Why army was deployed in oil-drilling precincts of the Zambezi Valley

FEARS of a Mozambican Cabo Delgado-style Islamic insurgency in the northern Zambezi Valley where the Zimbabwean government and an Australian Securities Exchange-listed Invictus Energy are engaged in oil and gas exploration as well as drilling prompted the recent deployment of the military after security agencies detected insurgents’ movements in the area.

Invictus, which expects to invest up US$100 million if there is oil and gas, is opening one of the last untested large frontier rift basins in onshore Africa — the Cabora Bassa Basin — in northern Zimbabwe through a high-impact exploration programme.

The area margins Mozambique, which shares the longest border with Zimbabwe. Although the military explained its movements as part of routine training exercises, army sources say there were underlying security reasons behind the deployment: protecting the area and ring-fencing the oil and gas precincts from feared infiltration by Islamist militants who may radicalise the local population and ignite conflict centred on their dire social material conditions and resources.

“What the army said is partially true. They are there for training exercises, but what they did not say though – which is more important – is that there have been recent official security reports detecting movements of militants from neighbouring Mozambique in that region,” a source said.

“So this has raised security concerns and alarm. The worry is that if militants from Mozambique and elsewhere infiltrate the country into the Zambezi Valley where oil and gas exploration and drilling are going on, they may start to radicalise locals through indoctrination, by drawing their attention to their poverty situation and rich natural resources in the area. This has happened across Africa and it may happen in Zimbabwe. That is why the security system has been monitoring the area and moved in to provide protection.”

The discovery of alluvial diamonds in Chiadzwa, Marange, in Zimbabwe caused conflict. Government unleashed state violence on mining gangs that invaded the area in 2008, stealing and looting diamonds.

Police and the army launched “Operation Dzokera Kumusha” (Go Back Home), violently expelling the majority of artisanal miners from Chiadzwa in January 2009.

The brutal operation was an attempt by the state to regain control of and regulate the diamond mining and trading process to allow registered mining companies it handpicked to move in and conduct mining operations.

Although oil and gas are a different ball game, the Chiadzwa diamond rush and the attendant conflict — including massive human rights abuses and killings — were instructive for the authorities. Oil and gas discoveries and production have ignited deadly conflicts across Africa.

Invictus recently said it has started drilling one of two exploration wells — not production wells — for oil and gas on a site near Mahuwe. The 3.5km deep well, situated in the Muzarabani-Mbire area, is part of the Cabora Bassa Basin project in Zimbabwe, 80% owned and operated by Invictus through its interest in Geo Associates.

Mangwana Capital, a pan-African fund, has shareholding in the project. It represents 35 local pension funds. The process, which started in September, is expected to last between 50 and 60 days. Mukuyu, which will cost US$16 million, is one of the largest oil and gas exploration prospects to be drilled globally in 2022. It is estimated at 20 trillion cubic feet and 845 million barrels of conventional gas condensate, or about 4.3 billion barrels of oil equivalent.

Mukuyu-1 would be followed by the 1.5km deep well Baobab-1, which would be completed in 30-40 days. In August, the company raised an additional US$17 million to fund the drilling of the exploration wells through private placement.

If Invictus finds the resource, the project would cost up to US$100 million. To date, in the last four years, it has spent US$16 million. The cost of drilling Mukuyu 1 will be another US$16 million.

The second upcoming well, Baobab, is a shallower well and will be about 1.5km at a cost of US$10 million.

This, coupled with a continent-wide resource curse largely blamed for the nexus between mineral endowment and violent conflicts in Africa, necessitated the need to provide security in the area. The exploration and drilling processes led to the army deployments in the areas that form part of the Zambezi Valley, which mainly comprise Mbire, Muzarabani and Mt Darwin districts in Mashonaland Central province.

