The colonial exploitation of Africa’s fossil fuels must stop

A woman empties a plastic bowl filled with tapioca on sewn sacks laid on the ground close to a gas flaring furnace in Ughelli, Delta State, Nigeria September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

A woman empties a plastic bowl filled with tapioca on sewn sacks laid on the ground close to a gas flaring furnace in Ughelli, Delta State, Nigeria September 17, 2020. REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

As the war in Ukraine continues to disrupt energy markets, Europe has turned to African countries rich in oil and gas, but exploiting Africa’s fossil fuels will not benefit its peoples

Nnimmo Bassey is director of the Health of Mother Earth Foundation (HOMEF), an ecological think-tank, and coordinator of Oilwatch International. 

As winter approaches and the war in Ukraine continues to disrupt energy markets, Europe’s leaders have been seeking help from Africa. Governments from Poland, Germany and Italy have visited the continent’s leaders to woo them into gas export deals.

African leaders see an opportunity for their countries to benefit from fast-tracked gas projects. They argue that expanded production would boost energy access for their people, but this hope holds no water given that decades of extraction has so far yielded only ecological devastation. The extractivist bent remains colonial by nature as it is geared primarily towards export.

In fact, the African Union group of nations plans to use the COP27 climate negotiations to lobby for the expansion of fossil fuel production in order to benefit from vast resources, as richer nations have done. Sadly, following a wrong pathway never leads to a right destination.

It is true that Africa has a huge energy deficit. Across the continent, an estimated 600 million people have no access to electricity. By 2030, over 250 million will still not lack connection to the grid, according to the World Bank.

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But exploiting and expanding Africa’s fossil fuels will not benefit its peoples. History has shown this to be true. Many African countries, such as my home of Nigeria, are rich in oil and gas, but are still poor, and still lacking in access to electricity for even basic needs.

In the Niger Delta, pollution caused by oil spills has reduced life expectancy to just 41 years. Far from the promised development, extractivism here has meant tears, blood and sorrow for the poor communities in whose lands the exploitation takes place.

Gas flaring at oil fields pumps a cocktail of smoke and black carbon into the atmosphere, poisoning the air, water and soil. Cancer, blood disorders, birth defects, skin and lung diseases are common, while roofs and infrastructure are damaged by acid rain caused by the pollution.

Technically, gas flaring is illegal in Nigeria, but a loophole allows companies to continue. Even if they are fined, it is a fraction of the value of the gas they produce. Even if they are taken to court, nothing happens for years – the first hearings of an appeal by Shell against a ruling by the Nigerian High Court in 2005 to halt gas flaring are only just being heard in 2022.

The Niger Delta is the wild west for these companies. A mafia of Western oil companies is benefiting from the industrial despoilation of the Niger Delta, getting rich on the suffering of the local people.

The new African dash for gas is another manifestation of colonial exploitation. The war in Ukraine is giving western governments and fossil fuel companies the excuse to come to Africa for more extraction and pollution.

But it will be communities who bear the brunt and cost of fossil fuel expansion in their environments, while transnational corporations and national governments make obscene profits. It will also be communities who suffer the climate injustice caused by the rise in greenhouse gas emissions resulting from oil and gas plants.

To quote Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency (IEA) earlier this year Africa has had the raw end of the deal from the fossil fuel-based economy, receiving “the smallest benefits and the biggest drawbacks”. Instead, the continent’s leaders should be grabbing the promise of the global clean energy transition. So far, African countries host just 1% of solar generation capacity globally, despite having 60% of its best solar resources.

It is time for African leaders to wake up to the deadly implication of the emissions gap highlighted by UNEP. Clearly, the Nationally Determined Contributions of governments are not denting increasing greenhouse gas emissions. We are seeing more investment in fossil fuels when there should be none if we are to keep global temperature rise within tolerable limits.

At a time when wells should be shutting down, African leaders are considering new fossil infrastructure, powerless to stop the advances from richer nations with their financial aid. This stance perpetuates colonialism and ecological irresponsibility that can best be described as ecocide and intergenerational crime.

It is time to wake up and shut off the taps.

Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Context or the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


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