A very expensive white elephant

The Stiegler’s Gorge project is a 48-year-old folly that will not deliver the energy security that President John Magufuli seems convinced it will

Every aspirant dictator seems to want at least one Soviet-style mega-project to their name. It is almost as if the construction of a white elephant will validate the personality cult that they invariably build for themselves. The Stiegler’s Gorge hydropower project in Tanzania is President John Magufuli’s version, a project first conceived in 1972 and never implemented for reasons that I hope to make obvious in this piece. Colloquially known as “the bulldozer”, Magufuli has indicated that any vocalised objection to the project will land the objector in prison.

When I first travelled to Tanzania in early 2016, the nation was euphoric about Magufuli having come to power, despite serious problems with the previous year’s elections. His ruling party, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) lost the Zanzibar element of the 2015 elections but then won the 2016 re-run. The party has been in power for 59 years now. According to the co-opted electoral commission, the CCM’s Magufuli won the 2020 elections with an outlandish 85% of the vote. There is zero evidence that the elections were credible, free or fair. The opposition, whose candidate Tundu Lissu received only 13% of the vote, had little to no chance of winning, largely because it’s extremely risky to be an opposition politician given the levels of violent repression to which the CCM has resorted to maintain power.  

Stiegler’s Gorge, Tanzania. Photo: Ross Harvey

Magufuli won the (mainland) 2015 elections on an anti-corruption ticket. In a nation racked by a history of extensive grand corruption, he represented a welcome reprieve. By 2014, Tanzania scored a dismal 31 (out of 100) on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Since coming to power, Magufuli has improved that score to 37. However, it is one thing to move the needle on petty corruption; it’s another entirely to put an end to grand corruption. There’s only so far that he can go before he clashes with his own loyalists within the CCM. In a de facto one-party state, internal divisions matter more than the official opposition for power retention calculus.   

Corruption is not only about embezzling money; sometimes it’s about making decisions that are corrupted by illusions of grandeur. Magufuli is bulldozing ahead on the Stiegler’s Gorge hydropower project in a way that actively suppresses information and transparency. I visited the site in 2017 and witnessed the remains of past attempts to build this dam – a physical expression of the lack of wisdom at attempting such a project. The gorge is spectacular; it sits in the heart of the photographic tourist concession of what is now the Nyerere National Park (previously the Selous Game Reserve), declared a World Heritage Site in 2014.   

Upon arrival at the site, I was chased down by what I initially thought were security police. They had been tipped off that my guide was taking me to see the gorge. Turns out they were actually part of the bid adjudication committee and had come to instruct me to appear at their offices if I was interested in winning the tender. Upon assuring them that I had no intention of bidding, a more relaxed conversation ensued. They confessed that most interested parties, upon seeing the sheer wildness of the setting and the logistical difficulties associated with dropping enough concrete to build a 134m-high wall, simply disappeared. Cause for hope? 

My optimism was misplaced. I returned to Nyerere National Park in September 2019 only to be met by trucks barrelling down the main road, kicking up dust and disturbing the wildlife. Perhaps nothing epitomised the contradiction more than the joy of watching young wild dog pups frolicking in a pool alongside this very main road – the conveyor belt of destruction. Beyond that, the country was palpably in the grip of fear. Every taxi driver, shop owner and interview respondent expressed their apprehension at voicing any concerns, especially about Stiegler’s.  

Magufuli had gone ahead despite all the academic literature and feasibility studies cautioning against damming the Rufiji River (again). There are already two dams upstream placing pressure on the hydrological flow into the gorge, compounded by increasingly less rainfall, a partial function of the ravages of climate change. Nonetheless, construction is expected to be complete by 2022.  

Not even the World Bank funds hydropower anymore, and most of the world has learned its lessons about the negative impacts of large dams. But Magufuli has bullishly declared that Tanzania, a country pretty much bankrupt and heavily donor-dependent, will self-fund the build. A government spokesperson has stated that the $309.6m required for the initial phase has already been provided.  

Magufuli’s justification for the project – when he still bothered to provide one – was that access to electricity is woefully low in Tanzania. He has a point. According to the World Bank, only 35.6% of the total population had access, while only 18.8% of the rural population (still a majority) had access. The country’s total power generation capacity currently sits at 1,500MW. Magufuli (and pretty much no one else) believes that Stiegler’s would generate a further 2,100MW on its own. While this white elephant will be the most expensive investment in Tanzania’s history, its opportunity costs are where the real expense lies. 

