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Dossier | Energie et développement

Energy Security and Sub-Saharan Africa

Emily Meierding
La sécurité énergétique et l’Afrique subsaharienne [fr]


Published by Palgrave Macmillan

Over the last decade the topic of energy security has reappeared on global policy agendas. Most analyses of international energy geopolitics examine the interests and behaviour of powerful energy-importing countries like the US and China. This chapter begins by examining foreign powers’ expanded exploitation of oil and uranium resources in Sub-Saharan Africa. It goes on to examine how energy importers’ efforts to enhance their energy security through Africa are impacting energy security within Africa. It assesses Sub-Saharan states’ attempts to increase consumption of local oil and uranium reserves. Observing the constraints on these efforts, it then outlines some alternative strategies that have been employed to enhance African energy security. It concludes that, while local community-based development projects have improved the well-being of many households, they are not a sufficient guarantor of energy security. Inadequate petroleum access, in particular, remains a development challenge. Foreign powers’ efforts to increase their oil security are undermining the energy security of Sub-Saharan African citizens.

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1. Introduction

1After over two decades out of the headlines ‘energy security’ has reappeared on global policy agendas. Rather than focusing on the Middle East, as analyses did in the 1970s and early 1980s, recent concerns regarding international energy geopolitics have cast a wider geographic net. One region that has attracted increased attention is Sub-Saharan Africa. This interest was initially inspired by a series of dramatic oil discoveries in the Gulf of Guinea in the late 1990s. Lately, however, interest in the continent’s energy resources has expanded to encompass a wider variety of raw materials. In particular, Africa’s uranium reserves have inspired a new extractive investment boom. This chapter examines foreign powers’ efforts to enhance their energy security through increased exploitation of Sub-Saharan Africa’s energy resources and the implications of these activities for energy security within Africa.

2Section 2 identifies two trends that have prompted foreign energy consumers’ new ‘scramble’ for African resources, namely escalating international petroleum demand and the impact of anthropogenic climate change. It then discusses foreign powers’ increased investment in Sub-Saharan Africa’s oil and uranium reserves, focusing on the security interests of the United States (US) and China. Section 3 shifts away from conventional geopolitical analyses to examine how these outside activities have impacted energy security withinAfrica. Noting the importance of access to modern energy resources for economic development, it reviews Africans’ attempts to increase their own use of oil and nuclear power. Although Sub-Saharan African consumers share many of the same energy security interests as consumers outside the region, their ability to meet these needs through increased use of local resources is constrained. Such impediments arise, in large part, from external states’ efforts to intensify exploitation of the continent’s oil and uranium reserves. Given the difficulty of increasing local consumption of petroleum or uranium, Africans have attempted to increase local energy security through a variety of alternative strategies, focusing on different energy resources. Section 4 highlights efforts aimed at sub-state and at supranational energy development. The article concludes by observing that, while these alternative programmes do enhance African energy security, they are not sufficient compensation for lack of access to continental resource reserves. Restricted oil consumption, in particular, remains a major development challenge. Absent alterations in foreign resource demand or in the behaviour of political regimes in oil- and uranium-endowed states means the gap between external and African access to modern energy resources is likely to persist.

2. Energy security through Africa

2.1. Oil extraction

  • 1  US Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics. Available at http://tonto.e (...)

3The primary trend in international energy geopolitics of pushing outside states and their extractive companies towards Sub-Saharan Africa is the growing global demand for petroleum products. From 2000 to 2008 world petroleum consumption rose from 76 million barrels per day (b/d) to almost 86 million b/d.1 Prices increased concomitantly, reaching a record USD 147 per barrel in July 2008. Although the current recession has depressed global petroleum demand, consumption is expected to revive as economies recover; total demand is still projected to reach 92 million b/d in 2020 and almost 103 million b/d by 2030 (Energy Information Administration, 2010). These rising figures have prompted many analysts to express concern about impending international oil scarcity. Recently discoveries of new petroleum reserves have not kept pace with growing worldwide demand (Klare, 2005). The current recession has exacerbated this supply problem by curtailing investment in new exploration (Bradshaw, 2009). Even when investment again begins to increase it is uncertain whether large reservoirs of light sweet crude remain to be discovered in most regions. Global supplies of easy-to-extract and easy-to-refine petroleum resources may have peaked.

4The Gulf of Guinea is one of the few areas of the world that is still believed to contain large-scale undiscovered reservoirs of light sweet crude (Lee and Shalmon, 2008; Gary and Karl, 2003). For that reason alone it is an appealing investment prospect for oil companies and consumer state governments. However, Sub-Saharan Africa also offers other advantages. As relatively new petroleum producers, with limited indigenous capital and technical capabilities, many Sub-Saharan African states are willing to accept lower royalties and cede greater control over their petroleum resources than governments in more established oil-producing countries (Downs, 2007). Consequently, for outside energy investors, potential profits are very high. Energy-consuming states and their oil companies also find Africa appealing because it enables them to diversify their sources of foreign petroleum supplies. Diversification reduces concerns about instability in individual producer states and fears of politically motivated field expropriations or supply cut-offs.

