What the heck is happening in Cabo Delgado?

What is happening in the northernmost province of Mozambique, which has been plagued by armed group attacks since 2017? On December 29th again, the village of Monjane was attacked without any clear understanding of the motives of the attackers, other than to sow chaos by terrorizing the population1.

And chaos, it is. A “bounded chaos” even, to use the expression Olivier Dollfus proposed at the end of the 1980s to qualify this kind of situation. In 1990, in the second book of the first volume of Universal Geography directed by Roger Brunet, Dollfus already evoked Mozambique:

Situations of “bounded chaos” develop when the State and its apparatus are no longer able to exercise sovereignty on their territory, when the population is no longer governed by the laws applicable to all inhabitants […]. …] In Africa, this situation is met in Uganda, passing from one dictator to another; Mozambique in prey to guerrilla warfare against a backdrop of tensions with South Africa; Burundi, where two populations are in conflict.

Olivier Dollfus, “Le Système-Monde”, in Roger Brunet, Olivier Dollfus, Mondes nouveaux, volume 1 of Géographie Universelle, edited by Roger Brunet, Montpellier-Paris, 1990.

Indeed, Mozambique was plagued by a civil war that lasted from 1977 to 1992, when the signing of a peace agreement between Frelimo, now in power, and Renamo, which had become the main opposition party, put an end to the fighting – an agreement that has been called into question several times and has since been signed again2. It would therefore come as no surprise if a badly extinguished ember were to rekindle itself from time to time. Unless the current violence is related to the exploitation of vast natural gas reserves in provincial waters, or has something to do with Muslim fundamentalism recently implanted in the region?

It certainly takes some of all that to figure out what’s going on, or maybe none of it. Instead of getting lost in conjecture, we would like to focus here on this particular arena to question the notion of State. This State that is incapable of “ensuring internal and external balances”, again according to Dollfus3. This very relative State, which sees its functions assumed by other actors.

Indeed, one might wonder whether, at the beginning of the 21st century, the State is not (again) just one political actor among others. Whether we reduce the State to a monopoly of legitimate violence, or to its capacity to organize a territory, it is clear that there are many actors involved in the province of Cabo Delgado, each one replacing the Mozambican state in a particular domain. This article goes through all of them to see exactly what it is all about.

The presence of multinational firms, and natural gas ones, moreover!

For once, it is not about oil, but about natural gas. And a lot of natural gas, since the fields discovered in the early 1990s in the Mozambican EEZ, off the coast of Cabo Delgado province, are believed to be the ninth largest reserves in the world, with nearly 5 trillion cubic meters4. After a few twists and turns in negotiations between firms, it was finally Total, Exxon Mobil and Eni who obtained the exploitation of these deposits. As a reminder, these three firms are respectively in 11th, 25th and 113th place in terms of turnover according to the 2020 Fortune 500 ranking, and have a combined turnover of nearly $480 billion, i.e. 32 times more than Mozambique’s GDP in 2019. The investments planned for the project managed by Total amount to 20 billion dollars.

These figures give an order of magnitude, but not much more. What is interesting here is the set of responsibilities that goes along with such a project for these multinational firms. Because gas exploitation requires infrastructure and skilled workforce that Mozambique does not have. The company is therefore responsible for building roads and training technicians, while protecting the ecosystem and ensuring that the wealth produced by the exploitation of natural resources is passed on to the local population. This is a real delegation of public service given to firms that are increasingly specializing in marine biology, professional training or local development5.

And all this without counting the “city” (in a way… the action of urbanization does not bode for the result in terms of urbanity, especially in view of the context, which can lead to an entrenched camp) that the gas companies and their biggest subcontractors have to erect, not only to set up their offices and technical establishments, but also to house their employees in good conditions, especially in terms of safety, not to mention the replacement village built to house the 2000 or so people who have been forced to leave their homes6. On the site built by the Anadarko company, whose shares in the natural gas project were bought out by Total7, there is, for example, an airstrip about 1.5 km long that can be used to land and take off planes that can carry several dozen passengers, suburban housing, and a roundabout that would make any French municipality green with envy (see images 1 and 2 below). The company builds, develops, protects and rehabilitates. The expression “it is a state within a state” – in this case a planning State – then takes on its full meaning.

