Africa’s Dangerous Dalliance with Fossil Fuels

Giant new Nigerian refinery raises tensions between energy development and climate action.

THERE WAS A TIME when Femi Ogunbamowo, a Nigerian fisherman, would be out in his dug-out canoe in the predawn hours, on the quiet waters of the Lagos lagoon, able to net a haul of fish before the 8 am rush hour. In those days, he would feed his wife and children with the day’s catch and still have plenty left over. He could sell the remainder of his catch for “as much as $50,” he says, “even more.”

brothers fishing on Lagos Lagoon

​Hundreds of fishermen depend on the Lagos Lagoon for their livelihood. They have seen their catches plummet since construction began on the Dangote Oil Refinery. Photo of fishermen on the Lagos Lagoon by Obii Okongwu.

But that was years ago. Presently, Ogunbamowo, who is now 46 , is barely able to support his family. His fate reflects the sad experiences of hundreds of other fishermen who depend on the lagoon for their livelihood. Since 2016, when the construction of Dangote Oil Refinery began, fishermen in Lagos, in southwest Nigeria, have seen their livelihood plummet, due to the impact of the project on marine life and the restrictions placed by the refinery, preventing them from fishing at the best part of the lagoon. “We have lost our freedom,” Ogunbamowo says. “Our nets and fishing equipment are regularly destroyed by Dangote’s men. If they catch us fishing in some areas of the water, they always attack and beat us mercilessly.”.

Residents also correlate a number of extreme weather events previously unknown in the community to the refinery, which is still under construction. “We now have some occurrences in our community that didn’t use to happen,” says Prince Olayinka Olukoya, a local youth activist. “One of these is ocean surge, which happened for the first time in 2021 and again earlier this year. In the recent occurrence, about 50 communities were affected. Buildings and properties were destroyed while ancestral tombs which had existed since the 1970s were swept away.”

Adekoya is the publicity secretary of the Ibeju-Lekki Peoples Forum, a community group that has been campaigning against the activities of the oil refinery. In order to make way for the refinery, engineers carried out extensive dredging and reclamation work and constructed breakwaters and other structures that disrupted marine life. “In the past, fishermen only needed to go into the ocean for 10 minutes before catching fish, Adekoya says. “Now they have to travel for about one hour or more before they can hope to find fish.”

The oil refinery is being built by Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, and will be the world’s largest single train facility. It sits at the eastern edge of Lagos, on the edge of a lagoon that has served the community of Ibeju-Lekki for centuries. The refinery will produce Euro-V quality gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and polypropylene. When it becomes fully operational, experts expect the daily production of 650,000 barrels of oil. Proponents say this will enable Nigeria, an oil-producing but energy-poor West African giant, to meet its domestic fuel needs, reduce imports, and eliminate fuel shortages. Nigeria is a crude oil exporter, but it imports the bulk of its petroleum because it lacks domestic refining capacity. The refinery is expected to change Africa’s energy landscape, reducing the continent’s dependence on imported petroleum products, estimated at $60 billion annually. It received its first crude oil supply earlier this month.

THE DANGOTE REFINERY reflects a desire among African leaders to continue to expand fossil fuel exploration, despite its environmental impacts and contributions to the climate crisis. At the moment, the continent’s two leading oil producers, Nigeria and Angola, are accelerating fossil fuel investments, while Senegal and Mozambique have each expanded their gas industries. Even South Africa, which has taken the lead in recent years in pursuing a clean energy transition, remains heavily reliant on coal for the vast majority of its power generation. According to Statista, only 9 percent of Africa’s total energy generation comes from renewable sources.

African leaders argue that because the Global North financed its economic development by burning fossils, African countries have a right to use their natural resources to accelerate their development and provide energy to millions of people on the continent. At the moment, more than 600 million Africans do not have electricity, and about 970 million cannot access clean cooking methods. When asked during his election campaign last year his opinion on climate change, the new president of Nigeria, Bola Ahmed Tinubu, described climate change as “a question of how you prevent a church rat from eating poisoned Holy Communion.” “We need to tell the West, if they don’t guarantee our finances, we are not going to comply with their climate change,” he said. His predecessor, President Buhari, launched the Decade of Gas Initiative and the Nigeria Gas Expansion Program (NGEP) to accelerate exploration of the country’s fossil fuel assets.

“Africa needs to have an energy mix that allows it to have access to electricity and energy, to have affordability for its population, and, most importantly, to be able to have the security of supply for industrialization,” Akinwumi Adesina, president of the African Development Bank (AfDB), says. “And so, natural gas plays a very important role in the energy mix of Africa, as it should.” AfDB, alongside a mix of Nigerian and foreign banks, including the World Bank, Standard Chartered Bank, and trade banks from China, India and Europe, are the major financial backers of Dangote refinery. Adesina says the issue for him is not ideological; “it’s a pragmatic issue.”

However, there has been a significant pushback from climate experts and activists on the continent. They may that Africa’s leaders are right in pointing accusing fingers at the Global North, but they disagree with the argument that they need to use their carbon resources to finance development and an energy transition. “This argument is definitely a dangerous stance,” says Hellen Neima, the Director of African Climate at Corporate Accountability, “and no doubt detrimental to the fate of communities and people in the Global South, especially in Africa, where resilience is so weak and communities are vulnerable. Remember that many of these Global North countries who ‘benefited’ and developed riding on the back of capitalism and oil exploration did not explore it on their own soil. It was and still is on our soil. So, we are the biggest losers if we claim to want to ‘develop’ on the same template.”

