News | Africa - COP27 Europe’s Quest for Energy Fuels Green Colonialism in Africa

New infrastructure projects must be democratic and benefit the local population

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Roland Ngam,

Delegates listen to opening remarks at the fifth annual Sustainable Energy for All conference, held in Kigali, Rwanda, May 2022. CC BY-ND 2.0, Photo: Flickr/Ministry of Environment Rwanda

The global energy market was upended when the European Union moved to wean itself off Russian gas, oil, and coal in response to the invasion of its neighbour, Ukraine. In Africa, governments and businesses alike see this development as a major opportunity to generate cash for national development projects. The EU’s decision to define natural gas and nuclear power as “green” or “sustainable” sources of energy this July further lifted African leaders’ spirits, who hope to finally attract funding for big energy infrastructure projects.

Roland Ngam works as a Programme Manager for Climate Justice at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Office in Johannesburg, where he coordinates the climate blog ClimateJusticeCentral

Yet while Europe understandably looks to distance itself from any economic association with Putin’s Russia, oftentimes the alternative involves unequal relations that constitute little more than a kind of green colonialism. As billions of dollars pour into Africa from the Global North to develop new energy infrastructure, little of it makes its way into local economies or serves to fund local development.

Instead, as in the days of classical colonialism, value is extracted from Africa and shipped out to northern investors, while locals are left to deal with the aftermath on their own.

Europe’s Scramble to Find Alternative Energy Sources

Russia ships about 155 billion cubic metres (BCM) of gas to the EU every year, of which just over 15 BCM is liquefied natural gas (LNG). This relationship is set to disappear due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The US and a partnership of countries has agreed to send 15 BCM of LNG to Europe in 2022. Beginning in 2023, the EU will import upwards of 50 billion cubic metres of LNG from the US. Through this partnership, the US stands to more than double the 22 billion cubic metres of LNG that it exports to the EU annually.

However, that still leaves a gaping hole in supply that the EU needs to fill. Droughts and floods have further constrained energy supply in Europe and all signs point to a difficult winter. The challenges are not necessarily going to go away in 2023.

France’s nuclear fleet has not been operating at optimum capacity because drought and scorching weather conditions have reduced supplies of water required to remove and dump surplus heat from steam circuits. France is currently exploring a short-term deal to supply Germany with electricity in exchange for gas during the winter months.

Germany, which used to import around 50 BCM of gas per annum from Russia, most of it through the Nord Stream pipeline, is scrambling to diversify its energy sources and storage facilities. It has embarked on the construction of massive LNG gas terminals at Wilhelmshaven and Brunsbüttel near Bremen and Lubmin and Stade near Hamburg. Another terminal is set to be built by private investors in Lubmin. Each of the terminals will handle at least five BCM of gas per year.

Back in September, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised that the LNG terminals would be ready by the end of 2023. When European energy ministers met on 9 September to find solutions to the volatile energy markets, economy minister Robert Habeck told journalists that Germany could already do without Russian gas.

In mid-September, EU energy ministers met to rein in volatility in energy markets. They mooted a number of solutions including energy conservation at peak times (between 19:00 and 22:00), solidarity contributions from fossil companies currently earning record profits, decoupling of gas from electricity markets, and capping the price of gas, although this last suggestion was rejected by Hungary.

All this shows that Europe’s energy markets are going to remain out of control for a while — an opportunity that African leaders are doing their best to leverage.

Africa Eyes the European Market

While Europe scrambles for energy, it has been raining cash in Africa — but not necessarily for ordinary Africans. A number of African states have already received in excess of 150 billion US dollars for gas projects, including Mozambique, Nigeria, Cameroon, Senegal, Egypt, Gabon, South Sudan, Algeria, Angola, Ghana, Tanzania, Morocco, South Africa, Libya, Tunisia, Congo Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. Many more countries are developing oil and gas projects on a smaller scale, such as Rwanda, Uganda, Mauretania, Somalia, and Malawi.

In July 2022, Algeria, which already supplies Italy with 20 BCM of gas per year, agreed to increase its production by up to nine BCM in 2023 during then-prime minister Mario Draghi’s visit to the country. However, a recent audit by Algeria’s state-owned oil company, SONATRACH, shows that Algeria can only deliver an additional four BCM to Italy, and even that would require using all available resources of the Transmed gas pipeline. Capacity may not necessarily be an issue in the long term, as French president Emmanuel Macron visited Algeria in August and signed investment deals for the gas sector.