  • 2  Since American oil companies are not state-operated, there is no guarantee that the oil they extra (...)

5The US, in particular, has turned to the Gulf of Guinea to enhance its national energy security. The sizeable discoveries in the 1990s facilitated this transition. However, political developments made supply diversification a national security imperative (Gary and Karl, 2003). The attacks of 11 September 2001 destabilised America’s relationship with the Arab world. Hostility intensified following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Growing tensions with Iran removed another potential petroleum supplier, while a perpetually antagonistic relationship with Hugo Chavez has reduced the appeal of heavy reliance on imports from Venezuela. Under these conditions greater exploitation of African resources makes economic and political sense. The American government has encouraged extractive companies to invest in African oil production through financial incentives, increasing diplomatic linkages with the continent and by supplying the region’s petroleum-endowed states with military aid (Klare and Volman, 2006). Between 2000 and 2006 the amount of American oil imports originating in Africa increased from 15 to 20 per cent. Over the next decade this figure is expected to rise further (Frynas and Paulo, 2007).2

  • 3  China’s oil companies are state-owned, which provides a stronger guarantee of Chinese consumer acc (...)

6The US is by no means the only country looking to Africa to increase petroleum supplies and energy security. China’s engagement with the continent, especially in the energy sector, has attracted widespread and often highly alarmist international attention (for a reasoned assessment see Alden, 2005). From the Chinese perspective, Sub-Saharan Africa is appealing not only for the reasons articulated above but also because of the relatively limited development of the continent’s extractive industries. In most petroleum-endowed areas of the world Western oil companies have been active for decades. As a result, it is difficult for China’s national oil companies – relative newcomers on the international scene – to gain a foothold. In contrast, Africa still possesses sizeable regions where petroleum resources are under- or undeveloped (Soares de Oliveira, 2008). In many of these areas local political instability has deterred significant investments by the major oil companies. In contrast, China’s national oil companies have gravitated towards these regions; their investments in Sudan are an example of this strategy in action. In other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa China’s companies have demonstrated a willingness to overpay for concessions and petroleum contracts (Taylor, 2006). Western oil companies and governments have criticised these practices as market distortions. However, for a latecomer like China, current inefficiencies are viewed as necessary compromises to secure future oil access (Lee and Shalmon, 2008).3

7Offshore discoveries in West Africa between 2007 and 2009 reinforced foreign governments’ and companies’ interest in Sub-Saharan oil extraction (Energy Information Administration, 2010). Estimates of the region’s undiscovered reserves continue to increase. Total production is expected to rise from 5.6 million b/d in 2007 to 6.9 million b/d in 2015, an expansion of more than 23 per cent. Over the same time period worldwide production is predicted to increase by only 4 per cent (IEA, 2008). Sub-Saharan Africa is in the middle of an oil boom. Yet, these dramatic increases are unlikely to be sustained; regional production is expected to level off by 2030. Consequently, oil companies and importing countries have an incentive to access Africa’s oil now, or risk being shut out. In response to this perceived imperative, foreign investment has flowed both to historically significant Sub-Saharan producers such as Nigeria and Angola and to relative petroleum newcomers such as São Tomé and Principe and Côte d’Ivoire. Capital has also been directed towards countries like Liberia and Uganda where no oil has yet been discovered. Petroleum exploration efforts of one form or another are under way in most Sub-Saharan African states (Omorogbe, 2004).

8Yet, oil is not the only African energy resource that has recently attracted increased outside attention. Africa’s uranium resources are also inspiring greater foreign interest. This attraction is linked to international oil security concerns. Fears of impending petroleum scarcity have prompted consumer states to diversify the resources that they use to generate energy in addition to the geographic origins of their petroleum supplies. Even sceptics of the ‘peak oil’ concept recognise that, as easily accessible reserves of light sweet crude are exhausted, petroleum prices will rise. Heavier oils, with higher sulphur contents, are harder to extract and to refine than light sweet variants. The increasing importance of offshore oil resources will also raise petroleum prices; deep-water reserves are far more technically difficult and costly to exploit than onshore resources. The development of unconventional hydrocarbons such as oil shale and tar sands is even more energy-intensive and economically inefficient. As production shifts to these costly alternatives, energy prices could increase dramatically. In anticipation of these shifts, consumers are seeking substitutes for oil and natural gas resources.

2.2. Uranium extraction

9Nuclear energy is one alternative to continued reliance on hydrocarbons. It is a physically imperfect substitute; oil resources are primarily used for transportation, while nuclear power is used to generate electricity. Yet, nuclear energy can substitute for natural gas as well as for the oil- and diesel-fired generators that continue to be used, intermittently, in much of the developing world. These transitions are seen as appealing because they would relieve some of the demand pressures on global oil resources. A shift to nuclear power would also increase energy security by diversifying consumer states’ primary energy bases. Europeans, in particular, would like to reduce their reliance on foreign natural gas in the wake of repeated years of politically motivated Russian supply cut-offs.