Although Africa contributes just 4 percent of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, at 1.45 billion tons, but it is disproportionately affected by negative climate change impacts. Because of poverty and weak governance, Africa is also the continent where resilience to the climate crisis is most glaringly lacking. So far, this year is the hottest on record, but what is more alarming is that Africa is warming faster than the rest of the world, with extreme weather events like flooding, drought, and wildfires causing enormous catastrophes this year alone. Cyclone Freddy, a long-running tropical storm, killed over 400 people and displaced thousands when it hit Southern Africa early this year. Yet serious actions have been hobbled by buck-passing, painful compromises and market-based solutions with grave consequences for the future.

Certainly, framing the challenge as a tension between decarbonization and development is hardly the best way forward for a continent that is suffering heavily from the climate crisis. And there remains no evidence that oil- and gas-rich nations like Nigeria have reinvested oil wealth in renewables or even in development. “With all the extractions and exploration of fossil since the ’60s and ’70s, have we recorded any progress?” Neima says. “The answer is very obvious. What we have instead is depreciated quality of life, loss of livelihood, and continued degradation. So, no, this is not a valid argument, but a very dangerous one.”

Amara Nwankpa, a climate advocate who was at the COP28 talks in Dubai, thinks that the arguments of Africa’s leaders can hardly stand scrutiny. “I don’t think Nigeria has an argument in that regard because the infrastructure for oil extraction is export-facing,” he says. “The general perspective about fossil in Nigeria is not that we need energy industry to power development in the country but rather it is supposed to be fiscal resources with the dollar derived from oil sales used to fund government and it is only in some cases, if the public is lucky, that it goes into infrastructure. That is why Nigeria is energy poor despite that at some point, we were exporting up to 2.8 million barrels a day.”

Nwankpa is the policy director at the Shehu Musa Yar’Adua Foundation, a Nigerian think tank. According to him, Nigeria is not locked in an unavoidable fossil fuel pathway for development. “The country has options for its energy mix,” he says. “It doesn’t have to depend solely on fossil fuel. Right now, we need mini grid systems, solar home systems to address energy shortfall across the country.” Some 80% of Nigerian households are still cooking with firewood. “So the real energy transition for Nigeria has to do with households having access to cleaner energy and a less environmentally damaging method of cooking.”

Meanwhile, the Dangote Oil Refinery project will ensure the continuance of fossil fuel burning – an environmentally harmful practice that science has established to have direct implications for global warming. Fossil fuel accounts for three quarters of total GHG emissions. Unfortunately, the refinery is being promoted by Nigeria, which is a signatory to the Paris Climate Agreement. Nigeria’s state-owned oil company has acquired a 20 percent stake in the refinery, raising questions about the country’s commitment to climate action.

ALTHOUGH COP28 SAW a landmark agreement to support vulnerable nations facing the worst impacts of climate change, the soft language deployed on fossil fuel has left many worried about the future. The final text of the agreement called on parties to “phase-down unabated coal power, phasing out inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, and other measures that drive the transition away from fossil fuels in energy systems,” sidestepping demands by activists, climate campaigners, and frontline communities for an end to fossil fuel.

Completely erased from consideration of this agreement is the concerns of frontline peoples like Ogunbamowo and other fishermen who are suffering the direct effects of fossil fuel extraction. Their experience underscores the danger of Africa’s focus on fossil fuels at the very moment when any further extraction endangers the planet. Even in its pre-production state, the refinery has wiped out jobs for local communities while decimating marine life. Now the fishermen and other residents of Ibeju Lekki are fearful of the future, as the refinery sets to produce its first refined products.

The company has defended itself, saying the project will not add to emissions. A statement by the refinery’s technology supplier, DuPont, says its “innovative” technology “will allow Dangote to maximize quality and profitability while minimizing its environmental impact.” But climate experts have expressed doubt about such claims. Grahame Buss, a former principal scientist at Shell, says these facilities use a lot of energy to refine the crude oil, and Dangote will likely be “adding to the emissions of Nigeria.”

Unfortunately, the environmental impact of a refinery is not limited to its emissions. The consequences can also manifest “in terms of effluent from the refineries seeping into the ground or into the air of the communities where it is located,” Nwankpa says. to In Ibeju-Lekki, even before it refines a liter of oil, the Dangote Oil Refinery has made the lives of the community miserable. Residents describe how they now live in darkness because engineers working on the refinery destroyed electricity infrastructure without replacing it. The company’s heavy-duty trucks also damaged roads, leaving community roads littered with potholes.

The Ibeju-Lekki Peoples Forum has written several petitions to the National Assembly. It has also held meetings with Devakumar Edwin, the executive director of Dangote Group, to call attention to the residents’ plight. But nothing has come of these efforts. According to Olukoya, the Dangote Group says it is not obliged to pay compensation, since it is sited in a Free Trade Zone. This is of little consolation to those that live here. “Our roads and electricity are spoiled,” Olukoya says. “Our fishermen have no fish to catch. Now we cannot sleep with two eyes closed, as we now live in fear of the ocean. We need the government to come to our aid.”

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