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Mozambique projects adjust to life in a war zone

The war in Cabo Delgado is intensifying, but work on Total’s LNG project continues

Hundreds if not thousands of troops have been seen in recent days heading for Palma, the district in far north east Mozambique that is home to the huge Total- and Exxon-led projects to liquefy gas from offshore fields in the Rovuma basin.

So far, the area including the town of Palma and the Afungi peninsula, where Total is developing its Area 1 Mozambique LNG project after FID last year, have remained untouched by the insurgency. But it has claimed 1,500 lives in the wider province of Cabo Delgado since it began in October 2017 and the project is not unaffected.

The war has made it impossible, during the last couple of months, to access the project site by the main road heading up from the provincial capital, and nearest significant port, of Pemba. The closer, but smaller, port of Mocimboa da Praia was taken by insurgents on 11 August and remains out of state control, at the time of writing.

Battle lines

The government troops massing at Palma could be preparing for an assault on Mocimboa da Praia. The town is clearly a major prize for the insurgents, which had already taken and relinquished it twice this year before taking it again in August. French news agency AFP reported on 3 September that an offensive is being planned for the coming days.

1,500 - lives lost in Cabo Delgado due to insurgency

Many of the new troops, however, will be detailed to guard the projects on the Afungi peninsula—under a memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed by Total and the government. The  exact terms remain secret, but it supersedes a previous arrangement inherited from Anadarko, the previous operator of the project, and Eni, joint operator of the neighbouring Area 4 project. Under that arrangement, the gas companies paid “compensation” to the government for the protection mission and provided logistical support, according to a statement Total made at its AGM in June.

Total is also making its own security arrangements, hiring—as it does around the world—French ex-military personnel, in particular from the Foreign Legion. Its security in Afungi will be overseen by former legionnaires Frederic Marbot, who is employed directly by Total and Charles Stroeng, who works for security sub-contractor Risk&Co. The operators of Area 4, Exxon and Eni, did not sign the new MoU—which has been taken as a sign that FID will be delayed beyond the current estimate of 2021.

Project pressure

The gas projects can still go ahead while the war is ongoing, Joseph Hanlon, a researcher at the London School of Economics and long-time Mozambique watcher, says. “Only the Afungi peninsula and a small base in Pemba need to be kept secure, and all access can be by sea and air,” he wrote in a report published on 3 September. “The gas companies do not need Mocimboa da Praia or the road. Planes up to 737 size can land at Afungi and the LNG trains and gas wells can be built with material brought by sea from Nacala”, a deepwater port further down the Mozambique coast.

However, “it is not going to be as simple as that,” says Johann Smith, a South African military and security expert based in Mozambique. “Everyone’s under immense time pressure. There are certain timelines that have to be met. It is still going to take months for the jetty at Afungi, to deepen the channel. At this stage it only has a five-hour window to come in and leave again, or get stuck until the next high tide.”

Troops massing at Palma could be preparing for an assault on Mocímboa da Praia, a town which is clearly a major prize for the insurgents

A businessman involved with seaborne logistics in Cabo Delgado agrees. “If Total can build a bigger port faster, then of course Mocimboa can become redundant—but a project of this scale needs redundancy,” he says, speaking on condition of anonymity. And other issues will remain. “All the aggregates, or at least a large portion, are supposed to come by road from Mueda.”

A further issue is any non-project cargo that needs to get to Palma, which Total is unlikely to provide space for on the limited jetty at Afungi.

Meanwhile, Mozambique is left with the problem of regaining control of the province, and ending the war and attendant humanitarian catastrophe. The gas companies can function in a secure zone “as they do in many countries,” Hanlon points out. “But the war is on the ground and the insurgents are still largely local people. Stopping the ground war will be much more difficult, and it could continue for a decade or more.”

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