10An equally important driver of resurgent interest in nuclear power is growing international concern about the negative impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Rising global temperatures, along with an increase in severe weather events, are expected to generate a host of physical, social, economic and security problems. Consequently, domestic and international political action is being directed towards reducing the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions that contribute to global warming. Hydrocarbon-fuelled power plants are major GHG emitters. In contrast, the operation of nuclear power plants is carbon-neutral. Even when the carbon emissions created through the construction of a new reactor and through the extraction and refining of the fuel required for its continued operation are taken into account, a nuclear power plant creates far fewer emissions over the course of its lifecycle than an equivalently productive coal-, oil- or natural gas-fired facility. Nuclear power’s lifecycle emissions per kilowatt-hour are similar to those of wind and hydro power. Consequently, advocates of nuclear energy have been eager to promote it as a climate-friendly source of electricity (IAEA, 2010a).

  • 4  See also World Nuclear Association, Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries. Available at http://www.wor (...)

11Nuclear energy’s lower emissions figures, coupled with escalating popular concerns about the negative consequences of global climate change, have prompted a reconsideration of nuclear power’s role in national energy mixes. There are still many unresolved problems with nuclear energy; the issue of waste storage, in particular, will constrain the expanded exploitation of nuclear fuels. In addition, public antipathy towards nuclear power is still a significant political obstacle to increased usage, especially in Europe. Yet, popular hostility has declined from its apex after the disasters at Three Mile Island (1979) and Chernobyl (1986). In the US 70 per cent of the population supports maintaining nuclear power’s contribution to the national energy supply, the highest figure ever reported (WEC, 2007). Countries such as Germany and Belgium, which had planned to phase out their nuclear capacities, have delayed or reversed their policies. Italy has rescinded its moratorium on the construction of new nuclear facilities and plans to build reactors within five years (Energy Information Administration, 2010).4

12The largest increase in nuclear power over the next few decades, however, is expected to occur in developing countries. While electricity generated by nuclear energy is projected to increase by only 1 per cent a year in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member states from 2007 to 2035, it will increase by 5 per cent a year outside OECD during the same time frame. This growth is being driven by China’s and India’s interests in nuclear power. By the end of 2009 China was responsible for 20 of the 62 nuclear projects under construction worldwide.5 Over the next 25 years China’s nuclear-generated electrical capacity is projected to increase at a rate of 8.4 per cent a year. India’s anticipated annual growth rate is 9.5 per cent (Energy Information Administration, 2010). Yet, while India and China are driving the nuclear resurgence, they are by no means the only countries contemplating an increase in the usage of nuclear power. In total, 65 states that currently lack nuclear power plants have expressed an interest in developing a nuclear capacity and 20 of them are expected to have active nuclear facilities by 2030 (IAEA, 2010a).

13In order to fuel this ‘nuclear renaissance’, countries need access to uranium supplies. Sub-Saharan Africa has historically been an important exporter. Uranium mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) was used in the Manhattan Project. In 1945 the United Kingdom (UK) began funding exploration for uranium resources in South Africa; production there began in 1952 (Adeniji, 2002). At the same time France was exploiting uranium resources in its West African colonies, particularly Gabon and Niger. Although Gabon’s uranium reserves have since dwindled, Niger remains a critical source of nuclear fuel for France and is the third largest producer worldwide. South Africa also continues to be an important Sub-Saharan uranium supplier, as does Namibia. Additional exploration has occurred in Botswana, the Central African Republic, DRC, Guinea, Malawi, Mali, Mauritania, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia.6 In 2007 the World Energy Council (WEC) reported that Africa contained almost 20 per cent of the world’s reasonably assured uranium reserves. As exploration continues, this figure is expected to rise.

14Heightening global demand for uranium resources has already resulted in price increases. The continued depletion of secondary stocks of uranium – currently gathered from mining and reactor sites and through weapons conversion and waste reprocessing – will lead to further increases in raw uranium prices. Yet, it is unclear how high prices will rise and what effect this growth will have on demand for nuclear power. Current uranium scarcity is partially an artefact of stagnant interest in nuclear power over the last two decades; when nuclear power fell out of favour resource investment slowed (WEC, 2007). The recent escalation in demand has already prompted extensive new uranium exploration. If this trend continues, new recoverable reserves are likely to be discovered. Should these additional resources fail to accommodate growing global demand, more human and technological energy will be devoted to developing reprocessing capabilities and thorium power reactors, thereby reducing new uranium demand and depressing raw material prices. In general, since raw materials constitute a smaller percentage of the operating costs for a nuclear power plant than for a conventional hydrocarbon-powered facility, linkages between resource prices and energy costs are looser for uranium than for oil (IAEA, 2010a). Taken together, these various cost factors currently make access to uranium a less pressing economic concern for resource-importing states than authority over foreign petroleum reserves.

  • 7  From the Game Changers Project, sponsored by the American Academy of Sciences and the Center for I (...)