A recent policy briefing on the project indicated that if environmental and social costs were considered, but excluding cost overruns and delays, the total cost of the build would amount to roughly $4.95bn, whereas the global average for a 2,100MW project would be roughly $3,74bn. Environmental economists are particularly interested in negative externalities (the divergence between private returns and social costs). In this case, it is near impossible to determine the long-term costs of the downstream environmental devastation that will almost certainly materialise.  

For instance, oxbow lakes near the coast will likely lose connections that sustain unique fish species. That kind of biodiversity loss is irreversible and therefore cannot be easily costed. Moreover, natural flooding will not be easily replicated or controlled, which will result in nutrients required for downstream agriculture not reaching their natural destination. The risk of food insecurity will arise. Worst, though, is that the delicate ecological equilibrium supporting abundant wildlife will be severely distorted.  

One of Tanzania’s unique selling points is that the Nyerere National Park is the largest reserve in Africa, roughly the size of Switzerland. It is one of the last wildernesses on earth with an extraordinary array of animal and plant heterogeneity. I had the privilege of spending a night at one of the reserve’s six extraordinary lakes in 2019 – one of the six lakes upstream of Stiegler’s Gorge that comprise the primary tourism offering. It is hard to imagine what this area will look like when the dam is built. The sheer increase in traffic volume during the build process is a nightmare in itself, independent of the long-term impacts and resultant opportunity costs. Tanzania would be well advised to do everything possible to avoid foregoing tourism revenue given that it is one of the country’s only serious economic propositions (currently accounting for at least 14% of the country’s GDP, the impact of COVID-19 notwithstanding).  

But what about electricity access for Tanzania’s citizens? There are two things to consider in closing. First, the Stiegler’s Gorge dam will not deliver as promised. Upstream abstraction and reduced rainfall upstream will affect the flow of water into the dam and hence the volume of power that can be generated.

Moreover, global average cost overruns on mega-projects like these are substantial, with one recent study estimating cost overruns of 96% and average delays of 43 months. Hydropower costs alone have risen by 31% in the past decade.

The Stiegler’s build is expected to take nine years for stage one and three years for stage two. Even if this deadline is met (highly unlikely), the total cost (assuming an annual escalation rate of 3.4%) by 2027 would be $7.58bn. If Tanzania was lucky and only incurred an overrun of 30%, its 2027 cost would sit at $9.85bn. In a word, this is unaffordable for a highly indebted state, especially considering that this is the third year of the project and it’s barely started.  

The proposed Stiegler’s Gorge hydropower project will not only harm livelihoods in the area, but also damage one of Tanzania’s top tourist attractions. Photo: Ross Harvey

Second, there are far more cost-effective options available for securing greater access to electricity that do not rely on the expansion of expensive centralised grid transmission infrastructure (yet to be built). Hydropower is simply no longer a competitive source of electricity generation, especially when the opportunity costs are considered. Moreover, Solar PV farms can be implemented within a year (as opposed to nine years) and deliver electricity at a far lower levelised cost per kilowatt hour. In 2017 alone, China installed 53GW of solar power.  

There’s no reason Tanzania cannot pursue a strategic combination of wind and solar power to generate the 2,100MW that it needs. To quote Dr Joerg Hartmann, an independent consultant specialising in assessing hydropower feasibility, “In combination with existing gas and hydropower resources, solar in particular can provide reliable baseload power, much less exposed to hydrological uncertainty.”  

But the “bulldozer” seems unlikely to be persuaded by reason and his legacy will not be one of grandeur. To the contrary, Magufuli’s Stiegler’s Gorge project will be a white elephant, one that jeopardises the country’s tourism offering, kills its wildlife and does not deliver electricity as promised to a citizenry that really deserves better.  

Dr Ross Harvey is Director of Research and Programmes at GGA. Ross is a natural resource economist and policy analyst, and he has been dealing with governance issues in various forms across this sector since 2007. He has a PhD in economics from the University of Cape Town, and his thesis research focused on the political economy of oil and institutional development in Angola and Nigeria.