Image 1. Part of Total’s site in the Afungi Peninsula, Cabo Delgado Province, Mozambique (source: Mapbox)
Image 2. A roundabout in a sububrain complex built by Total in the Afungi Peninsula, Cabo Delgado Province, Mozambique (source: Mapbox)

An opportunistic jihadism?

The other major actor in the region is ISIS, or rather the shadow of ISIS since the links between the armed groups operating in the province and the “Islamic State” are not very clear8. In 2017, ISCAP (Daech’s regional subsidiary for Southern Africa) based in Tanzania reportedly moved to Cabo Delgado where it would have carried out a merger with Ansar Al-Sunna, a local jihadist group9. In addition, there would have been links with Somali shebabs and jihadists from the Democratic Republic of Congo. But it was not until 2019 that ISIS claimed for the first time its involvement in the Mozambican conflict in an operation that would look more like a marketing stunt than anything else.

Still, the jihadists also hold grounds in the area, but in a completely different way than the multinational firms. Here, the armed groups carry out attacks on villages or towns that they occupy for a while before withdrawing into the countryside. In August 2020, they took the port of Mocimboa da Praía10, partly used by the companies in their natural gas exploitation project. Rather than building, the rebels destroy, burn houses, kill and throw people on the roads instead of trying to gain their support, which makes their intentions and their modus operandi of spectacular actions that seem to have no future, a bit mysterious. In any case, the inability of the Mozambican State to restore order clearly shows the major role that these terrorists, “unknown groups” or jihadists, whatever one might call them, have been playing in the province since 2017.

Here come the private armies

The Mozambican State, powerless in the face of these troubles, ended up outsourcing the fight against the insurgents to private armies, the new actors so characteristic of the 2000s. In addition to the South African company Dyck Advisory Group11, it was above all the presence of the Wagner Group that was under the spotlight12, although it seems that this company quickly withdrew from the region following significant losses to the insurgents. Still, it is again a delegation of public service, but this time to apply the principle of legitimate violence in order to maintain order on the national territory. The mercenaries, based in Pemba, the capital of the province, flush out the rebels with their helicopters, without succeeding in preventing attacks such as that on the port of Mocimboa da Praía. Worse, on January 1st, an attack on the village of Quitunda, the replacement village for the populations displaced by the Total project, and on the camp of the Mozambican armed forces supposed to protect the site led Total and its subcontractors to evacuate the Afungi Peninsula. The competition for control of a territory whose economic stakes are obvious seems to be entering a new phase.

A hotspot for humanitarian action

And finally, we find the various United Nations agencies or programs, as well as non-governmental organizations whose role is to collect, house, care for and feed the thousands of refugees fleeing the abuse. By the end of the year 2020, there were more than 530,00013 displaced persons (a figure that includes those displaced from other provinces and fleeing violence from a different source), a number that the Mozambican State is unable to manage, hence the UN and non-governmental subsidiarity in the role of protecting the population14.

Here, the main players include the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF and the International Committee of the Red Cross, whose actions range from the provision of blankets and the construction of sanitary facilities to pediatric care and the prevention of sexually transmitted diseases. This aid is financed by the member States of these organizations and by private donations, i.e. individuals and companies.

