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Conflict in Mozambique is bad for India’s food, energy and maritime security

If the conflict in Mozambique continues, a humanitarian disaster will grip the country and likely spread to the wider region. It is likely to influence all sectors of Mozambique’s economy, and, thereby, affect India as well 

April 15, 2021 / 12:42 PM IST

In the last few years, terrorists have gained ground in several countries in Africa. Since 2017, Mozambique, a country in the south of the continent, has been facing the growing spectre of Islamic terrorism. So far estimates suggest that more than 2,000 people have been killed and 355,000 people have been forced to leave the terror-affected Cabo Delgado in northern Mozambique.

Last month, terrorists launched an attack on Palma and took control of it. Palma is a key town in the context of offshore energy resources which are being developed by global energy giants. The lack of capabilities of the Mozambican government to end the insurgency has further compounded the problem.

Reportedly, Mercenaries from South Africa and Russia have been spotted in Mozambique and recently American advisers have been sent to train Mozambican forces. For India, the developments in Mozambique assume significance in the context of maritime security of the Western Indian Ocean, as well as domestic energy and food security.

Why Mozambique Is Important

Just like Goa, Mozambique was ruled by the Portuguese. Mozambique, through its location off the Mozambique Channel, links the Indian Ocean with continental Africa. The latest blockage of the Suez Canal highlighted the importance of the alternate route passing through the Cape of Good Hope and Mozambique Channel is a key waterway for the Cape route.

The eastern and southern African seaboard is vulnerable to threats like terrorism, maritime piracy, and drugs and arms trafficking. Coastal countries such as Somalia and Mozambique lack capacities to secure the seas (and coasts) for the safe passage of maritime traffic. Therefore, when Mozambique hosted both the African Union (AU) meeting in 2003, and the World Economic Forum (WEF) Summit in 2004 in Maputo, the Indian Navy was called to secure the maritime perimeter.

In 2020, when Cyclone Idai struck the Southwest Indian Ocean, India delivered humanitarian assistance to the region including to Mozambique. The Mozambique Channel is part of the Indian Navy’s primary area of interest. The maritime region around Mozambique is crucial for the growing India-French defence partnership, and also India’s strategic outreach to the Southwest Indian Ocean states such as Madagascar, The Comoros, The Seychelles and Mauritius.

A Worrisome Development

It is estimated that Mozambique holds 100 trillion cubic feet of gas in the offshore fields and is ranked as the third-highest country in Africa after Nigeria and Algeria. In 2014, India’s State-owned ONGC Videsh and Oil India Limited acquired 20 percent stake in a Rovuma gas block of Mozambique at a cost of $5 billion. The BPCL holds 10 percent stake in the consortium. Thus, in a consortium led by French energy giant Total, Indian companies hold 30 percent stake.

Following the latest attacks Total has withdrawn its staff from the region. A number of Indian public and private sector companies (SAIL, NTPC, NMDC, Coal India, Tata Steel, etc.) are also engaged in the coal sector of Mozambique. Consequently, from the point of view of security of these large-scale investments and the role of Mozambican coal and gas in India’s energy security, instability in the country is a worrisome development. India would be warily watching the government’s response to the challenge posed by the terrorists.

Impact On India

Mozambique is critical for India’s food security as well. India imports pulses from Mozambique. In 2016, during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Mozambique, India signed an agreement for the production and marketing of tur (pigeon pea) to reduce the uncertainty of supply and instability in domestic prices of pulses. In 2018-19, India imported 2.52 million metric tonnes of pulses of which 228,000 tonnes were from Mozambique. Apart from Myanmar, Canada, Russia and Tanzania, Mozambique is a key partner in meeting India’s increasing demand for pulses.

If the conflict in Mozambique continues, a humanitarian disaster will grip the country and the wider region will descend into instability. It is likely to influence all sectors of Mozambique’s economy, and will have an impact on the exports of pulses to India as well.

In this context, it would be necessary for India to consider its options in Mozambique. India through its non-permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council could nudge other key global players including the AU in evolving a co-ordinated response to the Mozambican crisis.

Bilaterally, it can also assist the Mozambican government by ramping up counter-insurgency training and intelligence co-operation. Ending the conflict in Mozambique and restoring stability in the region is in India’s best interests.

Sankalp Gurjar is Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi. Views are personal.
first published: Apr 15, 2021 12:42 pm