Corruption, organised crime and conflict in Mozambique: exploring the role of international donors

Alexander Chance | 17 February 2021


The ongoing conflict in northern Mozambique poses serious questions not only for regional security, but also for the viability of hitherto dominant ‘liberal’ peacebuilding approaches. Whilst ostensibly an Islamist insurgency, a range of other dynamics have created the conditions for violence – including lucrative illicit trades, discontent at high-level corruption, unequal economic development, a biddable criminal justice system and the intimidation of civil society. Local and national elites bear overwhelming culpability for such failings. However, the international community must face up to its role in allowing some of these trends to grow, largely unhindered, over nearly three decades. To do so honestly may yield important lessons for other attempts to build sustainable peace in the aftermath of conflict.

Strategic Insight

On the 1 January this year, Islamist insurgents in the northern Mozambican province of Cabo Delgado reached the gates of the enormous liquefied natural gas (LNG) site on the Afungi peninsula – Africa’s largest private investment and natural gas project. The French firm that runs the concession, Total, subsequently announced the suspension of all construction work on the plant and the extraction of most workers.

On the same day that insurgents threatened to breach Afungi’s perimeter, Ireland took its seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) and Portugal assumed the six-month presidency of the EU Council. Amongst the many pressing challenges that Ireland and Portugal face in their roles, the serious but lesser-known travails of Mozambique may hold particular resonance for both countries – albeit for very different reasons.

Ireland has maintained a significant diplomatic and development presence in Mozambique for 25 years, and the southern African country is one of nine prioritised by Irish Aid for long-term development assistance. In December 2020, the Irish government announced an additional €1 million for the World Food Programme’s (WFP) emergency efforts in Cabo Delgado, amounting to €4 million in humanitarian aid for the beleaguered province in 2020 alone.

For Portugal, as the former colonial power, the relationship with Mozambique is inevitably more complex. Nevertheless, the Portuguese military is now exploring support for the Mozambican security forces’ formation of ‘rapid intervention forces, special forces, marines and tactical air control’. A number of other countries have a clear interest in seeing this insurgency resolved swiftly. Alongside Total, US oil giant ExxonMobil holds the other main LNG concession in Cabo Delgado, and the UK has confirmed $1.5 billion in export finance for the LNG project. China is significantly invested in Mozambique, holding 20 percent of its external debt – worth $2 billion, or 13 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – and the Chinese government is clearly aware that war raises the prospect of non-payment. Brazil, Turkey and South Africa also hold sizeable commercial interests in the country.

The local context

Mozambique remains one of the poorest countries in the world, ranking 181 out of 189 on the UN’s Human Development Index. Cabo Delgado sits at the north-eastern tip of the country and languishes at or near the bottom of such matrices. It is one of only two Muslim-majority provinces and has long felt neglected by the government in the capital, Maputo – some 1,800 kilometres to the far south. The province was the birthplace – and then a focal point – of the war of independence against Portuguese rule between 1964-74. Once Portugal had departed, a bloody 15-year civil war ensued, with the rebel group Mozambican National Resistance (RENAMO) created by Rhodesia and then sustained by apartheid South Africa to destabilise the Marxist-Leninist government of the Mozambique Liberation Front (FRELIMO). When peace accords were eventually agreed in 1992, after a quarter century of near continuous conflict, Mozambique effectively had to be rebuilt from scratch.

In the post-war dispensation, rebuilt transport infrastructure enabled Cabo Delgado to renew its historic social and economic links not only southwards, through Mozambique and on to South Africa, but also with neighbouring Tanzania and, via its long coastline and ports, to rehabilitate centuries-old patterns of littoral trading. The province’s immense natural resources, including rubies, gold, timber and charcoal, attracted the interest of miners and loggers from across the region and beyond. But in the context of rapid globalisation, renewed connectivity also brought criminality: drug traffickers identified the region’s ports and fishing villages as ideal entry points for bulk loads of Europe-bound Afghan heroin transported from Pakistan’s Makran coast, and its land border with Tanzania as an easy crossing point for consignments that had been landed further north. Agreement to allow the trafficking to continue unimpeded appears to have been approved by the political elite at a national level and facilitated on the ground by biddable customs, police and local officials, with each level taking a cut. By 2001, one respected analyst calculated that the heroin trade was likely to be Mozambique’s most profitable ‘business’. The ivory trade, human trafficking, people smuggling and illegal timber extraction additionally became important elements within the province’s illicit economy.