A not-so-absolute State

A synthetic map using the graphic codes of geopolitical maps clearly shows the fragmentation of Cabo Delgado where each actor occupies a more or less continuous portion of territory, substituting, disputing or replacing the Mozambican State (see map 1 below). The positions of the various actors are relatively homogeneous and exclusive. Each has its own small state where the authority of the central state is particularly weak. In addition to the Mozambican and Tanzanian States resulting from African independence, the map shows an Islamist State that could be called “Iscapistan”, rather rural and coastal, as well as a micro-state occupying most of the Afungi peninsula, governed by a multinational firm with the military support of the Mozambican State. With most of the refugees staying with family, the few existing camps are too scattered and small to appear on the map. Enclave, disputed areas, alliances, all the ingredients for interstate conflict are present, especially since the Mozambican government has finally resolved to mobilize its army, not just the Rapid Intervention Units (UIR), to fight Iscapistan. The hypothetical intervention of French or European military forces to secure the region would also seem to confirm the idea that the insurgents and their territory are turning into a real “foreign” power against which Mozambique and its allies go to war.

Map 1: The territories of the Relative States in Cabo Delgado (Cartography: Patrick Poncet, Olivier Vilaça)

The situation in Mozambique and “its” province of Cabo Delgado is by no means an exceptional case. What happen in Somalia, Libya, the Central African Republic and other similar situations – but not Syria, which has been to “held” and urban for too long – show that in many places the State is not so absolute. In the case of Mozambique, the geographer will especially remember that Cabo Delgado is a province bordering Tanzania and whose provincial capital Pemba is more than 1660 km away as the crow flies from Maputo, the country’s capital (see Map 2 below). This means that there is more geographical proximity between Pemba and the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam, on the one hand, and between Maputo and the economic heart of South Africa, Johannesburg, on the other, than between the two Mozambican cities. In the territory of a strong State, the size of the country or the remoteness of a region from the political center does not theoretically imply a lack of authority. But when the State is struggling to establish its legitimacy, the geographical factor will play an important role. This is what characterizes Mozambique’s bounded chaos.

Map 2: Distances between Johannesburg – Maputo – Pemba – Dar es-Salaam (Cartography: Patrick Poncet, Olivier Vilaça)

However, one should not overestimate the situation of States that do not experience armed conflict. The authority of federal States is, for example, very often limited, or can give rise to confusion and questions about the prerogatives of some (the federated States) and the other (the federal State), as we saw in the United States response to the Covid-19 pandemic. The perceived weakening of the welfare State in the face of economic liberalization and globalization has also led for several years now to question the homogeneity of State reality throughout the world.

An increasing number of actors other than the State are thus sharing or contesting its regalian functions (justice, security, education, etc.). And if the concept of the State has been questioned for a long time, it seems that simple categories, not based on the principle of democracy, and valid both in time and space, are necessary to think the World more effectively. The notions of an overwhelmed, outmoded State imply a reference situation and a necessary return to “normal”. Rather than trying to describe the World as it should be, it seems more relevant to describe it as it is. This in no way amounts to legitimizing dictatorship or anarchy.

Absolute State and Relative State, two concepts for better thinking about the World

We propose the term Absolute State to designate an archetype in which regal functions and territorial sovereignty are not shared, nor are they entrusted to actors other than the State administration, of which it is the unique and specific function. In contrast, we propose the term Relative State to designate a State that, for whatever reason, shares its regal functions and territorial sovereignty with other actors who, quite logically, must themselves be considered as de facto States – and therefore “relative” as well – even if they do not have the name. We therefore question the notion of so-called “non-State” actors when they assume all or part of the role of the State.

Practically speaking, the examples of Absolute States can therefore be reduced to the meanest share if we include in our selection criteria the decision of economic policies. The concept of the Relative State can also be used as a relevant key to understanding in the borderline case of the absence of a State, and in particular in the case of its disappearance or collapse. These cases correspond to situations in which the classical State and its absolute power are relativized to the point of being rendered insignificant. Between the two extremes of the State spectrum, between the absolute State and situations of devolution of territorial State functions to Relative States (terrorist groups, multinationals, military juntas, various local powers), a large number of the States of the World are spread out. Moreover, it is in the central part of the spectrum that we find contemporary democracies, each one of them experimenting with an institutional and geographical architecture of power, through the separation of balanced powers (“checks and balances”) and through the existence of partially autonomous geographical levels (nested political-administrative subdivisions, federation of states, confederation, union of states, etc.). At the ends of the spectrum are dictatorships, monolithic states that do not grant autonomy to internal “territories”, and failed states that have abdicated their prerogatives, either passively (through lack of means) or actively (through corruption), in the face of “alternative” actors whose ambitions are no more about the well-being of the people than in “classic” dictatorships.