A powerhouse for regional integration

The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance Dam on the Nile might offer hidden opportunities

The Nile is the longest river in the world, but also the source of water for two great civilisations. Egypt is the epicentre of the oldest civilisation, with a current population of 98 million people. It is dependent on the Nile for 97% of all water on exogenous flows – water originating outside its territorial borders – making it extremely vulnerable to upstream activities.

Ethiopia is home to the Orthodox Church in Africa, with a civilisation dating back at least 2,000 years, and a current population of 105 million. The Blue Nile is the largest contributor of water to the lower Nile on which Egypt is dependent, but its source is fully within the geographic limits of Ethiopia.  

Historically, Egypt has long been opposed to any development on the Nile upstream that could curtail the amount of water it receives. At the heart of the current issue are two massive dams, one in a desert where stored water is lost to evaporation and seepage, the other in the highlands where geology and topography provide storage with lower losses. In terms of the energy aspects of these two dams, both provide massive hydropower potential, although the Grand Renaissance Dam can produce three times more energy than Egypt’s Aswan High Dam can, in a more reliable manner. 

In essence then, the conflict is about efficiencies of water storage and use versus national security fears arising from the inherent vulnerability associated with exogenous water.

Egyptian Water Minister Mohamed Abdul Muttalib listens to a member of his delegation during tripartite talks about Ethiopia’s Grand Renaissance Dam on 4 January, 2014 in the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.  Photo: Ebrahim Hamid/AFP 

At the heart of the dispute is the strategic importance of water, energy and food security. This is overlain by four critical issues – national security, energy needed for industrialisation, management of evaporative losses, and tensions over the optimisation of system yield at national versus regional levels of control. To understand the dispute, it’s necessary to appreciate the way that each of these issues play out in the rhetoric and posturing of Egypt and Ethiopia as the two major actors. 

In water constrained economies, all economic development is curtailed. This ultimately impacts on social stability, so it becomes a national security issue. This is certainly the case for Egypt, where national security concerns were triggered when French and British colonial rivalry saw an expeditionary force try to gain control of the headwaters of the Nile in 1898. This fear was made more apparent when the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948 saw the Egyptian Revolutionary Command Council, under Gamal Nasser, call for the “High Dam Covenant”.

The essence of this covenant is for Egypt to always have direct control of the Nile, most notably by storing more than double the annual flow of the river in the Aswan High Dam. So powerful was this covenant that any person questioning the impact of the dam was deemed to be unpatriotic and ostracised. The heart of the national security issue is strategic storage of water, which must be retained in Egyptian hands, irrespective of the implication. Stated differently, Egypt has chosen to achieve national security by retaining direct control of water, energy and food production within its sovereign sphere.    

Almost all countries choose to modernise their economies in response to the growing population. This is certainly the case for both Egypt and Ethiopia, with a combined population of 203 million.

Early industrialisation in Egypt was opposed by Britain, who favoured cotton production to supply their own textile industry. This meant a trade-off when the Aswan High Dam was built, because water was needed for agriculture, which meant that releases were timed to suit agricultural production. This is at odds with energy production because the depth of the water determines the amount of energy that can be generated.  


Satellite image on 21 July 2020 shows a view of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). This massive  project (nearly $5 billion) has been under construction since 2011, and will become the largest dam in Africa, affecting Sudan and Egypt as the river flows north from the dam and ultimately becomes the vitally important Nile River. Photo: Maxar Technologies/ AFP

So, while Egypt has an installed capacity of 2,100 MW of power, this is only achievable if water is not released for crop production. This is not the case for Ethiopia, which has 6,450 MW of installed capacity that is not constrained by the intermittent need to release water for irrigation. This brings into focus the strategic issue of water, energy and food security, by opening up the potential benefit of optimising the system at a level above that of the independent sovereign state.  

Stated differently, the energy needed to create an industrial economy is not compatible with the water storage needs for purely agricultural production, so Egypt has a stark choice. If it wishes to retain sovereign control over water and food security, then it cannot generate enough energy to diversify its economy. Ethiopia, on the other hand, can generate energy for export to other countries in the region, thereby diversifying its economy and creating food security through importation rather than domestic production.    

There are two universal and inescapable realities for all dams in arid climates. The first is that the larger the surface area of the dam, the greater the losses of water to evaporation. The second is that the surface area of the dam, expressed as a function of total volume stored, means that a deep dam built in a steep-sided valley at elevation, will always have lower evaporative losses when compared to a shallower dam built across a wider floodplain. This is a critical issue, because the more a river is dammed in a desert, the greater the loss to evaporation, and the lower the yield of the system for economic activity.  

