How Realistic is a European ‘Scramble for African Energy’?

  • A great policy shift has been speculated since the invasion of Ukraine, as European leaders seek to diversify the energy supply.
  • The focus on African energy is epitomised by EU diplomacy but is not without its limitations. 
  • Speculation of this ‘scramble’ calls into question its conception, feasibility, and consequences. 
Présidence de la République du Bénin

Since the invasion of Ukraine, European governments have made clear their priority to diversify energy supplies, reducing dependency on Russian imports. Emerging as contenders for said diversification, are African nations like Algeria, Nigeria, and Senegal. This shift, for many, is suggestive of a wider European diplomatic trend, however, questions must be asked of this change of focus: what are the limitations? How will this affect regional and global dynamics? And ultimately, how realistic is a European scramble for African energy? 

Why the increased attention on African energy suppliers? 

The invasion of Ukraine has been a moment of epiphany for the European Union, especially concerning energy policy. In 2021, 40% of Europe’s gas came from Russian imports and the invasion sparks new plans to reduce this long-standing dependency that are the main driver of this increased interest in African energy. 

At the forefront of this new policy are leaders like Italy’s  Prime Minister Mario Draghi, who is spearheading the shift with several diplomatic visits to secure gas from countries across Africa and the Middle East. From a deal signed with Algiers in April, to visits to Azerbaijan, Qatar and Mozambique, Draghi epitomises Europe’s desire to branch out to shore up supplies. 

Draghi is not alone in this ambition; the European Union as a whole is seeking increased cooperation from various leaders on the continent. In conjunction with the Algerian deal, others similar were signed in the same month with Egypt and Angola. All of these agreements seek to increase gas exportation into Europe, aiding diversification whilst boosting the development of African energy infrastructure and output. 

The development of these African resources is of central importance when considering the viability of dependency reduction for Europe. Emerging markets have been identified across the continent: Mauritania, Equatorial Guinea, Ghana, and Mozambique amongst others, are all designated points of interest for a diversifying Europe, and their development will be centre-stage as this interest manifests. Large-scale projects like the Mozambique Coral South Floating Liquified Natural Gas (FLNG) project, or Senegal’s Yakaar-Teranga hub will receive renewed attention, the latter of which is expected to start production by 2024. These projects, as well as others, produce millions of tons of LNG a year and their development could be Europe’s key to beating Russian withdrawal symptoms. 

Feasibility and limitations: 

The increasing focus on African energy has undoubtedly caused a stir; the potential for a sweeping change in diplomacy that brings interconnectivity, infrastructure, and investment to African leaders is an exciting prospect. However, the speculative scramble is somewhat idealistic and there are limitations to the shift. Infrastructural bottlenecks, rising domestic demand, and political conflict on the continent impede its feasibility, and the debate as to whether African countries can fill this gas gap is an ongoing one. 

Statistically speaking, African countries’ capacity to replace Russian gas in Europe is doubtful. Algeria for example, as the 10th largest global gas exporter, made up for only 12% of European imports in 2021. Nigeria, another country targeted for its gas potential, would need to drastically ramp up exports to help meet European demand; around 90% of Nigerian gas exports go to China and despite an agreement to construct the Trans-Saharan pipeline earlier this year, the project is still in its infancy and will do little to mitigate the current crisis. Equally, countries like Uganda, Angola, and the Democratic Republic of Congo either lack the requisite infrastructure for energy production or are inhibited by the European prohibition of financing new fossil fuel development. 

Political instability is also a factor that European leaders must consider. Many African economies are crippled by various coups and conflicts that complicate the securing of energy supplies without an increased European presence in Africa. The EU has already called for an expansion of operations in the Sahel and negotiations are underway for an increased European military presence in Burkina Faso. European leaders, driven by the need for energy, will have to broaden their diplomatic scope in Africa, potentially involving themselves in this instability. 

Limitations do not end there, even if these countries were able to rapidly increase production, there is the question of increasing domestic demand. With over 600 million people without access to energy on the continent, African leaders should look to meet their own demand before catering to European supply. Since 2018, energy exports from Africa into Europe have been in decline; the export potential of the region is hampered by rising domestic demand and African leaders’ priorities have reflected this. Algeria’s demand is expected to increase 50% by 2028 and fuel prices have soared across the continent; European countries are not alone in struggling with an energy crisis. 

