President Felipe Nyusi visited Zimbabwe last week looking for military assistance to secure French investments in the conflict-ridden northern Mozambique at the behest of President Emmanuel Macron, Zimbabwe Independent revealed.
The Mozambican government is battling an Islamist insurgency which has claimed over 2 000 lives, mainly in the north-eastern Cabo Delgado province, where French energy conglomerate Total is in danger of losing its US$20 billion Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) project.
There are about 500 Mozambican military personnel protecting gas companies and their operations in northern Mozambique, but foreign firms have asked for at least 3 000 more soldiers.
Fighters from an Islamic State (IS)-affiliated extremist group known as Al Sunnah wa Jama'ah (ASWJ) have escalated violent attacks in the country, resulting in killings, mainly in the resource-rich region.
The jihadists are said to be fighting for equitable distribution of oil and gas extraction proceeds. Maputo has, since the conflict started in 2017, struggled to contain the insurgency.
The Mozambique Defence Forces, unprepared and under-resourced, have at one point hired mercenaries under the command of former Zimbabwean army colonel Lionel Dyck's South African-based private security company, Dyke Advisory Group.
Details of Nyusi's short visit, and subsequent meeting with President Emmerson Mnangagwa on June 6, have until now been a highly guarded secret.
Mnangagwa said after the meeting, which the Independent now understands was originally meant to be secretive, that the visit was only meant to consolidate bilateral relations.
"He flew from Chimoio this morning (Saturday june 5) just to have a chat with me, we covered many things, but most importantly we felt that the joint Permanent Commission between Zimbabwe and Mozambique which last met as far back as 2013, should now be resuscitated going forward. He also briefed me about the security situation there," Mnangagwa said. On his part, Nyusi said he would not mind visiting Zimbabwe regularly, even on a weekly basis.
"I believe I have to come here more times on Saturdays or Sundays. We discussed a lot, including economic issues, some of which will be discussed in the joint Permanent Commission," he said.
On the security issue in northern Mozambique, he said: "This must always be discussed because it is a problem facing our people. We are exchanging views, you will remember we had a Sadc Double Troika summit in Maputo and we are planning to have a meeting again this month."
However, well-placed official sources told the Independent this week that Nyusi was asked by the French government to engage Mnangagwa for military assistance to repel jihadists who have since the beginning of the year concentrated their attacks on Total's gas project, forcing the multinational company to indefinitely suspend operations. Total's Mozambique LnG Project started with the discovery of a vast quantity of natural gas off the coast of northern Mozambique.
The site of the LnG project at Afungi was repeatedly attacked by militants linked to the Islamic State in March-April 2021. During the March 2021 attacks, dozens of foreign contract workers were besieged at the Amarula Palma Hotel.
In late March, Total announced that it would resume operations citing an improved security situation, but just hours later, the insurgents attacked Palma, forcing the company to abruptly close the project. On April 2, Total withdrew its staff from the project site.
Sources said the French government initially asked Nyusi to seek troops from Rwandan President Paul Kagame, who positively responded to the request. Nyusi then flew to Kigali, the Rwandan capital on April 28, 2021 where he met Kagame to request military assistance.
Reports suggest that shortly after Nyusi's visit to Rwanda, Kagame dispatched his military commanders to assess how to battle the Islamist insurgents in Cabo Delgado.
The two presidents subsequently flew to Paris, France, where they were Macron's guests on May 17, 2021. Nyusi emerged from the meeting to declare that France was "completely willing" to support Mozambique's fight against terrorism, according to media reports.
However, a government source said, the Rwanda mission is virtually doomed after the Sadc Double Troika meeting on May 27 diametrically opposed the idea, suggesting that the matter was still within the region's confines and an outside state cannot intervene militarily unless the bloc escalates it to the African union.
Curiously, Nyusi's visit came at a time Sadc is set to hold an extraordinary summit on the issue this Sunday.
"At the Double Troika summit last month, Sadc leaders advised President Nyusi that Rwanda should work through the regional structure if it wanted to help fight the insurgency in Cabo Delgado province. Basically, President Nyusi's request to Sadc leaders during that special Double Troika summit on whether Rwanda should intervene in helping Mozambique was met with resistance," the source said.
"It is this hurdle which has resulted in the French asking President Nyusi to approach Zimbabwe. Remember Mozambique has always preferred a bilateral arrangement with Zimbabwe, as opposed to a collective regional effort," the official added.
The source further revealed that in return, as Nyusi indicated in the meeting with Mnangagwa, France was offering both technical and financial support should Mnangagwa agree to deploy soldiers to save Total's uS$20 billion investment in Mozambique.
In addition to that, the sources further said Nyusi reportedly told Mnangagwa that the French were also trying to entice Harare with a promise to help lobby for the removal of sanctions in the European union (eu), where it is an influential member, and among its allies in the powerful north Atlantic Treaty Organisation (nato) such as the united States, Britain and Canada.
However, the source further said, Mnangagwa emphasised that he needed time to assess the request and to "consult widely" before making any commitment.
"The president (Mnangangwa) said he wants to be convinced that those promises (by the French) will be met before he can commit himself to such an undertaking; and he would be consulting widely," an official said.
Interestingly, there has been a scramble for Cabo Delgado resources, mainly involving eu and nato member states.
US firm Anadarko Petroleum Corporation is the region's biggest potential investor with uS$25 billion, while another American multinational oil and gas company, exxonMobil, wants to invest uS$500 million.
Italian oil and gas corporation enI, and investors from Europe, China, Brazil, India, japan and Australia, have lately joined in with further investments pledges.
Presidential spokesperson George Charamba said the Cabo Delgado security situation was only discussed in passing.
"Who are those people talking about what the Mozambicans want and what we want to give to them? Which brigade do they command? President Nyusi was in Chimoio and decided to hop across to see his brother," Charamba said.
"We are a Sadc member state, how do you want the government to disrespect a sub-regional group in which we are a member? Our position is that any assistance will be rendered within the Sadc initiative. What would raise my eyebrows really is the absence of regular meetings between Zimbabwe and Mozambique given their geographical proximity.
"We are working on establishing two dry ports alongside Botswana and South Africa to relieve Beira, which is congested now."