This brings us to the essence of the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia. It is not a dispute over the environmental impact of hydro-powered energy, because baseload energy requires a steady flow of water through the turbines, with limited fluctuation to account for peak demand. Rather it is a dispute arising from the clash between water, energy and food security at national level versus regional level.

Egypt can still get its water from the Blue Nile, once the Grand Renaissance Dam has been filled, so the issue is the rate of filling, and not energy production. More importantly, Egypt will be guaranteed a baseflow down the Blue Nile, which currently contributes about two-thirds of the total flow, simply because Ethiopia will be unable to close the sluices once the energy is flowing into a regional grid.

The argument that Ethiopia can shut down the flow is illogical, because that would undermine the very objective of the Grand Renaissance Dam, which is to generate energy for export to the region.  

To reframe the debate, the obstacle to be overcome is the assurance that Egypt would receive greater benefits by relinquishing control over strategic storage to a location upstream in the basin. To find an answer to this national security problem, we need look to the Lesotho Highlands Water Scheme. Built during apartheid, South African national security elites were fearful that Lesotho could shut down the supply of water to the Witwatersrand goldfields and the cities of Johannesburg and Pretoria. This was overcome by clever engineering and design, because the Muela hydropower plant was located downstream of the Katse Dam, but upstream of the point of delivery of water into South Africa at Liebenbergsvlei. The whole idea was that if Lesotho chose to shut down the delivery of water, then their own energy supply would fail. This was a form of mutually assured destruction, a security concept central to nuclear deterrence.  

The dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over the Grand Renaissance Dam offers a unique opportunity to reframe the water, energy and food security dilemma facing governments with growing populations in an arid environment.

While it is desirable to create security in all three realms by monopolising control at national level, the harsh reality is that this is simply not possible. Countries are locked into relationships with other sovereign states by virtue of their shared dependence on a river. The Nile locks in 12 countries, some the poorest in Africa, and the flow of the river is such that by sharing water in any way that meets the needs of the downstream riparians – Egypt and Sudan – then food and energy security cannot also be guaranteed for other states.

Water sharing is a recipe for long-term conflict, because there is not enough in the river, and the zero-sum nature of the allocation implies a growing conflict potential. A viable alternative has to be considered, and this is best framed in a benefit-sharing framework. Realistically, water can be used more than once in each system, so a plus-sum outcome is possible. The generation of electricity in the headwaters does not reduce the stock of water available for downstream use. 

This implies the need to cooperate at multilateral level, to negotiate international agreements that are legally enforceable, and even guaranteed by external agencies as required. Such an agreement would determine the rate at which the Ethiopian dam can be filled, as well as the minimum and maximum discharges needed to satisfy the legitimate security concerns that Egypt has. In effect then, water, energy and food security would be shifted from national level to a regional level, managed within the context of a River Basin Authority representing all riparian states. Water and food security for Egypt would be offset against the creation of energy security in Ethiopia, acting as the powerhouse for regional integration and the sustained creation of an emerging industrial economy that benefits all riparian states. 

ANTHONY TURTON is a professor at the Centre for Environmental Management, University of Free State. His work on water as a risk and opportunity grew out of his role as a senior intelligence officer in the South African Secret Service (SASS). He serves on the editorial board of various international publications, including Water Policy, the official journal of the World Water Council. He has previously served as executive director, and later vice president of the International Water Resource Association (IWRA), as well as a deputy governor of the WWC. His current work focuses on the water crisis in South Africa. He has been awarded the Royal Bank of Canada visiting scholarship to the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada for 2017/18.

A lesson in democratising energy

Togo’s government wants rural communities to produce their own, affordable electricity


Africa is suffering from a major shortage of power despite having huge potential. According to the World Bank, the electricity access rate in West Africa in 2018 was 52%, with power cuts of up to 80 hours per month. The United Nations has reported that the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), of which Togo is a member, has some of the lowest rates of electricity access in the world, with only about 42% of the total population, and 8% of rural residents having access to electricity. 