Meanwhile, multinational companies, eyeing the potential profits from Cabo Delgado’s natural resources, secured wide-ranging concessions from the government in opaque deals that led to the displacement of thousands of residents from their villages, and the expulsion – sometimes violently – of artisanal miners from the ruby and gold mining areas. More recently, thousands of farmers, fishermen and their families were resettled from the Afungi peninsula to make way for the construction of the LNG plant.

Concurrently, tensions grew in the province between more radical imams – some of whom had trained abroad, including in Saudi Arabia – and established representative religious bodies linked to the ruling party. Long held distrust towards the party-state apparatus was exacerbated by the perception that corrupt local elites were personally benefitting from the foreign investments and illegal trades alike, whilst disaffected youth, displaced families and expelled miners were frozen out of such opportunities. Some imams and other community leaders warned that, given such a combustible mix of resentments, radical Islamist leaders were increasingly able to recruit significant followings.

Thus, when the insurgency began in 2017, it was not – or should not – have been a surprise. Marked initially by sporadic attacks on villages and police posts, it has slowly but inexorably developed into brazen confrontations with Mozambican security forces guarding large population centres and key infrastructure. The government, alarmed by the inability of their forces to counter these attacks, initially sought assistance from a Russian mercenary force, who were swiftly routed, and then by a South African firm more experienced in bush warfare. In 2020, the intensity and barbarity of the insurgency worsened, spilling over the border into Tanzania, displacing an estimated half a million people from their homes and leading to approximately 2,500 deaths.

The role of international donors

Through the 1990s, in the aftermath of the civil war, an initially rather chaotic but energetic aid operation swung into action to rebuild Mozambique’s infrastructure and sustain its traumatised and malnourished population. The challenge was enormous and a wide range of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and donor countries responded with vigour – coordinated and safeguarded for the first two years by a UN peacekeeping force (ONUMOZ). The UN’s primary roles were to oversee the disarmament and demobilisation of fighters and the country’s first democratic elections, which took place in 1994. The UN mission was then swiftly disbanded, and the impetus of international efforts in Mozambique was thereafter driven by two main imperatives: economic liberalisation and development.

In fact, powerful incentives to liberalise Mozambique’s stuttering economy had begun well before the war had ended, with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank pushing the country to privatise state-run industries, de-regulate, relax capital controls, end state subsidies and drastically reduce the public sector. Once Western donors had begun to more effectively coordinate their assistance, the continued provision of aid was linked to Mozambique’s adherence to these neoliberal economic principles. Given that the country’s brief period of independent self-government had been built upon socialist principles, these reforms ushered in a period of profound socioeconomic change. Large numbers of state employees subsequently lost their jobs or had their pay cut to below the poverty line, and key industries were denied state protection – many of which faltered in the harsh winds of global competition. Meanwhile, members of the political elite were provided with generous and unsecured loans by donor-backed banks (most of which were never repaid) in order to stimulate private sector investment, and obtained preferential terms to purchase stakes in the newly privatised firms. This resulted in economic insecurity for many and lucrative enrichment opportunities for the political elite – within a context of minimal oversight or enforcement. These factors all combined to create ideal conditions for both petty and grand corruption to become pervasive.

At the same time as the Mozambican economy was being reshaped according to the neoliberal mandate of the Bretton-Woods institutions, donors also focused their attention on reforming state institutions. ‘Good governance’ programming sought to rid the civil service of inefficiencies and ineptitude, and to build a culture of probity and public service. Whilst some advances were made (such as in public finance management), in the main these attempts at institution-building were undermined by the ruling party’s attempts to maintain political control of the executive.

Donors’ efforts towards reform of the criminal justice system – in part as a belated acknowledgement that the rule of law was under growing threat from serious crime and high-level corruption – were patchy at best and lacked coordination. Socially legitimate forms of traditional dispute resolution (which even under Portuguese rule had been allowed to coexist alongside ‘formal’ law) were entirely displaced by Western jurisprudence, alienating large sections of the population from the legal system. Only a handful of donors committed money and personnel to training and equipping the overly militarised and under-resourced police force, and judicial reform was typically geared towards easily quantifiable outputs rather than improving the quality of service. Criminal complicity and intimidation of investigators, prosecutors and judges was in general ignored, despite credible and repeated warnings from senior judicial personnel that organised crime was poised to ‘capture’ the state. Similar alarms bells were rung by academics, religious leaders and journalists over bribery schemes and corrupt partnerships between heroin traffickers and senior government figures. However, some of these figures were attacked, kidnapped or killed, and their warnings fell largely on deaf ears.