Invictus, an independent oil and gas exploration company focused on high-impact energy resources in sub-Saharan Africa, has an asset portfolio consisting of highly prospective 250 000 acres within the Cabora Bassa Basin in Zimbabwe across the border with Mozambique. It was given special grant 4 571 which contains the world-class multi-TCF Mukuyu (Muzarabani) and Msasa conventional gas-condensate.

Previously explored by Mobil Oil, which is owned and operated by American oil and gas corporation ExxonMobil, the project contains the largest undrilled structure in onshore Africa. The Muzarabani anticline feature has more than 200 km2 under closure and up to 1 500m vertical relief at favourable depths for conventional oil and gas.

Invictus completed the acquisition of 840km of high-resolution infill 2D seismic data ahead of spudding the well — initial drilling — using Exalo Rig 202. The Perth and Harare-based company, whose chairperson Stuart Lake is stepping down this coming Monday, says it has found promising signs of oil and gas, although the process is still a work in progress.

The Zimbabwe Defence Forces announced in September it was moving a large number of troops and equipment to six districts of Mashonaland Central province for a training exercise.

In a statement, the ZDF said: “The Zimbabwe Defence Forces (ZDF) would like to inform the general public that it will be conducting a training exercise in Bindura, Mbire Muzarabani, Rushinga, Shamva and Mt Darwin districts of Mashonaland Central province, from 22 September to 21 October 2022. This year’s training exercise is a follow-up to a similar exercise conducted in Masvingo province in 2021.

“The training exercise is meant to sharpen and perfect operational skills so as to enhance the Zimbabwe Defence Forces capability to fulfil its mandate. The exercise involves the movement of a large number of troops and vehicles from Harare into Mashonaland Central province. Therefore the general populace should not be surprised by these movements.”

Sources said the main motivation for the military deployment is that Zimbabwean authorities feared Cabo Delgado-style insurgency by jihadists in Muzarabani.

Multi-billion-dollar natural gas reserves in Cabo Delgado were discovered by United States-based Anadarko, which sold its operation stake to Total in 2019, and Italian Eni between 2010 and 2013. Licences were awarded to the three consortia-operated projects led by TotalEnergies, Eni, and US-based ExxonMobil to conduct offshore natural gas extraction with onshore supporting facilities for LNG production.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic and the armed insurgency, the projects planned to produce LNG in the early 2020s. However, the ExxonMobil-led project has postponed its final investment decision indefinitely due to the economic downturn caused by Covid-19. Eni seems to be continuing its project despite the uncertainty, and Total initially suspended its activities due to the Cabo Delgado security situation.

Total, the French energy giant, resumed its US$20 billion Mozambique LNG project earlier this year after it had put it on hold due to insurgent attacks. Anticipated markets for the LNG are countries in the Atlantic and Asia-Pacific region, the Middle East, the Indian subcontinent, and Europe.

Besides LNG exports, Mozambique also plans to supply gas to South Africa. Since 2017, Cabo Delgado, Mozambique’s northernmost province, has been the scene of a deadly insurrection. While foreigners have joined in the name of jihad, most of the Mozambican militants are motivated by their perceived socio-economic exclusion amid major mineral and hydrocarbon discoveries in the region.

Zimbabwe fears such infiltration by militants from the neighbouring country. Although oil and gas are usually intertwined with some conflicts in Africa, exclusively explaining such fights on the basis of ways natural resources either act as an incentive or motive for insurgents, or erode and weaken states, does not adequately capture the complex histories, dimensions and transnational linkages to civil instability in Africa.

Yet there is a running thread of natural resources — oil and gas, as well as minerals such as diamonds and gold — through most conflicts in Africa.

The role of foreign oil and mineral extraction companies in fuelling conflict in Africa is wellknown, although that is not the only cause of conflicts – usually it is a combination of factors. Rwandan and southern African troops have helped the Mozambican authorities fight the Islamist insurgency in Cabo Delgado. The threat has been greatly degraded, but not yet snuffed out.


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