Insurgency in Cabo Delgado: capitalist penetration in the periphery of the periphery

The insurgency in northern Mozambique is threatening a multi-billion investment in natural gas production. Sara Stevano and Helena Pérez Niño explain how the violence in northern Cabo Delgado is part of a longer script of capitalist penetration into periphery regions.

By Sara Stevano and Helena Pérez Niño

Late in 2017 an insurgent movement emerged in northern Mozambique led by a group locally referred to as ‘Al-Shabaab’. At the beginning the group attacked police stations and government buildings, but thereafter the group targeted civilians and managed to occupy larger towns. At the time of writing it is estimated that some 2,800 have been killed and 700,000 have been forcibly displaced. The attacks have escalated and by March 2021, the insurgency marched on Palma, where a large project for the extraction of gas is being developed.

Cabo Delgado, the northernmost province of Mozambique, previously unknown to most outside the region, is now attracting international attention due to the escalating insurgency that is threatening the multi-billion investment in natural gas production. In this crisis, as in many others, media coverage and the international community’s need to make sense of the violence has led to accounts that are superficial and often incomplete: inordinately focused on the plight of expatriates, the nationality of the combatants and the implications for foreign investment while comparatively clumsy in attempts to report on the impact on the local society and economy, as most starkly demonstrated in reports on the most recent attack on the town of Palma (see, for example, this article in the Guardian and this article in the Financial Times).

As researchers of Mozambique but not researchers of the conflict, we argue that, if we are to understand this conflict, the analysis needs reframing.[1] Approaching the mega-projects and the insurgency using only the rubrics of extractivism and humanitarian crisis sheds light on the visible tip of the iceberg but conceals their impacts on vast networks of production and reproduction that sustain the whole region. A view of this complexity illuminates’ aspects of the marginalisation, fragility and humanity that are key to capture the broader implications of dramatic change in the region.

Historical, spatial and political divides

The northern districts of Cabo Delgado have only recently come to the attention of wider publics with the discovery of the gas deposits and the abrupt transition from remote borderland to frenzied epicenter of investment and speculation. The transition has been disorienting for all parties involved. The most recent crisis is a manifestation of stark historical divides that recent analysis and coverage gloss over or completely disregard.

International headlines refer to violence in Cabo Delgado, but this falls short of levels of precision required to account for a province that is roughly the size of Austria. A better account of the conflict calls for a more precise distinction between the northern and coastal districts most directly affected (Muidumbe, Mocimboa da Praia, Macomia, Nangade, Quissanga, Palma); neighbouring districts like Mueda, Meluco and Ancuabe, where the violence has been less frequent but has nonetheless disrupted everyday lives and livelihoods; and the southern districts including Pemba, the provincial capital.[2] The distinction is significant: it makes visible a long standing North-South divide in the province, note in the way the military response has been partially about insulating Pemba, which is compounded by another divide between southern, central and northern Mozambique. By virtue of the remote location of northern Cabo Delgado in relation to Maputo – the southernmost site of power – northern Cabo Delgado’s connections to the rest of Mozambique have been sporadic in terms of migration patterns, trading routes and political ascendancy.

Paradoxically the region’s remote location made the northern districts of Cabo Delgado, home to the Maconde people, an ideal launching pad for the liberation struggle against Portuguese colonial rule from the 1960s and a refuge for Frelimo insurgents. The participation of the Maconde people in the struggle elevated Cabo Delgado to a symbolic position in the national imaginary and the province remains a Frelimo stronghold (see West, 2000; Israel, 2006). Cabo Delgado’s symbolic centrality in the narratives of liberation is at odds with its actual political and economic marginalization (see also Bonate, 2013).This marginalisation was suddenly confronted with the gas developments and is part and parcel of the present crisis. The explosion of extractive interests took place in Cabo Delgado, the province with the highest levels of chronic malnutrition, very high levels of income poverty and among the lowest levels of private investment in the country.