The major European economies’ investments in Africa in response to turbulence on the energy markets show scant regard for environmental concerns.

Morocco also stands to gain from the new scramble for energy sources. Chariot Limited and Predator Oil & Gas Holdings PLC has made significant finds in the country, announcing that recoverable capacity in the Anchois Gas Development Project has increased to 4 trillion cubic feet (Tcf) and that it already has the necessary funds to invest in the project.

Senegal is set to extract 2.5 million tons of gas from its Greater Tortue Ahmeyim gas field in 2023. That number is not big enough for Germany, with Olaf Scholz offering Senegal financial support to ramp up its annual production capacity to at least 10 million tons.

On 16 September 2022, Nigeria, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), and Morocco launched the 25-billion-dollar Nigeria–Morocco Gas Pipeline Project (NMGP). The 5,600-kilometer project is expected to run through Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Ghana, Côte d'Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Gambia, Senegal, Mauritania, and Morocco before finally landing in Europe, supplying 3 billion cubic feet of gas per day. Nigeria and Morocco do not have the cash to fund the project, but the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has stepped in to pay for the feasibility study. If results are positive, it will spearhead the search for investors.

Mozambique already has a lot of cash. In fact, were it not for Islamic insurgents, French energy conglomerate Total would already be shipping LNG every day. Activities have been halted for over three years due to safety concerns in Morocco’s Cabo Delgado Province. In early September, Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi called on Total to urgently resume work at the 20-billion-dollar Afungi Liquefied Natural Gas Plant Project in Cabo Delgado Province. According to Fredson Guilengue, a project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Johannesburg Office, the Mozambican state sees the project as a way to earn money for urgent national development priorities, which have been made even more urgent by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Neighbouring South Africa, which consumes 179,153 million cubic feet of gas per year, also wants to become a major player in the gas sector. Recent finds show that the country has about 60 trillion cubic feet of gas offshore, a lot of it in Block 11B/12B in the Outeniqua Basin. The government also intends to start generating electricity from gas. Currently, most of the gas used in the country comes from Mozambique.

Both Shell and Total have made significant finds of oil and gas further north in Namibia. The Shell find especially is significant, holding between 250 to 300 million barrels of oil and gas equivalent.

Colonialism with a Green Façade?

Three things can be said about the current rush for African gas. Firstly, all the talk of keeping gas, oil, and coal “in the ground” in the run-up to and after the COP26 climate negotiations has all but disappeared. African leaders kicked up a fuss when UN Special Envoy on Climate Action and Finance Mark Carney and others led the charge to keep fossil fuels in the ground. In May 2022, current President of the African Union Macky Sall said that “Africa must be able to exploit its large gas reserves for another 20 or 30 years to further its development and provide access to electricity to the 600 million people who are still deprived. It would be unfair to stop us.”

Recently, in August 2022, South African Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe issued a series of tweets saying that “We need to explore & exploit the minerals that our country is endowed with to grow our economy…It is comforting to see that there is consensus that gas & nuclear form part of the green technologies in the Just Energy Transition. We must be systematic in our approach & appreciate that the upstream petroleum & fishing industries can coexist.”

Nigeria’s and Egypt’s energy ministers have also railed against what they see as colonialist bullying behaviour by the Global North. They are determined to “pollute now and clean up later”, just like other nations have before them — that is, unless large sums of cash are transmitted from elsewhere.

Secondly, the major projects that are being developed in Africa are specifically geared for the export market. There is very little infrastructure being developed to serve the needs of the local market. As a result, this “green colonialism” will further exacerbate ecocide and poverty in communities where these projects are housed. Total’s investments in Mozambique, for example, are worth 20 billion dollars — bigger than the country’s entire GDP, which stands at 14.2 billion. And yet, all of the gas in Mozambique will go to South Africa, Europe, and elsewhere.

Africa has a long history of disappointment with large-scale agriculture, mining, and fossil fuel projects that were sold as transformative development initiatives but really had very little impact on the socioeconomic conditions of host communities over the long term. The Democratic Republic of Congo is perhaps the poster child for this resource curse. Despite more than a century of resource extraction (rubber, copper, cobalt, gold, platinum, etc.) by Belgian colonial masters and later by Congolese companies like GECAMINES, the DRC is still among the five poorest nations in the world, according to the World Bank.

