Mozambique has returned to the news of the international media due to the humanitarian catastrophe ravaging the north of the country.
Since the conflict broke out in 2017, violence in the region has caused a humanitarian crisis with almost 700,000 displaced people and more than 2,000 dead, according to UN agencies. The escalation of violence in recent weeks in the city of Palma by the Islamic terrorist group Al Shabaab, has occurred at a time when more than 1.3 million people already needed assistance and humanitarian protection in Cabo Delgado and in the neighbouring provinces of Niassa and Nampula.
In the last months, attacks on civilians, strategic government buildings and foreign companies by Islamist groups occur more frequently. In response to these Islamist attacks, the Mozambican army and mercenaries from a South African security company commit crimes of war, according to Amnesty International, with which chaos and violence are assured. These terrorist groups that have infiltrated themselves among the population have no direct connection with other jihadists who operate in other parts of Africa such as Somalia, Mali or the DRC but are part of the same Islamist network.
All the places in Africa where these violent groups operate, they appear to have a common denominator: the struggle to control the natural resources of the area. These are natural resources that are controlled by companies of foreign economic powers that leave little economic benefits to the population. In the case of the Cabo Delgado region, in northern Mozambique, this situation of violence is due to religious, political and economic circumstances.
The high rates of general poverty among the population, institutionalized corruption and discrimination by the State of some ethnic groups (Mwani) have caused the discontent of certain religious groups and have led to the arrival of radicalized groups. These groups take advantage of the population’s discontent to promote control of the area’s natural wealth, imposing violence and fear on the population.
In 2011, the Italian company ENI found one of the largest oil and gas reserves in the world on the northern coast of Mozambique (Rovuma basin). The oil extraction companies immediately knew how to expose their project to the population as an opportunity for employment and economic growth for the country. Nor was it difficult to convince the government of Mozambique to obtain the necessary permits that would allow them to extract the oil resources of the area.
In this context, oil and gas companies from around the world such as the French TOTAL, the German Anadarko, the American EXXonMobil, the Chinese company CNPC, the Portuguese company Galp or the Koreana Kogas company showed interest in the exploitation of oil reserves. Together with them, the service provider companies settled in the area.
However, it has been the French company TOTAL that has remained most active in the area, developing a multi-million oil and gas extraction project. Unfortunately, the expectations generated by such business activity did not take long to dissipate as the local population still did not find the direct or indirect economic benefit of these mining operations.
Promises of direct compensation to the population, such as the construction of schools, the distribution of drinking water, or the creation of jobs, soon began to fade. In addition, the project would cause the displacement of the population so that service providers could establish themselves in the area.
Once the armed conflict to control the natural resources of the Rovuma Basin has emerged and has caused death, destruction and chaos in the region, the Mozambican authorities have called for emergency international assistance to restore security in the area and help to thousands of displaced people. The European Union and the United Nations have responded to calls for help, but it is repeated once more a situation in which a country of the global South, rich in natural resources, is exploited by companies from rich countries and this generates a situation of discontent among the populations and violence.
We should therefore ask ourselves whether this kind of humanitarian aid is the kind of aid that Africa needs? Is this the new way of relationship between the global south and the rich global north? Are these dynamics of exploitation of natural resources-armed conflict-international aid part of what is called the new colonization?
Natural resources are clearly important at the origin of many armed conflicts in Africa. Preventive mechanisms to avoid such conflicts are almost non-existent and the international legislation that could help prevent them is always voluntary.
The European Union has a great responsibility in such conflicts, since in many cases European companies come to Africa encouraged by legislations that promote access to natural resources to ensure the supply of raw materials and minerals.
Similarly, European companies arrive in Africa backed by bilateral investment agreements (BITs) that protect companies against their investments. This is the case of the companies that since 2011 have made investments in oil and gas exploitation off the coast of Mozambique and that continue to operate with impunity both in this country and in other regions of Africa.
The ongoing United Nations binding treaty on business and human rights would be a useful conflict preventive mechanism. Respect for human rights does not begin with the exploitation of natural resources but from the approach of sustainable development policies that integrate the will of local populations, carry out social impact assessments, guarantee the sustainability of natural resources and protect the environment.
Currently, despite UN sustainability goals, despite EU energy transition plans, despite business due diligence and human rights and environment plans, despite national legislations of direct responsibility of companies… the violation of human and environmental rights continues to cause conflicts like the one in Mozambique.
The good governance of natural resources in Africa is mainly a responsibility of transnational companies but requires the commitment of all States to continue fighting for the well-being of local populations who are the legitimate owners of natural resources, ensuring respect for national and international legislations as well as continuing to fight against all forms of corruption. Only from a commitment on the part of the States that consider the local populations and their needs and that values the social and environmental impacts of the exploitation of natural resources can guarantee the true integral development of the people.
(José Luis Gutiérrez Aranda, Trade Policy Officer, Africa Europe Faith and Justice Network (AEFJN)