mozambique.

Samora Machel

In March 1977, Machel signed a 20-year Treaty of Friendship with the Soviet Union. As part of its Cold War struggle with the West, the Soviets clearly eyed Mozambique as an important strategic asset with warm-water ports and easy access to coastal east Africa and the Indian Ocean. However, FRELIMO worked hard to avoid cutting all ties to the West. As one leading FRELIMO member (hardline Marxist Marcelino dos Santos) explained, “We did not fight for fifteen years to free ourselves to become the pawn of yet another foreign power” (Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900–1982, Hampshire, England, 1983, p. 171).

In 1980, Mozambique opened an embassy in Moscow, only the second Mozambican embassy in a non-African country (Lisbon being the first). In the same year, Machel decreed that all FRELIMO officers must be Communists. Following a daring South African raid on an African National Congress base just outside of Maputo in January 1981, Soviet warships arrived in the Mozambican ports of Maputo and Beira with a warning of reprisals for further attacks (CSM, February 24, 1981). Nonetheless, Mozambique remained wary of committing itself to full support of Soviet foreign policy objectives. Soviet pressure to establish a new naval base in Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago was firmly rebuffed.

By the mid-1980s, relations with Cuba were in decline and Soviet intentions were regarded with greater suspicion, partly due to Soviet intrigues in Angola (another former Portuguese colony) and Machel’s death in a Soviet-piloted Tupolov aircraft in October 1986 (CSIS Africa Notes, December 28, 1987). Facing financial pressures elsewhere, the Soviets began to back away from their expensive commitment to FRELIMO even as the United Kingdom and the United States stepped in with military and economic support in the war against RENAMO.

Currently led by Ossufo Momade, RENAMO ended its long insurgency by signing a Peace and National Reconciliation Agreement in Maputo in August 2019 (Clubofmozambique.com, August 21), though the movement has yet to relinquish all its arms as called for in the agreement. While this brought a welcome respite to Mozambique’s seemingly endless internal warfare, a new and more mysterious insurgency was emerging in the nation’s north simultaneously with the discovery of massive natural gas deposits in the little-known region.

Cabo Delgado (top) – (ISS Africa)

Most of Mozambique’s Muslim minority lives in Cabo Delgado, especially amongst the Makua people and the Swahili culture of the coast. Moderate Sufism, rather than radical Salafism, is the dominant strain of Islamic worship. The Portuguese made Roman Catholicism the official religion of the colony, but, during the war of independence (1964–1974), Portugal grew more accommodating of Islam to prevent Muslims aligning themselves with the secular rebels. The post-independence Marxist state was less accommodating—Machel always wore his shoes when entering a mosque and once informed a gathering of Muslims that “God is a pig” (Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900–1982, Hampshire, England, 1983, p. 50). Muslims were increasingly treated as second-class citizens, and the anti-FRELIMO Cabo Delgado Front launched a short-lived, low-level insurgency shortly after independence.

Cabo Delgado’s quiet poverty was interrupted by the offshore discovery of vast natural gas fields by US energy firm Anadarko in 2010. Further exploration revealed what could be the third-largest reserves of natural gas in the world (Eia.gov, May 2018). Newfound wealth attracted new insurgents, and a previously unknown group claiming to be Islamists launched its first attack on civilians in the region in October 2017, killing 40 people (Daily Maverick, October 27, 2017).

This new terrorist group called themselves Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a (ASJ, a.k.a. Ansar al-Sunna), though they are popularly known as “al-Shabaab,” despite having no apparent ties to the Somali Islamist movement of the same name. Since then, the group has carried out multiple atrocities against the civilian population. In one recent case, responsibility was taken by the Islamic State organization (Sábado, September 29, 2019).

This article was first published in the October 29, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor

Two Months to War? The Return of RENAMO

Andrew McGregor

From Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, May 2015

Over two decades after the end of the Cold War, nearly all the African guerrilla movements of that era have perished, been absorbed or made the transition to political party. Mozambique’s Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO) is one of the few such movements to have never tasted power yet still retain an active armed (albeit aged) wing. Mozambique’s vast size, poverty and inefficient security forces allow a few hundred armed men to apply a disproportionate degree of pressure on the governing party, RENAMO’s long-time rival the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO). FRELIMO has ruled Mozambique without interruption since independence from Portugal in 1975.

mozambiqueIndependence was followed by a 16-year civil war that ended in 1992. Portugal’s African colonies were notorious for their general disregard for projects such as education, development and the creation of a political and judicial infrastructure that had any other purpose than the furtherance of Portuguese interests. The civil war destroyed the nation’s economy and it was generally assumed that what had long been interpreted as a proxy conflict (RENAMO/the West vs. FRELIMO/the Communist bloc) would quickly collapse as in so many other places. While RENAMO did make the transition to opposition political party, the disarmament and integration process was never completed, leaving RENAMO with an armed wing able to apply political pressure on authorities in Maputo, the capital. Many of the RENAMO fighters are now in their forties and fifties and are growing impatient with the inability of movement leaders to take power and reward their loyalty. From April 2013 to July 2014 there were small-scale clashes between RENAMO fighters and government forces in Sofala province as well as blockades of roads and rail-lines before a ceasefire agreement led to a commitment from RENAMO to contest October 2014 elections.

Suddenly, however, Mozambique’s future looks a little brighter, due to evidence that the nation may be sitting on important offshore and inland energy reserves. Exploration in the Rovuma Basin off the coast of northern Mozambique’s Cabo Degado province (a FRELIMO stronghold) has yielded exciting results, with speculation that desperately poor Mozambique could become one of the world’s top three producers of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Italy’s Eni SpA and the American Anadarko Petroleum Corporation are prepared to take the finds into production, though political instability could force a revision in plans.

