The waters off Mozambique are becoming a major security hotspot in the Western Indian Ocean. On 24 March, militants linked to the Al Sunna group orchestrated a bloody ambush in the coastal town of Palma, in Cabo Delgado province. During the attack, dozens of foreign contract workers and locals were besieged at the Amarula Palma Hotel, while tens were killed and several others injured.
Given Mozambique’s dependency on its seas, maritime security is fundamental for the peaceful development of the country and its regional neighbours. As rail and port facilities mature across the country, the security of the Mozambique channel is crucial for trade both internally and throughout the entire region, especially as mineral resources from Zambia, Malawi and Zimbabwe are channelled through these corridors. Indeed, the wealth and economic growth of the land-locked hinterland counties is tied to the stability and growth of Mozambique and, thus, relies on a stable maritime security environment.
Today, Mozambique’s most grave maritime security risk emanates from poorly governed territories on land. Ongoing violent insurgency in the North, in particular, continues to disrupt maritime affairs; this conflict was initiated by groups from drawn from Muslim communities on the Swahili coast, in 2017. To date, insurgents have reportedly organised more than 800 separate attacks across northern Mozambique, resulting in at least 2600 deaths and the displacement of more than 600,000 people. In 2020, there was a sharp escalation in armed clashes, accompanied by an increasing number of attacks on maritime infrastructure including the seizure of the port of Mocimboa da Praia. In January 2021, in response to the escalation of violence by Al Sunna militants, Total began to move part of its logistical operations from northern Mozambique to the island of Mayotte in the Channel.
Total’s actions are illustrative of the growing challenges for foreign investors in the region. The presence of Al-Sunna is likely to catalyse greater investment in security services to protect gas extraction and treatment facilities, impacting vessel safety (leading to increased insurance rates) as well as coastal dhow trade routes between Mozambique and Tanzania. The use of dhow boats for trade is a long-standing, low cost method of moving agricultural and other goods between communities in the absence of adequate transport links and infrastructure on land. The insurgency is suffocating this trade, leading to further poverty, which has the potential to disrupt and/or stop the near shore commercial fishing activities along the south coast of Pemba.
Al-Sunna is capitalising on the country’s poor and unstable coastal socio-economic welfare to exploit the sea, along with the limited capabilities of Mozambican sea patrols. Indeed, political and economic instability ashore often encourages armed groups to conduct more sophisticated maritime attacks, especially once it becomes clear that cargo theft, vessel seizure and kidnap of crews for ransom are extremely lucrative ways to finance their operations. Alarmingly, the Mozambique Channel shares precarious characteristics with the Gulf of Aden in the early 2000s: there is no shortage of potential targets, as over 5,000 tankers and more than half of the total trade in goods for the 16 member states of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) transits the channel every year.
Although the insurgency remains mainly a Mozambican national security concern, violence has already spilled over into bordering regions of Tanzania. It is too soon to make assumptions, but should the insurgency in the Cabo Delgado province spread further transnationally and escalate into piracy, shipping companies would be forced to amend shipping lanes and circumnavigate Madagascar to avoid the area, impacting the schedule of port visits not only in Mozambique but also in South Africa. This could have a strong impact on the crude oil trade towards the Southern Africa region, Latin America and Europe, as ultra large crude carriers are unable to transit via the Suez canal and will thus be forced to travel down the Mozambique channel and around Cape Point to reach other international ports. Most of South Africa’s imported oil and trade with Eastern Africa, the Gulf, Pakistan and the western seaboard of India moves through this vital maritime route, as does trade to countries further east moving through Maputo or Durban. International partners have important interests in preventing the insurgency from spilling over into the maritime domain. Just a decade ago, Somali-based piracy triggered coordinated militarisation of the waters off the Horn of Africa and in the Gulf of Aden. Under the current conditions, and observing the increasing risks in the Mozambique channel, the international community must monitor the situation closely, to guard against disruptive maritime insecurity in Southern Africa.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the European Union or its members.
Picture from: The Wall Street Journal