This situation compels countries to come together with common trans-border projects to accelerate electricity access. However, these efforts are complicated by an individual country’s own demographic, social and economic circumstances, compounded by shared challenges such as high population growth and rapid urbanisation. Climate change and environmental degradation pose an additional challenge: like many other parts of Africa, a high reliance on biomass such as firewood and charcoal for cooking have contributed to environmental damage and have a particularly negative effect on women and children. 

Atta Adam watches cable TV powered by solar energy in his house made of mud in the Tababou village, in the Savannah region in northern Togo, on February 15, 2020. Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei / AFP

In Togo, the high growth rate has negatively impacted all projections in the energy sector, making it almost impossible for communities in semi-urban and rural areas to access power. According to Togo’s National Data and Economic and Eemographic Studies Institute (INSEED), the population will increase from 7.6 million in 2020 to 10 million in 2030, with an annual growth rate estimated at 2.3%. The latest survey shows that 55% of the population – mostly living in rural areas – had no access to electricity as of December 2018.  

Faced with this situation, the authorities launched a $1.8 bn national plan in 2018 to provide universal access to electricity by 2030, aiming to make renewables 50% of the country’s energy mix. This will help to reach more than three million Togolese, most of whom live in rural areas, gain access to electricity through the use of off- and on–grid solutions.   

In line with the plan, Togo adopted a law in 2019 to encourage the production and sale of electricity through public-private renewable energy partnerships. Through this new approach, community-based projects are already underway across the country, including CIZO, which means “to light” in the Mina southern dialect of Togo. This project aims to provide more than two million people living in rural areas with electricity via individual solar kits. The solar kits offer a viable alternative to adding these communities to Togo’s existing grid, which the country cannot afford to do.  

It is within the framework of this initiative that Togolese authorities have signed a subsidy agreement with two solar companies, Soleva and Bboxx“We have provided over 2,000 solar kits to households through this partnership. The main goal of the partnership is to reach households in rural areas with our range of solar kits. Today, many communities have electricity through this project. Our solar kits are subsidised, Prince Monsekea, Chief Operation Officer at Soleva told Africa In Fact. In all, more than 555,000 solar kits are going to be made available to households in rural areas through this public-private partnership.     

Venugné Jean, a rural development engineer, said communities had welcomed the advent of these public-private initiatives. “We are delighted with this vision of public and private partnership because it takes too much time to implement projects if it comes [from] the central government,” he said. 

Togo’s authorities now want to democratise energy, so that low-income communities in rural areas can produce their own electricity at an affordable price. 

To meet this new challenge Togo adopted a law in July 2020 to create interest in the renewable energy sub-sector, setting up a well-defined framework for producing clean, quality electricity at an affordable price through private initiatives at the grassroots level. For example, a new pay-as-you-go off-grid solar concept initiated by Bboxx and Soleva is bringing light to rural households for the first time. Through the scheme, villagers acquire subsidised individual solar kits on credit and pay them off via several monthly instalments. 

“For instance, if they buy our solar kits with three lamps, the customer will pay about $90 instead of $210 because the solar kits are subsidised,” Monsekea explained. “We also have kits for five lamps and TV sets. The customers become the owners of the off-grid solar panels after they have paid and they can continue to produce their own electricity without being connected to the electrified-network.”  

According to Togolese authorities, the scheme is helping to provide affordable energy access to off-grid communities in rural areas. “We want to reach an electricity access rate of 40% in rural areas by 2022. This new concept will help to easily reach all underserved people in rural areas,” said Tiem Francois Bodjila, the managing director of the national agency for rural electrification and renewable energies, who will also hold the portfolio of the ministry of water after a cabinet reshuffle in October 2020.  

But communities in rural areas still struggling for electricity remain disappointed by unfulfilled central government promises, and see the current democratisation of electricity as an opportunity to take charge of their own destiny. To date, many villages have started their own community-based projects to produce electricity from renewable energy sources.  

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One example is Amandahome, a semi-urban suburb of the Togolese capital, Lomé, where youths have set up a small biogas plant, which generates electricity from waste. The community is responsible for the operation and maintenance of the power system, from generation to transmission and the collection of dues. A management committee was set up to control the use of the biogas plant.   

“We have set up a management committee whose main mission is to look after the management of the biogas plan. It also supplies the technicians with domestic waste that members of our community collect from houses,” explained Marcel Aklesso, the community manager. The biogas plant generates electricity for tenants in the area. 