The spectrum defined at each of its two ends by these two concepts – the Absolute State and the Relative State – is therefore, in our view, better able to describe the geographical reality than the classical and univocal idea of the State. It brings to the forefront a fundamental aspect of the spatial dimension of societies, that is, the fundamental and material reality of power rather than its abstract political dimension summarized in the description of the State apparatus. But even more, given the reality of the World and the nature of the States that compose it, it is undoubtedly the concept of the Relative State that should be retained as the central concept in the geographical analysis of the World. And in this perspective, the archetype of the Absolute State appears today as an exception, even if it is massive such as the China of Xi Jinping. And again: the fundamental character of the relative State is also due to the fact that the most absolute State remains relative to the others, always having to manage its relationship with its immediate neighbors, its economic partners, and ultimately to position itself in relation to the World taken as a whole and to face global problems. In a sense, the absolute State no longer exists.


Citer ce billet
Patrick Poncet & Olivier Vilaça (2021, 6 février). What the heck is happening in Cabo Delgado? Groupe Olivier Dollfus. Consulté le 16 juin 2024, à l’adresse https://doi.org/10.58079/nvsz

  1. The factual aspects of this article are largely based on the various issues of Joseph Hanlon’s newsletter: Mozambique News Reports & Web Clipping. []
  2. The peace deal was signed for the last time in August 2018, just before the Mozambican presidential elections. []
  3. Olivier Dollfus, L’Espace Monde, Economica, Paris, 1994, p.95 []
  4. Bastien Cabrol, Direction générale du Trésor, “Le gaz au Mozambique”, 27 décembre 2017. []
  5. Total/Mozambique LNG, ESHIA Executive Summaryand Update, 14 mai 2020 []
  6. African Development Bank Group, LNG Mozambique, Resettlement Action Plan (RAP) Summary, avril 2019. []
  7. In May 2019, Chevron was to acquire Anadarko Petroleum for 33 billion dollars. But in the end it was Occidental Petroleum who acquired the company for 38 billion dollars. Total then purchased Anadarko’s shares in the Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) project in Mozambique in September. []
  8. Cyril Bensimon, “Le Mozambique, entre gaz et djihad”, Le Monde, 15 novembre 2019. []
  9. Laurent Larcher, “Au Mozambique, des massacres djihadistes au coeur d’une région convoitée”, La Croix, 12 novembre 2020. []
  10. Much of the information used in this article was taken from the Club of Mozambique website, based in Maputo and created by Adrian Frey, which is a reference for news about Mozambique. []
  11. Tonderayi Mukeredzi, “Mozambique’s Insurgency Is a Regional Problem”, in Foreign Policy, juillet 2020. []
  12. Tara John, “Russian mercenaries fight shadowy battle in gas-rich Mozambique”, CNN, 29 novembre 2019. []
  13. ONU, “Fighting displaces over 500,000 in Northern Mozambique, reports UN refuge agency”, UN News, 18 décembre 2020. []
  14. OCHA, Flash Appeal for Covid-19 – Mozambique, mai-décembre 2020. []

Patrick Poncet & Olivier Vilaça

Géographes, fondateurs du Groupe Oliviers Dollfus. • Patrick Poncet est chercheur indépendant, après avoir été chercheur et enseignant-chercheur dans divers institutions universitaires. Il a publié aux Presses Universitaires de Rennes "Intelligence spatiale", ouvrage synthétisant ses recherches en géographie fondamentale et en géographie appliquée. Il est également entrepreneur et designer. • Olivier Vilaça est chercheur indépendant et professeur d'Histoire-Géographie au lycée Gustave Eiffel à Maputo (Mozambique). Spécialiste du Monde en tant qu'objet, des entreprises mondialisées et des pandémies.

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