Donor missions assured concerned Mozambicans that they would take up these issues as part of their ongoing but private dialogue with the government, which left outspoken members of civil society dangerously isolated. Threats of aid being conditional upon achieving governance standards were rarely carried through – in part because of genuine humanitarian concerns, but also because Mozambique had by the 2000s become a powerful development success story; economic and social development indices were on an upward trajectory, and few wanted to undermine that narrative. Over time, however, this showed the government – and courageous civil society figures who tried to hold it to account – that the donors’ mantra of ‘good governance’ was ultimately a hollow statement of aspiration. This changed in 2016, when a $2.2 billion illegal debt scandal finally exhausted Western donors’ patience. But by then the government had secured new avenues of support from other partners, notably China, which made no such demands for reform. In Cabo Delgado, state corruption had by then become a cornerstone of the insurgents’ recruitment efforts. As one researcher explained, ‘When they speak about the radical preacher coming to radicalise young people, they are forgetting that the government has done about 80% of the job for the radical preacher. He just comes to harvest.’

Reflecting on the past, looking to the future

The background to the conflict now raging in Cabo Delgado is multi-faceted and based upon a complex mix of internal, regional and global factors, and this brief article does not claim to cover them all. Nevertheless, the international community’s central role in shaping Mozambique for nearly three decades raises questions as to whether its approach to peacebuilding allowed certain conditions for conflict to develop. In particular, the priority attached to rapid economic liberalisation without adequate social security provision and regulatory oversight appears to have directly fuelled corruption. Trumpeting ‘good governance’ whilst consistently failing to follow-up on concerns not only demonstrated donors’ weakness in this area, but also left members of civil society dangerously isolated in the public square. Similarly, an unwillingness to take seriously and act upon warnings over the financial clout and political patronage of organised crime left the criminal justice system incapable of halting its reach into the highest echelons of the state. Over time, Mozambique’s apparent success story in development terms was allowed to dominate donor narratives, whilst corruption and criminality exacerbated inequality and fuelled distrust of the state. In Cabo Delgado, those factors acted as tinder awaiting a flame.

The insurgency in Mozambique’s northernmost province is now one of multiple serious challenges facing the country, including the health and economic effects of Covid-19, the destruction wrought by devastating cyclones, the distrust engendered by the loans scandal, and a campaign of simmering violence by RENAMO dissidents. Mozambique’s leaders anticipated that gas revenues would ameliorate the financial impact of these challenges, but their failure to secure the LNG sites casts doubt on such hopes. The government is therefore seeking foreign military assistance, but resisting offers from multilateral bodies that might draw international attention to the inequality and corruption that helped to catalyse the conflict. Countries whose firms hold LNG concessions are responding on a bilateral basis, as demonstrated by the presence of a French frigate off the Mozambican coast. Such assistance may be seen as necessary to secure the on-shore LNG plants and to deny the insurgents the use of the coast. The focus, however, must be on a wider, coordinated effort that places the needs of Cabo Delgado’s exhausted and traumatised population at the centre of international and EU policy. To this end, Ireland’s commitment to emergency aid to the province is to be commended, especially in the context of the pandemic and other pressing issues dominating the global agenda. In the longer term, though, one of the clear lessons from 30 years of foreign intervention in Mozambique is that neglecting corruption and criminality in Cabo Delgado will only compound its current challenges, and help lay the foundations for further conflict.


Alexander Chance is Adjunct Fellow at The Azure Forum for Contemporary Security Strategy. With a practitioner background in international criminal justice cooperation and diplomacy, Alexander specialises in strategic, institutional and policy responses to the nexus between organised crime, governance and corruption, in particular in post-conflict settings. He is currently completing his doctorate at Trinity College Dublin, which explores these themes within the context of post-war Mozambique.

Authors’ views are their own and do not represent the official position of The Azure Forum.