Most of the media coverage is prominently missing these divides, when not unwittingly contributing to reproducing them: there is a politics of who is a subject of military protection (foreigners, employees of the gas projects) that runs parallel to the politics of media concern; there is a politics of what is to be protected (infrastructure and investment) that belies an inability by the state, the military and the media to account for, report about and to respond to the demands for protection of local populations and local economies.

Capitalist penetration of the extreme periphery

At the core of the recent socio-economic change in Cabo Delgado is the juxtaposition of two wildly different political economies: on the one hand, large groups of Mozambicans living at the margins of capital accumulation and, on the other hand, one of the largest extractive projects in development in the continent. Such a dissonant encounter is most strident in the areas under development around Palma where local livelihoods are precarious and largely bypassed by the promise of new riches. It is the meeting of an extreme periphery with extractivism incarnate.

Coverage of the conflict in Cabo Delgado would have us believe that LNG investments take place in no man’s land, but in fact the advent of Oil and Gas majors and an array of other investors happens side-by-side with a local economy shaped by long-term processes and everyday forms of production, reproduction and exchange. The political economy of Cabo Delgado is based on an array of different livelihoods. A large group of socially differentiated agricultural producers engaging in small-scale farming for consumption and sale, whose insertion in local markets is a legacy of changes triggered by the colonial introduction of forced cotton farming, and chibalo (forced labour) (see Isaacman, 1982) Cashew production remains another important source of household income in the northern districts and depending on the location, people may have access to income from growing sesame, artisanal fisheries or service jobs associated with the high-end tourism sector on the Quirimbas archipelago. Extraction of timber, gemstones and minerals involves mostly foreign investors but generates few jobs for locals. In synthesis, economic activity in Cabo Delgado revolves around pockets of export agriculture, tourism enterprises and extractive mega projects amidst vast informal and localised labour markets.

Class differentiation in northern Cabo Delgado is largely determined by occupation and whether or not people have access to regular earnings. These dynamics are compounded by the relative ability to tap on relations of mutuality and kinship. Access to regular incomes is uncommon and mostly associated with being employed in the public sector. Less than  5% of the population has this kind of steady income even in the larger towns in northern districts.[3] On the contrary there are more people receiving veteran pensions due to the direct participation of the Maconde people in the liberation struggle (see Feijó, 2020; Stevano, 2021).[4] The pension scheme works as a form of social protection used by the state to maintain its influence and legitimacy among the Maconde. However, it also contributes to social differentiation, as veterans and traders, i.e. those with more regular income, tend to be hirers of casual and seasonal (agricultural) wage workers. Most households in northern Cabo Delgado engage in casual piece-rate wage work (kibarua). The divide between labour hirers and labour sellers marks the main class difference in contemporary Cabo Delgado. Given this occupational multiplicity and class differentiation the idea of mega investment projects occurring in lands occupied by a homogenous peasantry could not be further from reality. Attempts to understand the challenges of development in Cabo Delgado need to acknowledge this complexity.

Most people in Cabo Delgado make a living by combining forms of work, petty trade, limited commodity production and all forms of reproductive work. This complexity is not captured in official statistics and escapes many observers. The relentless fragmentation of subsistence has forced many to engage in various, often survivalist occupations, including petty smuggling in some cases. And although having access to land is not in itself sufficient to make a living, it remains a necessary condition for virtually everyone in the province. For one thing, a condition for the  existence of these livelihoods is the ability of people to move around cobbling together different sources of income, often within the province, but also beyond: combining highland and lowland farming in Mueda; trading across the border or supplying long distance commercial linkages in Nangade and Mocimboa.[5] Maintaining key social relations also requires freedom of movement to care for ailing or old family members or to help out during peak labour periods. These networks of protection are critical in the context of minimal public provisioning. In this context, the internal displacement of at least 700,000 people as a consequence of the violence raises critical questions in humanitarian terms but also in relation to the disruption of production and social reproduction in the province.