The pervasive presence of artisanal and small-scale mines in the country comes with major human rights challenges such as child labour, slavery, sexual exploitation, and trafficking of women and children. Corruption is rampant. Former President Felix Tshisekedi signed a massive 6-billion-dollar infrastructure-for-minerals deal with Chinese investors China Railway Group Ltd. and Sinohydro in 2007. Most of the infrastructure never materialized, but many politicians got very rich from it. Investigations revealed that none of the 31 hospitals planned by Beijing had been built, nor the two universities.

In Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta, the presence of oil companies has long been considered a curse. The petroleum industry is characterized by “poor leadership, eye-watering corruption and environmental degradation”. Oil spills are a common occurrence due to lax security, pilfering and piracy. No water body in the Niger Delta has been spared the pollution from oil spills.

Collaborations must be environmentally sustainable and they must be based on democratic principles.

Activist Nimmo Bassey has been investigating the actions of oil companies in the Niger Delta for over 30 years. In his book We Thought It Was Oil, But It Was Blood he writes that “Average life expectancy in Nigeria is currently 52 years. In the Niger Delta it is 41 years. Only about 30 per cent of the people in the Niger Delta have access to safe drinking water. By the time Bayelsa State was created in 1996, there were less than 20 km of all-weather roads in the area…The resulting corrupt system of patronage and wastage has significantly fuelled militarisation, repression and violence.”

Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged in 1995 by the Abacha regime after he accused the Nigerian government and oil companies like Shell and BP of waging an ecological war against the Ogoni. When the Ogoni Nine were hanged, the government did not require petroleum companies to give any share of their profits to local communities. It is only recently that the Petroleum Industry Act (PIA) was adopted, requiring oil companies to pay a measly 3 percent of operating profits to host communities. However, this pales in comparison to the devastation that they leave in their wake.

Across the border in Cameroon, it is no different. In fact, anger over who benefits from the National Refinery Company (SONARA) revenue let to the civil war that has been tearing the country apart for the last six years. For many years, revenue from SONARA was never included in the national budget. Nobody knows where it went.

Although SONARA is located in the former Anglophone West Cameroon territory, it used to hire mostly Francophone workers from East Cameroon, and it set up only French-language schools and services to cater to these workers. It is only after civil war broke out that the company scrambled to increase its quota of Anglophone workers and set up a school where people can learn in English — almost 50 years after the company was founded.

Today’s green projects adhere to a similar pattern. Transition minerals in the DRC are mined by artisanal miners and the context is characterised by armed militias, child labour, and sex traffickers. A UN report recently provided solid evidence that Rwandawas sponsoring armed militias in the DRC to get its hands on some of the country’s mineral wealth. In Ouarzazate, Morocco, where the government convinced local communities to hand over their land in return for jobs and development, optimism has turned to bitter disappointment. Young people have started taking to the streets after they realized that the promise of jobs was all smoke and mirrors.

Grab the Resources and Run?

Europe’s thirst for gas is also fuelling “green grabbing”, the seizing of land and assets with or without compensation for so-called “green projects”, on a massive scale. Part of Senegal’s oil and gas fields lie directly on Sangomar Island in the Saloum Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Area. According to climate expert Ibrahima Thiam, local communities whose access to these areas was restricted by government edicts stand to lose even more fishing areas to the gas projects, which will certainly fuel migration to the Spanish enclave Ceuta and ECOWAS countries.

Guilengue notes that communities in Cabo Delgado have already lost land, sea, and forest resources that neither the government nor Total will ever replace. To compound their problems, Total’s investment has attracted Islamist insurgents to the area, forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes. Mozambique, the Southern African Development Community (SADC), and even France have brought in soldiers from Rwanda and SADC to beat back the insurgents. Local communities, however, are abandoned to their fate.

In Cameroon, communities in former West Cameroon territories have been at war for two years after officials from the former French part of the territory were brought in to manage oil and gas assets, leaving them with nothing by way of local development. These territories see Macron’s visit as a direct support for Francophones’ usurpation of their resources.

The major European economies’ investments in Africa in response to turbulence on the energy markets show scant regard for environmental concerns. Progress made towards switching over to more sustainable ways of living and producing have been rolled back in a matter of months.

Egypt plans to announce to world leaders at COP27 that African countries should be allowed to exploit their gas and nuclear capacities for national development objectives. The reality is that the communities that house all these projects always suffer. They lose land, they lose sea resources, and they see lots of machines and equipment come into their communities and change their way of life forever, while all the money flows to capital cities.

That is not to say that Africa cannot work with the Global North. Collaborations are possible. However, such collaborations must be environmentally sustainable and they must be based on democratic principles. Whether these principles will be reflected in the upcoming COP negotiations remains to be seen.