News | Africa - Socio-ecological Transformation Europe’s Quest for Energy Fuels Green Colonialism in Africa

New infrastructure projects must be democratic and benefit the local population



Roland Ngam,

Delegates at the opening address of the fifth annual Sustainable Energy for All Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, May 2022
Delegates at the opening address of the fifth annual Sustainable Energy for All Forum in Kigali, Rwanda, May 2022 CC BY-NC 2.0, Photo: Ministry of Environment Rwanda, via Flickr

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 in July to define natural gas and nuclear power as “green” or “sustainable” sources of energy further lifted African leaders’ spirits in a post-COVID context where a variety of challenges require urgent attention.

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

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 urgently develop new energy infrastructure, little of it makes its way into local economies or development where strong economic support measures are required.

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

According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Russia typically shipped between 155 billion cubic metres (BCM) and 200 BCM of gas to the EU every year until 2021, about 50 percent of the total gas imports into the EU. Just over 15 BCM of these shipments were liquefied natural gas (LNG) according to the International Energy Agency. This relationship changed probably forever in February 2022 when Russian President Vladimir Putin declared a so-called “special military operation” against Ukraine.

Exports from Russia to the EU market ground to a halt. Direct imports by pipeline slowed to a trickle. In January 2023, just 4.6 percent of the imported gas in Europe came from Russia via pipeline, additionally about the same amount of Russian gas came to Europe in the form of LNG.

The US and a coalition of countries agreed to send more LNG to Europe in the future, and between January and November 2022, the EU imported more than 50 BCM of LNG from the US, more than double the volume of the year before.

Significant as that may sound, it 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 constrained energy availability in the years ahead. In France, which had been a major exporter of energy to other European countries until 2022, at least 50 percent of all nuclear reactors have been shut down due to a variety of issues, including technical problems and scorching weather conditions that reduced the supplies of water required to remove and dump surplus heat from steam circuits.

Thus, 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 quickly.

Africa Eyes the European Market

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. In December 2022 the first LNG terminal in Wilhelmshaven in Lower Saxony started operating. Chancellor Olaf Scholz promised in September that further LNG terminals in Brunsbüttel near Bremen and Stade near Hamburg would be finished in 2023, while private investors were about to build another terminal in Lubmin. Each of the terminals will handle at least five BCM of gas per year.

All that infrastructure needs a lot of gas contracts and it has been raining cash in Africa lately — 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, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. More countries like Rwanda, Uganda, Mauretania, Somalia, and Malawi are developing oil and gas projects on a smaller scale.

Despite more than a century of resource extraction by Belgium and later Congolese companies, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is still among the five poorest nations in the world.

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 the 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 to expand gas infrastructure.

Morocco also stands to gain from the new scramble for energy sources. The energy companies Chariot Limited and Predator Oil & Gas Holdings PLC have made significant finds in the country, announcing that recoverable capacity in the Anchois Gas Development Project has increased to four 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 tonnes of gas from its Sangomar Greater Tortue Ahmeyim oil and gas field in 2023. The project’s floating production, storage, and offloading (FPSO) vessel is already on its way. 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 ten million tonnes per annum. Senegal stands to make about 1.4 billion euro from the project between 2023 and 2025, and — as if intending to still be around when most of this windfall comes in — Senegalese President Macky Sall is already trying to amend the constitution in order to run for a third term.

Elsewhere, 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-kilometre 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 three billion cubic feet (BCF) 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 the results are positive, it will spearhead the search for investors.

Mozambique already has a lot of cash. Islamic insurgents halted Total’s lucrative Cabo Delgado projects for a number of years, but thanks to soldiers from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) and Rwanda, the insurgency was beaten back and LNG ships are departing for Europe again. President Filipe Nyusi is smiling all the way to the bank.