Meanwhile, at Bombouaka, a remote northern village located some 600 km from Lomé, parents organised fundraising to acquire an off-grid solar kit for Yelink primary school. The electricity generated supplies the school’s administrative offices as well as the headmaster’s house. “We had a lot of problems because there was no light, headmaster Douti Ladekoi told Africa in Fact. “So, I asked the students’ parents to seek an alternative to generate electricity ourselves because we were never going to be connected to the national network. We held a fundraising to pay for the off-grid solar kits that light the whole school today.” 

The emergence of private community electricity projects like these demonstrate that citizens living in rural areas want to play a key role in energy production. Large-scale off-grid production remains a challenge, however, including the human resources needed to manage and maintain bigger projects. “The authorities must take a critical look at community initiatives,” says electrical engineer Magloire Nadjombe. “They will play a pillar role in implementing the short, medium and long-term electrification strategy. But they face many challenges: they can easily produce small off-grid components for solar kits, but not large-scale production for whole villages.”  

To meet this challenge, over 3,000 solar energy technicians were trained in 2020 to provide households with assistance throughout the country.  And to instill a new momentum into the process of Togo’s rural electrification, a young and dynamic 29-year-old energy expert, Mawunyo Mila Ami Aziable, who has already proved herself working for multinationals including GRTgaz and INEO-GDF SUEZ in France, now holds the portfolio of ministry of mines and energy following the October cabinet reshuffle.  

Blame Ekoué is the Togo correspondent for the BBC and for Paris-based media house, ANA. He has also reported for Associated Press and Radio France International. He holds a BA in Communications from the Leader Institute in Lomé. Formerly deputy editor of the West Africa Revue, he has been a contributor to the Lome-based Business and Finance magazine since 2015.




Book review

The Political Economy of Energy in Sub-Saharan Africa

Edited by Andrew Emmanuel Okem and Lucky E Asuelime. Routledge, London and New York; 2018

In preindustrial society, one used wood and fire for heat and light, gathering wood from the environment on a more or less sustainable basis. But industrialisation has made energy an issue of state, and if states fail to procure and provide energy to vast populations, poverty, disease and death await. 

Access to electricity, in the 21st century, is about as important as access to food, shelter, health and employment, and plays a significant role in securing access to these basic conditions of life itself. Access is a critical factor in improving life chances, in escaping poverty, and a hundred years after electricity came into general useit is still a scarce resource for almost a quarter of humanity. 

 This is why a book such as The Political Economy of Energy in Sub-Saharan Africa is an important text, despite its academicism and occasional obscurities.  

 The book covers a range of topics related to its title, with political economy fairly ambiguously defined, allowing for certain issues not strictly falling under its rubric – such as governance, gender relations, ecological social work and development issues – to be included in the collection. 

 A chapter on gender relations and land use in Zimbabwe focuses on the marginalisation of the rural women of the Gokwe region, where cotton and maize production are the main sources of income. The authors show how women’s successes are stolen from them during the production process, made possible by a complex web of polygamy and an unfair tenure system that denies especially widows their rightful inheritance. They call for reform of gender-blind laws and legislative interventions by government. 

 paper on ecological social work in South Africa borders on the obscure, seeing its task as enhancing the “co-existence and interdependency [of the] biodiversity relationship between humans and nature”. The authors are concerned with raising communities’ awareness of the benefits of ecological conservationbut they seem to limit the idea to the recycling of waste. 

A more interesting chapter looks at the question of sustainable energy supply in Zambia, which has recently been plunged into darkness and a regime of loadshedding, a situation that seems to be affecting more and more countries on the continent. Energy is deemed sustainable if it does not deplete its source and degrade the environment. Zambia relies mostly on hydropower, but droughts severely affect output, as does bad governance, climate change and the degradation of energy sources such as forests. 

Another chapter explores the manner in which affordable energy makes pro-poor development easier to pursue. It adopts the UN Millennium Development Goals as the framework for the fight against poverty in Ghana. The author, David Anaafo, gives an account of Ghana’s many energy crises, beginning in 1983, which have had grave effects on the people, and set back efforts to reduce poverty. PredictablyAnaafo argues that access to energy improves incomes, education, social participation, gender equality, health and the sustainable use of natural resources. 