15However, the economic ease of raw material access is only one aspect of international uranium security concerns. Given uranium’s role in nuclear weapons technology, resource control is also regarded as a military security issue. These concerns can be overblown; raw uranium poses little military threat. In order to ‘weaponise’ the material, it must be mined, milled to create yellowcake, converted into a gas, then enriched to increase its percentage of U-235, the fissile isotope. Usually, only the first two of these steps occur in less developed, uranium-endowed countries. Since enrichment is extremely costly, few states have developed domestic facilities, especially for enriching up to the 90 per cent U-235 threshold required to fuel research reactors and create nuclear weapons. Most enriched uranium is currently produced by only three companies, namely Russia’s Rosatom, Europe’s Enrichment Technology Company and the United States Enrichment Corporation.7 Thus, there is usually a geographic disconnect between suppliers of raw uranium resources and sites of potential military insecurity. Nonetheless, even limited insecurity in uranium-endowed states can have broad political repercussions; in 2003 American officials used reports of the transmission of yellowcake from Niger into Iraq to reinforce their claims that Saddam Hussein posed an imminent threat to international security prior to the US invasion (Hersh, 2003).

  • 8  De La Baume, M., ‘French Citizens Among 7 Seized in Niger’, New York Times, 16 September 2010.
  • 9  US Energy Information Administration, Country Analysis Brief: Nigeria. Available at http://www.eia (...)

16Escalating concerns about the dangers of nuclear proliferation, along with increased demand for nuclear power, have prompted greater international interest in gaining control over global uranium resources. As in the case of oil, Sub-Saharan African states are regarded as appealing suppliers because of their governments’ relative willingness to share authority over national resource stocks. Many African states also impose limited regulations on extractive practices. This does not mean that uranium extraction is easy. Local security threats can endanger the human and material resources of companies working in uranium-endowed territories. For example, in September 2010 seven employees of the French mining companies Areva and Vinci were kidnapped in Arlit in Niger.8 It is not yet clear whether this and similar attacks on uranium production in Niger were driven by religious extremism (the most recent kidnapping was perpetrated by Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), financial interests, grievances against mining practices or some combination of these reasons. However, regardless of the causes, such assaults raise the costs and limit the productivity of resource exploitation. Similar attacks on oil extraction infrastructure in the Niger Delta have reduced Nigeria’s petroleum production by over 30 per cent.9

  • 10  Bernard, P., ‘Niger’s Uranium Mining Carries on Despite Al-Qaeda Kidnappings’, Guardian Weekly,15 (...)

17Yet, companies still face little danger of investment expropriation. Areva’s operations in Niger have not slowed and the government has been quick to assert that terrorist attacks will not impinge on extractive activities.10 Given rising international uranium demand, investment in Niger – and, to an even greater extent, in relatively stable countries like Namibia – is still a good deal. By increasing their investments in Africa, foreign extractive companies increase their total resource reserves and diversify their sources of supply. This supply growth is a necessary condition for the expansion of nuclear-powered electricity generation which, as noted above, is desired by many states. As in the case of oil, an increase in the total amount of African uranium resources on the global market would improve the energy security of outside states and consumers.

3. Energy security within Africa

3.1. Little local impact

  • 11  This figure includes biomass.
  • 12  US Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics. Available at http://tonto.e (...)

18Expanded exploitation of the continent’s raw material reserves has little impact on energy security within Africa. Perhaps the most striking feature of the region’s recent resource boom is how little of the material extracted from the continent has been used locally. Overall, Africans consume far fewer energy resources than individuals in any other region. In 2007 annual consumption of all primary energy sources was only 15.4 million British thermal units (Btu) per person.11 In comparison, worldwide per capita energy consumption was 70.8 Btu, while each US citizen consumed 337.1 Btu of energy per year (almost 22 times the figure of the average African).12 This divergence is even more pronounced for access to modern energy sources such as fossil fuels and electricity. Outside South Africa 80 per cent of Sub-Saharan Africans’ primary energy demand is for biomass, namely wood fuels, charcoal, agricultural residues and animal dung (International Council for Science, 2006). A massive 71 per cent of Sub-Saharan African households lack access to electricity (Energy Information Administration, 2010). In rural areas this figure rises to over 90 per cent (Kammen and Kirubi, 2008).

  • 13  US Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics.Available at http://tonto.ei (...)
  • 14  US Energy Information Administration, Country Analysis Brief: Nigeria. Available at http://www.eia (...)

19For petroleum and uranium resources, consumption rates are also low. The average African’s annual oil consumption is one-third of the amount consumed by the average individual worldwide and one-twentieth of the amount consumed by the average American.13 Many African states face chronic liquid fuel shortages. This situation is largely a function of foreign oil demand; petroleum-endowed states and extractive companies can make more money by selling resources abroad than by distributing them on the continent. As a result, Africa exports over 90 per cent of its extracted petroleum resources (IEA, 2008). However, local fuel shortages also arise from the continent’s limited refining capabilities. Facilities are either entirely lacking or poorly maintained. For example, in 2009 only up to 15 per cent of Nigeria’s total refining capacity was estimated to be operational.14 Consequently, even oil-endowed states rely on imported fuel, which is often in short supply. These supply problems, combined with limited local abilities to pay even government-subsidised fuel costs, keep domestic demand and consumption low.