The current crisis in Mozambique began, oddly enough, with RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama’s surprisingly successful showing in last October’s general election. While still losing the national vote to FRELIMO’s candidate, former defense minister Filipe Jacinto Nyusi, RENAMO improved its share of the national vote from 17% in 2009 (the last general election) to 37% overall despite numerous irregularities in the voting process. The expected negative influence of several years of clashes with the ruling party and the national army did not appear to shape the vote significantly, partly because FRELIMO was viewed as having started the confrontations and because RENAMO restricted its armed opposition to attacks on military personnel rather than the civilian population (Africasacountry.com, November 5, 2014). The unpopularity of FRELIMO’s cronyism and high unemployment rates for graduates has enabled RENAMO to begin drawing support from younger voters, even in FRELIMO strongholds like Maputo.

Mozambique - RENAMOAn Aging Movement: RENAMO guerrillas in the field

Nonetheless, RENAMO rejected the election results as tainted and its MPs refused to attend parliament until a “gentleman’s agreement” was forged between Nyusi and Dhlakama that specified Dhlakama’s demand for autonomous RENAMO administrations in the six north and central provinces that voted in a majority for RENAMO would be considered in parliament (the six provinces claimed by RENAMO include Sofala, Manica, Tete, Zambezia, Nampula and Niassa).When the RENAMO-sponsored bill to create autonomous regions finally came up in parliament on April 30, it was quickly and decisively defeated by the FRELIMO majority (APA, May 1, 2015).

Eduardo Namburete, head of external relations for RENAMO, said the movement felt the ruling party had not honored the spirit of the agreement by treating it seriously and issued a deliberately ambiguous warning in response:

To our surprise, the ruling party in parliament did not even consider discussing this bill. They just voted it out… In our view what was defeated was not RENAMO, what was defeated was the will of the people… We are not proposing war. People are taking our stance very wrongly. But we are saying we are not just going to cross our hands and wait and just watch things happening. Of course the ultimate decision will be the people’s decision. If the people decide that they don’t want a FRELIMO government in those provinces where RENAMO won, then the people will take that decision (VOA, May 6, 2015).

Dhlakama has since given Nyusi and FRELIMO a two-month deadline to reconsider their position or face unspecified consequences.

The FRELIMO leader has suggested opposition to his plan emanates from a “radical” faction within FRELIMO (LUSA, April 27, 2015). The opposition leader is under pressure within his party after RENAMO has failed in every multi-party election since they were introduced in 1994. Patience is running out, and Dhlakama appears to view the autonomous provinces proposal as his party’s best chance at getting their hands on the levers of power. So far, the RENAMO leader is trying to give the impression he does not accept failure as an option: “I, Dhlakama, shall form a government by force, even if I have to use a Plan B to reach power without FRELIMO’s approval” (AIM, April 7, 2015).

FRELIMO still appears to be willing to used its armed wing to apply pressure on the national government – in recent weeks RENAMO gunmen have been observed moving south from their bases in Sofala Province into the pro-FRELIMO southern provinces of Gaza and Inhambane, even attacking an FADM position in strength in the Guija district of Gaza in early April (AIM, April 3, 2015). RENAMO also threatened to create a new general staff headquarters in central Sofala, a RENAMO stronghold and the center of the movement’s 2013-14 insurrection (AIM, April 6, 2015).

The Armed Forces

The Mozambique Armed Defense Forces (Forcas Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique – FADM) was formed in 1994 and was intended to incorporate fighters from both FRELIMO and RENAMO. The armed forces continue to be undermanned with an estimated strength of 13,000 (the post-civil war army was intended to have 24,000). This is due to several factors, including the underfunding of the military, poor pay and career prospects and a failure to attract ex-RENAMO fighters. The military is possibly better known for corruption and indiscipline than for fighting prowess and most of its equipment is unserviceable due to lack of maintenance. So little progress has been made on the integration of RENAMO personnel into the armed forces that an international team of observers tasked with monitoring the process has largely dissolved as there was nothing to observe (AIM, April 6, 2015). Talks between FRELIMO and RENAMO have ground to a standstill after over 100 largely fruitless sessions. One of the major problems facing FADM Chief of General Staff General Graca Thomas Chongo is the question of whether former RENAMO fighters in the FADM are willing to confront their former comrades in the event of an internal conflict.


In the current political-economic climate, RENAMO’s ability to muster external support for a wide-scale rebellion has been severely downgraded. Despite its weaknesses, FRELIMO has succeeded in making the jump from communist-allied Cold War pariah to a reliable partner for Western investors, particularly in the emerging and promising energy sector. In the event of open conflict with RENAMO, FRELIMO might conceivably attract foreign military support (arms, equipment, logistical support, intelligence, etc.) but would far more likely be encouraged to find a negotiated solution with foreign diplomatic support. Mozambique’s ports are essential to the prosperity of its land-locked neighbors, making it likely that Maputo would face intense pressure from the 14 other members of the South African Development Community (SADC) to do whatever is necessary to ensure the security of transport routes cutting through Mozambique.

Neither the government nor RENAMO has the strength and firepower that would necessarily encourage them to engage in a prolonged test of arms. RENAMO’s demands are unconstitutional and the institutionalization of another level of government outside the control of the national ruling party would do much to discourage new foreign investment or the development of Mozambique’s promising energy sector. While RENAMO does not have the strength to rule in the six provinces “by force,” as it has promised, it does have the potential to create economic havoc by cutting roads and other transportation routes. In this scenario, some form of international intervention (diplomatic, economic or military) should be expected before Mozambique’s political paralysis is allowed to disrupt the economic life of the entire southern region.