Enclave extractivism

Accounts of the crisis that are oblivious to these productive and reproductive dynamics are missing how the violence in northern Cabo Delgado is part of the longer script of capitalist penetration into periphery regions. This is a centuries-old process in Southern Africa, taking at times the form of the slow commodification of subsistence and other times the flash flood development of speculative and extractive projects. The commodification of labour, with its violent roots in chibalo, advanced slow commodification through the 19th and 20th century. But as capital has acquired the ability to penetrate the countryside (as opposed to simply extracting forced and mobile labour power) Mozambique’s post conflict decades have been characterised by developments of the second type, massive investment initiatives, ‘Os Megaprojectos’, that unleash financial speculation; changes in the use of land; at times forced evictions, but never before these levels of conflict. The recent history of Mozambique charts the ebbs and flows of Mozal (Aluminium smelter), Moatize (Coal) and many others, against the background of the political economy of 21st century Mozambique and the inability and unwillingness of the groups in power to make such developments conditional on the creation of any meaningful linkage to the domestic economy via employment, fiscal revenue, local content or effects on domestic demand (Castel-Branco, 2002 and 2014).

If most of these projects can be characterized as enclave economies, in the case of the LNG developments in northern Cabo Delgado these dynamics are amplified: the gas deposits are off-shore, and extraction proper will not force investors into rounds of negotiation with local communities. Elsewhere, these conflicts have created some pressure for a national reckoning and some debates about Mozambique’s long-term strategy. But here, the on-shore infrastructure under construction in the Afungi peninsula, just south of Palma, has been cordoned-off. There is a tenuous link between the local economy and the multibillion LNG project: a novelty that is patently there but out of everybody’s reach. If the recent history of extractive developments in the region is a guide to go by, there will likely be no jobs or local benefits beyond the façade of Cooperate Social Responsibility (CSR) interventions that are a mockery of any serious expectation of development; and there is no indication that the revenue generated by the extraction of gas will be used to transform the structure of the Mozambican economy and there is good cause to distrust the prospects of a strategy based on fossil fuel, a technology that should be on its way out. This is probably as evident to local dwellers as it is to distant observers.

The impacts of the ongoing conflict cannot only be accounted for in terms of death and displacement but should also encompass the lost livelihoods and disrupted economies. Only a solid explanation of this violence, one rooted in an awareness of this history, spatiality and political economy can hope to turn the tides of what is already shaping to be one of Africa’s largest extractive failures, with all resources exported and no transformation on the ground.

Sara Stevano is a Lecturer in Economics at SOAS University of London. Her research focuses on the political economy of production and reproduction and she has conducted research on food, work and gender in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique.

Helena Pérez Niño is a Lecturer in Political Economy at the University of Cambridge. She works on dynamics of agrarian change and structural transformation and has conducted research on contract farming in Tete, Mozambique.

Featured Photograph: Bridge over Rio Lúrio, between Nampula and Cabo Delgado provinces, Mozambique (F Mira, 4 August 2009).


[1] For research on the conflict see work by Liazzat Bonate, Sérgio Chichava, João Feijó, Salvador Forquilha, Eric Morier-Genoud and João Pereira, among others.

[2] See Cabo Ligado data and OCHA Mozambique Access Snapshot (February 2021).

[3] See Ministério da Administração Estatal, República de Moçambique. (2005). Perfil do Distrito de Mocimboa da Praia/Perfil do Distrito de Nangade. Ministério da Administração Estatal, República de Moçambique. (2014). Perfil do Distrito de Mocimboa da Praia/Perfil do Distrito de Palma.

[4] In 1994, President Chissano introduced a pension scheme to recognise the veterans’ contributions to Mozambican independence.

[5] See: Ministério da Administração Estatal, República de Moçambique. (2005). Perfil do Distrito de Mocimboa da Praia/Perfil do Distrito de Nangade. Ministério da Administração Estatal, República de Moçambique. (2014). Perfil do Distrito de Mocimboa da Praia/Perfil do Distrito de Palma.


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