20There are no equivalent figures for continental uranium consumption. However, Africa’s limited installed nuclear capacity is indicative of the low levels of local demand. Only one Sub-Saharan country, that is South Africa, employs nuclear power to produce electricity; the state’s total installed nuclear power generating capacity is only 1.8 gigawatt (GW). This represents less than 2 per cent of Africa’s electrical energy mix, the lowest figure for any continent. The average world share of electricity generated by nuclear power is 13.8 per cent. Western Europeans rely on nuclear energy for 26.3 per cent of their electricity supplies (IAEA, 2010b). Even South Africa’s two reactors may not be consuming continental uranium reserves. Since no Sub-Saharan African state currently possesses the capability to enrich uranium domestically, South Africa may be using entirely foreign resources.

  • 15  The term ‘modern energy resources’, as used in development literature, can refer to any kind of ‘i (...)

21This resource drain constitutes a significant impediment to African development. Access to modern energy resources is a vital contributor to improvements in human well-being and economic growth (Asif and Muneer, 2007).15 Electrification enhances lighting and communications and allows for the mechanisation of production. It enables refrigeration, which improves food security and the storage of medical supplies. Increased access to petroleum-based fuels strengthens internal transportation networks. This facilitates trade and human mobility, which contribute to economic expansion. By consuming more petroleum resources and gaining access to new sources of electricity, Africans could dramatically enhance their quality of life.

22In this sense, energy security imperatives in Sub-Saharan Africa are the same as those in other energy-consuming states. However, approaches to energy security and the effectiveness of those efforts have varied dramatically between continents. The rest of this section examines Sub-Saharan Africans’ historical and contemporary efforts to enhance their energy security by increasing their consumption of the two strategic resources discussed above: uranium and oil. It discusses the impediments to these pursuits and their implications. In doing so, it highlights the hiatus between dominant energy security practices within Sub-Saharan Africa and approaches that outside states have employed to enhance their energy security through the continent.

3.2. Nuclear politics

23Over the last 60 years several Sub-Saharan African states have pursued nuclear technology. In the 1950s the Eisenhower administration in the US offered to assist South Africa’s development of a nuclear capacity through the ‘Atoms for Peace’ programme. The US provided South Africa with a research reactor and enriched uranium throughout the 1960s. This assistance was suspended in the mid-1970s when South Africa refused to sign the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). However, by then the apartheid state was capable of enriching its own uranium and eventually succeeded in creating nuclear weapons (Cawthra and Moeller, 2008). Concern about South Africa’s nuclear programme prompted Nigeria to pursue nuclear development. The nationalistic pan-Africanist Murtala Muhammed government created the Nigeria Atomic Energy Commission in August 1976 and opened two research centres to develop nuclear technology. In order to accelerate the programme, the state attempted to purchase a reactor from West Germany (Okolo, 1985). In addition to providing a defence against South Africa’s nuclear designs, this capacity was intended to diversify Nigeria’s potential energy sources as well as enhance the state’s international standing as a member of the ‘nuclear club’ (Adekanye, 1983; Mazrui, 1980).

24Similar prestige interests had prompted the president of Ghana, President Kwame Nkrumah, to announce his country’s desire for a nuclear capacity in 1961. They also inspired Gabon to demand a nuclear reactor from France in 1983. Neither of these states needed the additional energy, but they viewed nuclear power as an important symbol of development. In addition, Gabon, as a uranium-endowed state, may have been trying to exert bargaining power against its primary resource consumer, France (Ogunbadejo, 1984). As a result of its efforts, Ghana acquired a research reactor from the Soviet Union in 1964. However, operations ceased in 1966 (Adeniran, 1981). Nigeria did not receive its reactor from West Germany and its nuclear programme eventually stalled due to budgetary constraints (Adekanye, 1983). France denied Gabon’s request outright.

25In the 1990s African nations followed global trends by largely rejecting nuclear engagement. The Treaty of Pelindaba, signed in 1996, declared Africa a nuclear weapons-free zone (Adeniji, 2002). No new reactors were built during this period. Nonetheless, in the last few years several African uranium producers have again expressed a desire to exploit their raw energy materials for local nuclear development. South Africa’s 2008 nuclear energy programme included the pursuit of a full fuel cycle; leaders want to enrich and employ more of their uranium resources at home. Their aims are both to increase the state’s total electrical generating power, as national demand has recently exceeded installed capacity, and to increase the percentage of electricity derived from nuclear sources (Khripunov, 2009). Namibia has announced its interest in developing a domestic nuclear capability. Several Sub-Saharan African countries without domestic uranium reserves have also taken preliminary steps towards national nuclear programmes; Uganda produced a framework for nuclear power regulation in 2008, while Kenya plans to begin construction of a reactor by 2017.16

26Despite these activities, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) projections do not envision a dramatic increase in Africa’s installed nuclear capacity by 2030 (IAEA, 2010b). This pessimism is partly a function of the inadequacies of local electrical grids. As a general rule, the capacity of any new power source added to an existing grid should not exceed 10 per cent of the system’s total capacity in order to avoid overloading. Since the current capacity of many African grids is less than 5 GW, they are simply too small to accommodate most available reactor designs (IAEA, 2010a). The commercial production of small and medium-sized nuclear reactors could help African states overcome this limitation. Pooling of countries’ electrical grids might also facilitate increased nuclear power exploitation (Sokolov and McDonald, 2005).