While these countries may prove viable as a substitute for European leaders, their African counterparts will demand a mutually beneficial deal. The African Energy Chamber (AEC), representing the African energy sector, has agreed to the European Commission’s plans for increased cooperation, on the condition that domestic needs are prioritised. These needs include the creation of an African gas market, increased cooperation and technical aid from Europe, and financial aid in projects across the continent. African demands for increased investment in exploration, production and infrastructure will complicate diplomacy, making African energy no quick fix for European gas shortages. 

How does a supposed ‘scramble’ affect geopolitics? 

With the spotlight on African nations, the prospective boost for its leaders is enormous. A dynamic change like this could have rippling effects across both continents, but increased European presence brings into question developments in policy and security. 

The first of these uncertainties is that of EU policy regarding non-renewable energy. The goals outlined in the European Green Deal (EGD) in 2021, promised a decline in the use and demand of fossil fuels, a promise that up until now stands. This ban on the financing of new oil and gas projects has been criticised as a premature ‘punishment’ by some African policymakers, whose countries depend on fossil fuels and for whom a transition to green energy is more complex. 

The EU has announced a €150bn investment plan for African generation of clean energy, but now facing an energy crisis, long-term plans for transition are superseded by short-term necessity. Should the policy be reversed, investment for African countries would open up significantly, though the goal of carbon neutrality for Europe by 2050 is still imperative. As a result, some leaders may risk investing billions of dollars only to face carbon lock-in in the future. 

Also relevant are these African nations’ already existing relations with other international actors. Algeria for example, voted against the expulsion of Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council, and the two nations have engaged in military cooperation manoeuvres close to the Moroccan border. Putin has for a long time accrued influence in Africa, something that would appear to complicate diplomacy between those keen to reduce Russian dependency and those who are neutral. However, European leaders are still pursuing energy policy in these countries. Russian presence in countries like Nigeria and Senegal, or African skepticism of NATO activity are overridden by the need to secure energy resources. Europe will largely have to compromise; African leaders will not denounce Russian influence but will accept new investment from the EU. Europe will have to concede to conducting diplomacy with leaders influenced by  Putin rather than with Putin himself as the best solution available to abate the energy crisis. 

Similarly, China’s rising demand and need to diversify has led to a huge increase in investment in African gas and oil, with Africa now supplying 25% of Chinese oil. Nigeria stands out as a key partner, with Chinese investment reaching $16bn and a predicted 80% of Chinese oil to be imported by 2030. Beijing equally has productive ties with Egypt in regards to energy supply; President el-Sisi  has signed various agreements regarding oil and gas with China since 2013. Even with the newly signed tripartite agreement between Europe, Israel, and Egypt, European leaders will have to consider already strong ties between African countries and other superpowers, as they vie for influence and energy on the continent. 

What are the potential outcomes of this shift? 

The implications of a European shift to African gas go beyond energy diplomacy. European leaders run the risk of involving themselves in pre-existing relations between African governments and global superpowers and will need to consider these as well as domestic needs. The main concern of this foray into Africa for gas is that the EU will likely have to compromise to meet African demands. The shift will demand a much heavier investment in African infrastructure than the short-term purchase of gas. This investment is complicated further by the influences of China and Russia which creates problems for European leaders. The majority of these deals between European and African leaders have acknowledged the importance of developing appropriate measures for the transition to renewable energy, outlined in the REPowerEU strategy. That being said, as Europe scrambles to meet its immediate needs, it may be underestimating the time required to address these obstacles and an overarching threat to the long-term goal of a green transition is tangible. 

The main conclusion to be drawn from the increased European interest in African energy is the necessity to diversify global energy supplies. This creates opportunities across Africa not only to develop existing energy deposits but equally to push the European Union’s commitment to clean energy. As the short-term goals of leaders will be to secure gas and reduce dependency on Russia, African leaders now have a strengthened international posture, one that may prove essential in the path to more sustainable energy. The question that remains is whether or not an increased EU presence in Africa will truly be mutually beneficial or will it be exclusively Europe that reaps the rewards.

Ross Hardy

R&A Alumno