Total’s Cabo Delgado project is bigger than Mozambique’s entire GDP and over its lifespan, the country hopes to collect at least 100 billion US dollars from the project. According to Fredson Guilengue, a project manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Johannesburg Office, the Mozambican state sees the project as a quick 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 just over 179 billion cubic feet of gas per year, also wants to become a major player in oil and gas. Currently, most gas used in the country comes from Mozambique. Recent finds show that the country has about 60 Tcf of gas offshore, a lot of it in the Block 11B/12B offshore gas field in the Outeniqua Basin south of the South African coast. The government intends to start exploiting Block 11B/12B to meet the demands of its ravenous energy market.

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

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, former 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.” He was speaking not only on Senegal’s behalf, but also for all the countries that want to get in on the LNG action.

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.”

Major European investments in Africa in response to turbulence on the energy markets show scant regard for environmental concerns.

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, consequences be damned.

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. Africa has a long history of disappointment with large-scale agriculture, mining, and fossil fuel projects that were sold as salvation initiatives but which really had very little impact on the socioeconomic conditions of host communities over the long term.

The Democratic Republic of the 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 Belgium and later Congolese companies like Gécamines, 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 the trafficking of women and children.

Corruption is rampant. In 2007, former President Joseph Kabila signed a massive six-billion-dollar infrastructure-for-minerals “deal of the century” with Chinese investors China Railway Group Ltd. and Sinohydro in the hope that it would deliver much-needed transport and energy infrastructure to the country. 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 or roads, bridges, etc.

While all this is going on, desperate men, women, and children spend hours every day digging for coltan in artisanal mines controlled by syndicates in the eastern part of the country.

Now, Kabila’s successor, Felix Tshisekedi, has begun auctioning off 30 oil and gas fields in the heart of the Congo Basin rainforest, a move that represents a massive threat to global efforts around carbon capture and sequestration. Initiatives like the recently concluded One Forest Summit, which brought together the countries of the Congo Basin (Gabon, Congo Brazzaville, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and the Central African Republic) in March 2023, are key to ensuring the protection of the rainforest, but they need to drive more resources to central Africa than what politicians get from logging, coal, and fossil interests who seek to expand the frontier of accumulation.

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.

Activist Nnimmo 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 three percent of operating profits to local 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 revenue from the National Refinery Company (SONARA) led to the civil war that has been tearing the country apart for the past six years.

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.

While there is certainly a need for transition energy sources, Europe’s quest for energy independence can also be achieved by supporting the rollout of energy infrastructure in Africa.

The revenues from oil and gas have not contributed to the development of the region. For many years, revenue from SONARA was never included in the national budget. Nobody knows where it went. These territories see Macron’s recent visit as direct support for Francophones’ usurpation of their resources.

Today’s “green” projects adhere to a similar pattern. Transition minerals in the DRC are mined by artisanal miners and the context is characterized by armed militias, child labour, and sex traffickers. A UN report recently provided solid evidence that Rwanda was 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 radically expanding “green grabbing”, i.e. 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 — for whom 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 other ECOWAS countries. He visited the Sangomar oil project recently and says that many members of the local community are already full of regret over restrictions to their fishing areas and growing poverty.

Fredson Guilengue notes that communities in Cabo Delgado have similarly 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, and even France have brought in soldiers from Rwanda and the SADC to beat back the insurgents. Local communities, however, are abandoned to their fate.

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.

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.

Speaking at the Ben Turok Memorial Lecture in December 2022, Yanis Varoufakis said that a democratic green transition is possible if the Global North works in a democratic way to transfer real technology and resources to the Global South for green projects. He mentioned solar and wind projects in particular. The costs of installing solar and wind have fallen dramatically over the past decade.

While there is certainly a need for transition energy sources, Europe’s quest for energy independence can also be achieved by supporting the rollout of energy infrastructure in Africa. This could then lead to win-win sharing of energy between both continents, in the same manner that gas infrastructure has received massive cash bailouts from EU governments in the past year.