  • 17  This has been a longstanding concern. See Adekanye (1983) and Okolo (1985).

27However, even if African countries overcome their electricity distribution problems, they still face extensive impediments to producing nuclear power. Many aspiring nuclear states lack the human resources or domestic technical capacities to develop and maintain nuclear reactors.17 These technological constraints exacerbate existing international concerns about the safety of nuclear facilities in states where government regulation has traditionally been lax (IAEA, 2010a). Rising global proliferation fears will also restrict Africa’s development of nuclear capabilities. Foreign states and international organisations may be reluctant to offer assistance, even in the acquisition of peaceful nuclear programmes, as endorsed by the NPT. The most significant impediment to Africa’s exploitation of nuclear power, however, is financial limitations. The upfront investment required for a new nuclear reactor is between USD 2 billion and USD 3.5 billion (Khripunov, 2009); few Sub-Saharan states can muster this amount of capital. Consequently, the local production of nuclear power is unlikely to increase dramatically in the near future. As a result, African uranium demand will remain low.

3.3. Oil consumption

28Capital limitations are also an impediment to increases in continental oil consumption. International petroleum prices have reached a level that most African citizens simply cannot afford, especially with recent declines in many countries’ foreign exchange earnings (Kammen and Kirubi, 2008). The negative trade imbalances created by extensive petroleum imports are unsustainable in the long run (African Ministerial Meeting on Energy, 2004). Thus, Africans cannot count on increasing their access to oil resources. Yet, it is widely recognised that, without expanding regional transportation networks, current trade inefficiencies will persist, undermining development efforts (Davies, 2010). Few solutions have been offered so far to overcome this conundrum.

  • 18  The West African Gas Pipeline Company is jointly owned by Chevron West African Gas Pipeline (36.7 (...)

29Local consumption could increase if Africa’s oil producers elected to extract, refine and distribute sizeable amounts of fuel at below-market prices both within their own states and in neighbouring countries. There are precedents for this kind of regional redistribution scheme; in the 1970s Nigeria exported large volumes of petroleum resources to its neighbours in order to improve the state’s regional reputation and enhance its leadership role in West Africa. These disbursements moderated the local financial impacts of the decade’s dramatic petroleum price increases. However, the practices were not sustained after oil prices collapsed in the early 1980s. Following this disbursement experience the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) then initiated efforts to construct a pipeline for transporting Nigerian natural gas to other countries in the region. After over two decades of preparation the West African Gas Pipeline finally opened in 2008. However, its operation has been impeded by environmental complaints and physical security concerns. And even when gas flows it is expensive. In contrast to the distribution programme in the 1970s, neither the Nigerian state nor the West African Gas Pipeline’s corporate operators are currently particularly interested in subsidising local energy consumption.18

30The disconnect between the interests of ruling regimes in oil-producing states and the interests of these countries’ populations is a major obstacle to increasing Africans’ petroleum consumption. While the average citizen would prefer to use more oil, elites are interested in selling their states’ resources at the highest price possible in order to maximise revenue. The public has little means of challenging this elite preference or of enforcing redistribution of resource revenue. As many authors have noted, mineral rents enable leaders to avoid accountability; since they are not dependent on tax revenues, they do not have to provide social services, including energy access (for an African example of this dynamic see Yates, 1996). There is little incentive for the leaders of rentier states to maintain a national electrical grid or to build refining infrastructure. Subsidising domestic petroleum consumption is also unappealing because it would reduce the revenue that could be accrued through foreign resource sales. Consequently, the populations of Africa’s petroleum-endowed states are currently no more energy-secure than the populations of countries that lack oil and natural gas reserves (IEA, 2008). Unless this political behaviour changes, which seems unlikely, given regimes’, companies’ and outside consumers’ interest in maximising the amount of African oil available on international markets (Soares de Oliveira, 2008; Gary and Karl, 2003), local oil consumption will continue to be low.

4. Alternative approaches to African energy security

31Neither increased oil consumption nor nuclear development appears to offer a very promising path to greater African energy security. Perhaps in recognition of these difficulties, most international programmes aimed at increasing Sub-Saharan Africans’ energy access have been directed elsewhere. This section briefly highlights two approaches to enhancing African energy security; one is directed towards small-scale local development and the other promotes regional infrastructure expansion. While this discussion is not meant to offer a comprehensive review of all alternative strategies, it does illustrate some of the ways in which local and foreign actors are attempting to enhance Sub-Saharan African energy security without increasing local consumption of the oil and uranium resources that are the focus of foreign powers’ energy security concerns.

