Behind the scenes of COP27, as decisions were being made on how to tackle the climate emergency, at least 15 new international oil and gas deals were being concluded. Eight of those were with African countries.

“It’s not about African development, but about Europe’s energy needs,” said Omar Elmawi, a StopEACOP campaigner in Kenya, who is trying to stop or at least pause construction of the East African Crude Oil Pipeline by French and Chinese multinationals.

COP27 began in Egypt just as Europe’s winter started to bite and gas prices soared. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced Europe to diversify its gas network for energy security – but instead of turning to renewables, European leaders hotfooted it to Africa to develop new gas fields and fast-track fossil fuel projects.

When asked about what new investment in fossil fuel means for the international goal of net zero emissions, Rashid Abdallah – the executive director of the African Union’s energy commission – cited the higher emissions of the global north. “Why are we asked to reach zero emission equally?” he asked.

Abdallah isn’t the only one arguing along those lines. The International Energy Agency’s 2022 projection predicted that, even if Africa developed all its known gas reserves, the continent’s contribution to global emissions would rise from 3% to 3.5% – the equivalent of a small European economy such as Greece.

Using that rationale, African leaders are agreeing to new oil and gas projects whenever they can get a deal. “We accepted that the consumption of natural gas will increase by 155% in the coming decade or two decades because everyone is rushing to Africa to invest in natural gas to replace Russian gas,” Abdallah said. But some of their own citizens, climate defenders in particular, argue that this is a mistake. “The sad bit is that all of these projects are long term,” said StopEACOP campaigner Elmawi. “They’re supposed to be running for at least 20 to 25 years. And the problem that they [Europeans] are having, the deficit for gas, won’t be there in the next five years.”

He worries that Africa will be left with assets that generate resources with little market value, even as it carries the debt incurred when building them.

New analysis by Carbon Tracker supports Elmawi’s fears. It predicts that the global north’s demand will fall more than 50% by 2040. Though it has turned to Africa to meet the short-term energy deficits caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s long term strategy appears to be an even faster transition to renewables. The European Union (EU) recently doubled its renewable energy target from 22% to 45% of capacity by 2030.

Whose energy security?

At COP27, Don’t Gas Africa climate campaigners confronted a German minister about a deal to export 2.5 million tonnes of gas from Senegal to Germany. Colin Besaans of the Power Shift Africa think tank explained the frustration with such projects. They will take decades to start making money, he said. What’s more, he said: “When they do come online, they’re predominantly for export deals, export to European markets, export to make sure that Europe has energy security.”

But African leaders often cite domestic energy security as the rationale for these new gas deals. “The continent needs a reliable source of power if it is to pull millions of citizens out of poverty and create jobs for its burgeoning youth population,” Nigeria’s president Muhammadu Buhari wrote in the Washington Post during COP27. African leaders say new oil and gas projects are the only way to give 600 million people access to power across the African continent. Buhari argued that while Africa’s future must be carbon-free, “current energy demands cannot yet be met solely through weather-dependent solar and wind power”. The logic of this argument is that exploiting gas and other fossil fuels that are often labelled “transitional” will help African countries power their economies.

Dean Bhebhe, campaigns coordinator of Don’t Gas Africa, expresses serious doubts that new fossil projects will increase energy security for ordinary Africans. Pointing out that historic extraction has never developed Africa, he told a press conference at COP27: “The same energy system that has left many Africans without energy access is the same energy system that will be employed in new developments.”

Ordinary Africans pay an immediate price for projects such as the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP). “I think it’s unfair that they keep using the excuse that they’re trying to develop Africa,” said Elmawi. “In reality, what they’re doing is actually stealing resources and robbing us in broad daylight.” Criticising the EACOP resettlement action plans, he said people were not getting the market value for their land, which meant that they were unable to purchase new alternative plots. He added that displacement tears apart the fabric of communities for the sake of developments that don’t help the lives they disrupt.

“When you’re displacing people, it’s not just about the land. It’s about culture,” Elmawi said. “It’s also about the connections between the people around this area.”

Dissent is punished

In many countries, speaking out against the government and fossil fuel industries can mean a night in a police cell, or threats to your life.

Oil was first discovered in Uganda in 2006. Six years later, more than 7,000 people were displaced in Hoima district in the west of the country to build an airport that could be used to fly in equipment and personnel for a refinery. “The government and [fossil fuel] companies are harming them,” said Dickens Kamugisha, who has dedicated his life to advocating for and organising with ‘project-affected people’, as the Ugandan government calls them.

Kamugisha, who serves as chief executive officer of the non-profit Africa Institute for Energy Governance (AFIEGO), told openDemocracy: “When you challenge what is happening, they come for you.”

In October 2021, he and six colleagues were arrested – without being told what they were suspected of. “They invaded the office and took our computers. They took everything, then they took us,” he said. They spent three nights in prison, even though Ugandan law only allows a maximum of 48 hours under arrest without charge. Kamugisha says he has neither been put on trial, nor had the chance to clear his name. He believes this is because no crime was committed and the arrest was simply a harassment tactic to silence him and those whom he seeks to help.

Even so, Kamugisha counts AFIEGO lucky, saying it is good that it invested in security cameras rather than guards. Other campaign groups, he says, have found their security staff murdered and premises destroyed. The objective of such tactics, he says, “is to ensure that the people who are voiceless, who are hopeless, who are poor, should not have any say”.

In October, nine students demonstrating against the EACOP in Uganda and in favour of a European Parliament resolution that made the same point were arrested.

Africa is at a crossroads in how its constituent countries develop and build their economies. What happens next isn’t just about the future of carbon emissions, but the future of African communities.

Teaser photo credit: Primary sources of renewable energy in South Africa are solar, wind, hydroelectric, and biomass. Pictured here are wind turbines in Darling, Cape Province. By Kalle Pihlajasaari – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10086526