The book presents four chapters on various aspects of the energy issue in Nigeria. The country has an abundance of coal, which provided 80% of Nigeria’s energy until 1957/8 when it dropped to 64%, but by 1987, coal mining was haltedSpecialist contributors Uchenna Ani and Kelechi Ani argue that coal has been underutilised in Nigeria, and that greater use of coal would spur industrialisation and create thousands of jobs. This contention is at odds with the overall stance of the book, which generally argues for a transition to cleaner forms of energy. 

Another chapter is more in keeping with the book’s stance, setting out the disastrous effects of the oil industry on the Niger Delta, a region that has been neglected by successive governments while suffering much ecological damage inflicted by the industry. Friday Aworawo argues that the persistence of civil disobedience and even threats of secession in the region are the result of extensive degradation of the environment, of farming land as well as rivers and dams by oil companies such as Shell and Chevron. 

 Segun Joshua and Opeyemi Akinyemi examine the vicissitudes of fuel subsidies in Nigeria, showing how these have become a tool for politicians rather than a way to ease the plight of consumers. The removal of subsidies is often met with protests, and once in place, subsidies are almost impossible to dislodge. But they allow cartels to milk the federal government, bribe politicians and even control political institutions. The authors list other writers’ objections to subsidies, saying their removal will narrow opportunities for corruption, temper inequality, increase economic development and make way for green alternatives. 

The clearest picture of Nigeria’s woes is set out by Olawale Olaopa, Yusuf Akinwale and Ibikunle Ogundari in their examination of governance institutions – more accurately, of the lack of these and the networks they should ideally form to oversee the energy industry, particularly petroleum production. They argue that proper and efficient governance is essential for every aspect of the energy question, from production, distribution, implementation of policy, revenue collection and recording, to administration and management. 

The trio show how the lack of coordination between federal structures, and between tiers of government, result in mismanagement, theft, corruption, recessions, and – more dangerously – protests, secession movements and political instability.

They recommend the creation of appropriate institutions, the development and funding of local capacity, the devolving of overly centralised structures and increased consultation with local actors. 

 The books editors, Andrew Emmanuel Okem and Lucky Asuelime, characterise sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) as having, despite many resources, “massive poverty, low literacy, low life expectancy, poor infrastructure and high maternal and infant mortality” – a “paradox of poverty in the midst of abundance”. Confounding the situation, as other papers attest, the region’s political landscape is rife with “corruption, human rights abuses, clientelism and patronage politics”.  

Climate change has worsened these problems, and SSA is projected to “experience the most negative impact of climate change”. Okem spells out the oft-researched connection between energy availability and socio-economic development, and points out that since awareness of climate change came into our consciousness, traditional energy sources have been revealed to have myriad negative effects on development, as they pollute the environment and accelerate climate change. He stresses that improvements in patterns of energy consumption have been linked to poverty reduction. 

Lamentably, in SSA reliance on dirty energy is widespread, with many using biomass as sources of heat and lighting. Charcoal has become not only a source of energy but a means of livelihood. Thus the cycle of environmental degradation, deforestation and unhealthy outcomes is intensified. It is no wonder that governments have tried to regulate charcoal production, some even banning it outright. 

With urbanisation rates faster than anywhere else in the world, people migrate to cities and improvise, creating shelters that become informal settlements choked with smoke-emitting pollutants detrimental to health.  The editors agree with the other authors that the energy sector is poorly governed in SSA, and political instability, corruption and patronage prevent the emergence of a stable energy market, and deter investment in the sector. The failure of governance means that the transition to green alternatives is strewn with obstacles. The lack of investment also means lack of beneficiation, making processing companies in developed countries beneficiaries in a situation that makes for a vicious circle. 

The failure of Africans to benefit from the region’s many resources has led to wars and armed conflicts, and the resurgence of terrorism is connected to this competition for vital resources. It will take many years and the efforts of many forces to dislodge those whose interests are served by the status quo to arrive at a fairer, greener and more humane distribution of energy in the region. 

Yunus Momoniat is a researcher and writer at South African History Online and an occasional political commentator.

Building Human Security in Times of Crisis

Traditional security thinking places the State as the primary entity which needs to be protected from external military threats. Territorial integrity is considered a fundamental value and any threats to it endanger national sovereignty. Security is seen as a zero-sum game, and the more a state invests in military capability, the more it guarantees its security.