32The first approach, embraced by many donor governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), focuses on improving the energy security of individual households and small communities, especially in rural areas. Programmes attempt to increase people’s access to modern cooking fuels such as liquefied petroleum gas, kerosene, biogas and ethanol gel fuel. Organisations also distribute the cookstoves required to exploit these modern fuels and promote the use of stoves that burn biomass more efficiently. The use of clean-burning stoves improves public health by reducing smoke inhalation. Reducing dependence on biomass frees up the time, notably of women and children, which would otherwise be devoted to biomass gathering (IEA, 2008). It has a particularly important impact on human security in areas where biomass has become increasingly scarce due to growth in local demand.

33Other local development programmes endeavour to increase rural electrification. These programmes promote small-scale off-grid exploitation of renewable energy sources like solar power (Davidson et al., 2003). The use of solar photovoltaic systems has brought lighting and clean water access to many Sub-Saharan African communities where low population density renders extension of central electrical grids technologically inefficient and economically unfeasible. Although these solar systems are less effective power sources for more energy-intensive activities such as mechanised production, they can be supplemented by wind energy or small-scale hydro power distributed through local ‘mini-grids’. Much of this energy development can occur with limited central government involvement. However, the effectiveness of these programmes is highly dependent on external financial support, both for the systems’ construction and their continued maintenance (IEA, 2010).

34These sub-state development programmes have already increased rural African energy security and seem poised to make a greater impact due to increased recognition that achievement of the Millennium Development Goals is dependent on enhanced access to electrification and modern cooking fuels (IEA, 2010). However, these programmes are less helpful in urban settings and unsuitable for providing the energy inputs required for industrialisation.

35In order to produce and distribute electricity on a larger scale, Sub-Saharan African states are also pursuing a second approach, namely supranational development. These efforts have included proposals for the cooperative construction of new large-scale electricity-generating infrastructure such as the Grand Inga project and regional networks for energy transmission like the Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) and the West African Power Pool (WAPP). These programmes aim to increase the continent’s total generating capacity and enhance the economic efficiency of electricity provision.

36When such projects work they can be very effective. Regional coordination spreads infrastructure construction and maintenance costs across multiple states. It also increases the number of potential consumers for new power projects. Grid integration facilitates the transmission of electricity from countries with excess installed capacity to consumers experiencing supply shortages (Daniel and Lutchman, 2007; Omorogbe, 2004). The ability to exploit these advantages and create economies of scale encourages large-scale infrastructure development. Within this regional framework hydro power appears to be a particularly advantageous means of increasing regional electricity generation. Given appropriate geophysical resources, its cost per kilowatt-hour is lower than the costs of power from coal- or gas-fired plants. The operation of hydroelectric power plants also produces minimal GHG, making it a climate-friendly technology. In addition, operating these facilities requires no costly petroleum or uranium inputs.

  • 19  International Rivers, Grand Inga Dam, Democratic Republic of Congo. Available at http://www.intern (...)
  • 20  Lovell, J., ‘Congo’s Inga Power Projects Seek New Lease on Life’, Reuters, 21 April 2008. Availabl (...)
  • 21  Njini, F., ‘SADC in Bid to Revive Westcor’, Southern Times, 15 October 2010. Available at http://w (...)
  • 22  Ibid.

37However, large-scale dam projects have a dismal record. The history of the Grand Inga project in the DRC illustrates many of the problems associated with these development efforts. First, dam construction entails environmental degradation and population displacement. People who were displaced by the creation of the original Inga I (1972) and Inga II (1982) dams were never compensated.19 Second, dam maintenance is a perennial challenge. In the mid-2000s Inga I and II were operating at 30 per cent of their installed capacity due to silting (Hathaway, 2005). Third, international financing agencies have become increasingly reluctant to fund large power projects, partly in recognition of the initial two problems (Davidson et al., 2003). Although the World Bank has financed rehabilitation of Inga I and II, it did not agree to participate in a proposed Inga III project.20 Fourth, the inter-state consortia created to coordinate construction of these projects are vulnerable to national self-interest. In 2009 the DRC government ‘scuttled’ Westcor, the regional organisation established by Angola, Botswana, DRC, Namibia and South Africa, to coordinate funding for Inga III, by accepting a construction bid from BHP Billiton, a Canadian mining corporation.21 Fifth, there is no guarantee that the general population in states with large-scale power projects will benefit from these installations. In the case of Inga III most power generated by the new dam will go to BHP Billiton’s aluminium smelting operations.22 The average Congolese citizen’s energy security will not improve; if anything, it will be harmed by the state’s new debt burden (Soares de Oliveira, 2008).

38Regional grid integration schemes can also be undermined by national interests. Governments may resist the energy sovereignty compromises entailed in the pooling of power resources (Raskin and Lazarus, 1991). Even if states succeed in cooperating (as they have, to a large extent, in the SAPP), the utility of power sharing is still constrained by the total installed capacity of all participant states’ electricity-generating plants. If efforts to develop hydrological resources continue to fail, African states will require alternative additional energy supplies to power their integrated grids. Otherwise, they cannot increase electricity consumption through centralised power sources.

