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Saturday, June 3, 2023

African power alternatives, by Nnimmo Bassey

One of the focus of my contemplation as I headed to the Energy Leaders’ Summit holding from January 27 to 29, 2020 in Addis Ababa, convened by MELCA-Ethiopia, Oil Change International, Health of Mother Earth Foundation, Oxfam, and Power Shift Africa, was the meaning of energy. And the next was the question of what exactly power is.

power grid
A power grid. An estimated 600 million Africans lack access to electricity

The summit, however, was not directly focussed on my musings but on the essential need for Africa to shift from fossil energy sources and quickly and justly transiting to clean energy. From the mix of submissions at the summit it was clear that regarding climate change, energy is not all about electricity generation or mere access.

The question was asked that if an estimated 600 million Africans lack access to electricity, how can anyone complain about whether available energy is dirty or clean and whether it is green, blue or black? Participants agreed that this was the main argument made by politicians and promoters of dirty energy. This argument provides a broad platform for continued and even increased investment in dirty energy, especially of the fossil fuel type. Vested economic and political interests were fingered as being major stumbling blocks.

Fossil fuel energy keeps being seen as cheap whereas they are actually highly subsidised and heavily protected, including by the military. The failure to internalise the environmental costs give a false picture of the costs. The tragedy of this is that although the costs of renewable energy is falling, the fact is kept away from public discourse. Researchers project that renewable energy will be cheaper than power from existing coal plants by 2022.

Although the posture of Africa having a high energy deficit is compelling and quite emotional, it should not be the anchor on which decision on preferred energy sources should be hung. However, at a time when Africa should be soberly considering the best energy pathways, new oil and gas resources are being found across the continent. A total of 70 petroleum projects are expected to start in south of the Sahara alone within the next five years or so.

The oil, gas and coal sectors continue to march on, riding roughshod over concerns of citizens and with scant regard for environmental concerns. Fossil resources are held up as key for countries to escape poverty and the people are promised employment opportunities and the picture of a good life.

Fossil fuel companies retain 100 percent control of the hydrocarbon assets in their concessions in some African countries. An example is the case of Tunisia where Shell holds 100 percent control in its Miskar gas field and provides about 60 percent of the country’s domestic gas production. The company holds 100 percent interest in the gas field and reportedly sells the gas to the State Electricity and Gas Company at international market values and in hard currency.

Producing within a country and selling the product to that country as though the resources were imported is a manner of stepping into the mould of colonial set ups and giving economic exploitation a new disguise. This is solidified in so-called Export Free Zones, as will be seen when the largest refinery in Nigeria is completed at Lagos and Nigeria will be importing petroleum products from the setup.

One of the hot hydrocarbon projects in Africa right now is the Uganda-Tanzania East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP). This is an oil export pipeline designed to transport crude oil from Kabaale-Hoima near Lake Albert in Uganda to the Chongoleani peninsula, close to Tanga port in Tanzania. This will be a heated 1,443 km pipeline because Uganda’s crude is waxy in nature. Another much talked about pipeline is the proposed Nigeria-Morocco-Europe gas pipeline that will be an extension of the existing West African Gas Pipeline.

The pipelines and most fossil fuel projects on the continent are geared mostly for export and not for meeting the energy needs of Africa. Whether offshore or onshore, most of the fields deliver their yields to export terminals. This, to borrow a phrase from Hamza Hamouchene is the clear example of the neo-colonial character of African extractivism and sadly reflect the international division of labour and the international division of nature.

So, what would be the power alternative for Africa? The summit agreed that although there is an energy deficit on the continent, we cannot ignore the climate impact of fossil energy. Currently 90 percent of the energy investment in Africa goes to fossil fuels. The truth is that we cannot dig up all the coal and drill for more oil and gas, simply because we have them.

Although it is true that Africa has contributed least to the climate crisis, the need to bridge the gap should not mean that we should deepen the climate problems. Ultimately, we must weigh what actions best serve our power and energy needs. In doing that, we must define what exactly we mean by power and by energy and what our needs are in those directions.

Leaving the Summit, we continued to maul on the questions of energy and power alternative. However, one had to agree that African governments should ban new fossil fuels extraction and invest in phasing in renewables and set in place an Africa wide action plan for a Just Transition.

Moreover, the Africa Union should step up her Silence the Guns campaign by completely demilitarising oil field communities, African development and governance. The power challenge on the continent will be resolved when power belongs to the people and they determine the meaning, content and direction of development. That will be the real power alternative.

Nnimmo Bassey is Director, Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF)

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