Transparency and access are drivers for a better African future

Issue 435 - 25 Mar 2021

As African Energy editor Thalia Griffiths leaves to explore new opportunities, colleagues asked for her take on developments after 23 years leading the publication. For all the tragedies like the current Ethiopian conflict, she sees real hope for a better future on a continent where, in many places, governance has improved and previously marginalised populations are becoming empowered to enact positive change.

  • Payments and transparency – there has been a huge transformation in many (but not all) countries’ governance. “23 years ago, it was all about Elf Aquitaine, huge dams and Big Man politics. Now, people can increasingly see where the money’s going,” Griffiths said. The United States was a front-runner in pushing resource transparency with the passing of the Dodd-Frank Act in 2010, but has dragged its heels since then under pressure from big oil lobbies. Yet the Corporate Transparency Act passed in January and the long-delayed Dodd Frank implementing rule should follow (AE 429/18). Rules in place in the UK, EU and other jurisdictions mean IOC shareholders now expect transparency. Newer oil producers like Ghana, and soon Uganda, and reforming players like Nigeria, are having to listen to civil society (still often a difficult relationship) amid a growing consensus that lessons can be learned from the past.
  • Off-grid empowerment – Griffiths sees a link between energy access and assertive campaigns against perceived corporate and governance abuses. Distributed power “is bringing energy to communities for the first time and it’s as democratising as bringing people mobile phones. Having electricity puts remote villages in contact with the outside world.” While big baseload electricity will always be needed, state utilities and planners are starting to accommodate positive new technologies, even if they don’t suit traditional utilities, who are left running unprofitable transmission infrastructure while missing out on potential new customers.
  • Hydrocarbons industries – Here, the picture is less rosy. When African Energy launched in 1998, the first Gulf of Guinea oil boom was building an industry down the west coast. Expensive recent efforts to replicate exploration success in Brazil and Guyana have been largely unsuccessful, which is bad news for producers like Angola, where President João Lourenço is delivering change to deep state structures that won’t be turned around overnight. As the carbon transition unfolds, a lot of expensive deep-water reserves will be left in the ground, while IOCs maximise value from near-field plays (AE 434/23). “The old days of glamorous, ground-breaking exploration just aren’t going to happen,” said Griffiths, even if a new long-term commodities super-cycle emerges.

More positively, the ‘transition fuel’, natural gas, was seen as a nuisance by investors 23 years ago, when few market outlets existed and few countries had legislation to allow exploitation of associated gas. “Finding something to do with gas other than setting fire to it is obviously a positive,” Griffiths said.

  • Risks and opportunities – In 23 years, African Energy has reported on progress tempered by disappointments (AE 367/17). There are still big risks to positive developments, not least from deep-rooted vested interests. “Diesel mafias don’t love off-grid,” Griffiths commented. She fears for “new failing states”, including South Sudan, and the rise of Islamist-linked conflicts in the Sahel and northern Mozambique, arguing that the narrative of Islamic State involvement absolves governments of responsibility for alleviating poverty. “The IS argument drives a military response when the problem is one of governance, and absolves government from its failings. These conflicts are all about poverty, lack of jobs, not an international Islamist conspiracy.”
  • Positive technology – and governance-led trends are an antidote. Geopolitical shifts give African governments scope to shape their own futures, as the long Cold War aftermath has gradually played out (concerns about regional US-China rivalry are likely overstated), while unprecedented contributions can be expected from vibrant new generations, ranging from a less venal Nigerian business class to energised female entrepreneurs.

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