5. Conclusion

  • 23  Although this article has not examined natural gas, a similar logic holds; African consumers are a (...)
  • 24  Russia has, nonetheless, promised Nambia a nuclear reactor (Khripunov, 2009).

39Unfortunately, as this chapter has discussed, attempts to increase African access to two common non-hydrological resource inputs, petroleum and nuclear power, is impeded by external states’ energy security imperatives and local financial constraints. African consumers cannot compete with the purchasing power of countries like the US and China to enhance their access to petroleum resources.23 While the price of uranium fuel is a smaller impediment to the increased use of nuclear power, many African states lack the financial capital to build the reactors required to consume uranium resources. Accessing outside funding or technical expertise to develop domestic nuclear power is likely to be difficult, given many current nuclear powers’ proliferation fears.24 Consequently, expansion in Sub-Saharan African use of nuclear power in the near future will be limited.

40Absent increased use of nuclear power or access to petroleum resources, African states may turn to coal-fired facilities to augment installed electricity-generating capacity. Locally, coal is the least scarce and least costly input for power plants. Although it has the worst climate impact, development imperatives may supersede environmental concerns. Alternatively, African energy development efforts could continue to focus on rural electrification and access to clean cooking fuels; this has been the expressed preference of international organisations (IEA, 2010).

41None of these proposed development plans, however, will increase continental access to oil resources. As a result, expansion of Sub-Saharan Africa’s transportation sector will continue to be constrained; there are currently no substitutes for oil-based fuels. It is thus in this particular energy sector that we see the greatest tension between foreign powers’ efforts to increase energy security through Africa and the enhancement of energy security within Africa. The two imperatives are in direct competition. The bargaining power of governing elites in Sub-Saharan Africa’s oil-endowed states will increase as global demand rises. But unless leaders’ financial gains are redistributed to the broader population, the gap between popular consumption within and outside the region is likely to persist. Africans’ abilities to afford their own petroleum resources will continue to be limited.

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1  US Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics. Available at

2  Since American oil companies are not state-operated, there is no guarantee that the oil they extract will be consumed in the US. However, increases in supplier diversity can enhance the oil security of American consumers by increasing overall price stability.

3  China’s oil companies are state-owned, which provides a stronger guarantee of Chinese consumer access. However, these Chinese companies currently sell most of their oil on the international market (Downs, 2007).

4  See also World Nuclear Association, Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries. Available at

5  IAEA, Country Nuclear Power Profiles. Available at

6  World Nuclear Association, Uranium in Africa. Available at

7  From the Game Changers Project, sponsored by the American Academy of Sciences and the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. Available at

8  De La Baume, M., ‘French Citizens Among 7 Seized in Niger’, New York Times, 16 September 2010.

9  US Energy Information Administration, Country Analysis Brief: Nigeria. Available at

10  Bernard, P., ‘Niger’s Uranium Mining Carries on Despite Al-Qaeda Kidnappings’, Guardian Weekly,15 October 2010. Available at

11  This figure includes biomass.

12  US Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics. Available at

13  US Energy Information Administration, International Energy Statistics.Available at

14  US Energy Information Administration, Country Analysis Brief: Nigeria. Available at

15  The term ‘modern energy resources’, as used in development literature, can refer to any kind of ‘improved’ (modified) energy resources, including charcoal. However, it generally refers to electrification, provided by any power source, and to refined fossil fuels (Meadows et al., 2003).

16  World Nuclear Association, Emerging Nuclear Energy Countries. Available at

17  This has been a longstanding concern. See Adekanye (1983) and Okolo (1985).

18  The West African Gas Pipeline Company is jointly owned by Chevron West African Gas Pipeline (36.7 per cent), the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (25 per cent), Shell Overseas Holdings (18 per cent), Takoradi Power Company (16.3 per cent), Société Togolaise de Gaz (2 per cent) and Société Bengaz (2 per cent). See

19  International Rivers, Grand Inga Dam, Democratic Republic of Congo. Available at

20  Lovell, J., ‘Congo’s Inga Power Projects Seek New Lease on Life’, Reuters, 21 April 2008. Available at

21  Njini, F., ‘SADC in Bid to Revive Westcor’, Southern Times, 15 October 2010. Available at _Westcor&id= 5018.

22  Ibid.

23  Although this article has not examined natural gas, a similar logic holds; African consumers are at an economic disadvantage.

24  Russia has, nonetheless, promised Nambia a nuclear reactor (Khripunov, 2009).

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Cite this article

Electronic reference

Emily Meierding, “Energy Security and Sub-Saharan Africa”International Development Policy | Revue internationale de politique de développement [Online], 2 | 2011, Online since 14 February 2013, connection on 30 November 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Emily Meierding

Assistant Professor of Political Science, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. Before joining the Graduate Institute she was a pre-doctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University. She holds a PhD from the University of Chicago. She is currently working on a book on petroleum’s role in international territorial disputes.

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