Why Mozambique Is Outsourcing Counter-Insurgency to Russia: 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: 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