As argued by Peoples and Williams (2015), this state-centric approach still largely determines how governments consider and practise security despite being wholly ill-suited to the modern challenges facing the well-being and survival of peoples and states today. These challenges are internal and transnational in nature, and include things such as disease epidemics, food scarcity, climate change and environmental degradation, disruptive 4IR technologies, mass illegal migration, and transnational crime.

As shown in Good Governance Africa’s (GGAs) Wicked Conversation blog series on the COVID-19 pandemic, in times of unique crisis and social unrest, as we are experiencing today, governments too often place their survival first, narrowing the security agenda, instead of widening it and building human security which centres the citizen.

This state-centric approach still largely determines how governments consider and practise security despite being wholly ill-suited to the modern challenges facing the well-being and survival of peoples and states today.

The same has been true in how states routinely react to the threat posed by violent extremism organisations (VEOs) and other non-state armed groups (NSAGs). Rather than appreciating that violent extremism is the product of deeper and more complex social and economic problems, as well as both international and transnational in nature, VEOs are treated as traditional security threats which can be defeated by overwhelming military force.

Over the last two decades, several major military interventions have sought to stem the spread of groups such as al Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS) and their affiliates, while an extensive web of conventions, laws, and institutions have proliferated to try and deny terrorist actors the ability to mobilize, finance, travel, communicate, and recruit. The estimated costs of the United States’ counterterrorism efforts alone since the al Qaeda-led attacks on 9/11 is around $6.4 trillion USD. While these interventions have had limited successes in certain contexts, overall they have failed to halt the spread of violent extremism and associated acts of terrorism either globally or in Africa primarily because they have sought to address the symptom and not the underlying problem.

In times of unique crisis and social unrest, as we are experiencing today, governments too often place their survival first.

Mozambique is a recent example. In response to a growing civil conflict in the country’s northern Cabo Delgado province over the last three years, the government attempted to overwhelm the militants with force, jailed journalists, closed civil society spaces, and made it difficult for humanitarian workers to access communities most in need of food and medical support. The effect has been an almost complete closure of space for citizens to air their grievances in a non-violent manner, increased poverty and fragility, and a consequent surge in recruitment and deepening of the insurgency.

In August 2020, GGA published the third instalment of Extremisms in Africa, an anthology collection of 44 chapters with contributions from a variety of leading experts in their respective fields on understanding and addressing violent extremism and other non-state armed groups on the continent.

What became clear to us is that VEOs are just one set of actors among many which collectively determine the life cycle of a given conflict. They usually emerge and/or spread in regions where they are able to exploit extant political, social, and economic grievances which have already frayed the social contract, and where poor or absent governance, corruption, and access to illicit arms and financial flows allow them to operate with relative ease.

They usually emerge and/or spread in regions where they are able to exploit extant political, social, and economic grievances which have already frayed the social contract, and where poor or absent governance, corruption, and access to illicit arms and financial flows allow them to operate with relative ease.

In this respect, a single-minded focus on traditional counter-terrorism strategies is not a sustainable solution to The security agenda needs to be widened to take into account the many sources of insecurity facing communities in Africa today and consider aspects such as rule of law, human rights, and economic access.

There is often a resistance by states to thinking about terrorism in these terms because it forces governments to consider their own failings and responsibility for creating the conditions under which violent extremism thrives. As Galtung (1996) and many others have argued, states can act as primary sources of structural violence by imposing restrictions on civilians which oppress their human, political, and social rights in order to safeguard the state system.

A shift from state- and military-centric notions of security to a greater emphasis on human security is contingent on good governance, and in particular, good civil-military relations. These factors are both under threat today in the context of declining democracy on the continent. The overthrow of deeply unpopular President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita by Malian soldiers in August seems to be part of a recent increase in coups which have at first been  met with popular public support but quickly slide into unstable military dictatorships.

States can act as primary sources of structural violence by imposing restrictions on civilians which oppress their human, political, and social rights in order to safeguard the state system.

For military regimes, conflict resolution carries little inherent value and conflicts within their region are often considered purely in terms of how they might advance or hurt their interests, or how they could promote or undermine those of their rivals. This is antithetical to the type of regional cooperation needed to address modern transnational security challenges, and is deeply undermining the ability of our regional bodies to advance peace and security.

Over the course of the next eight weeks, GGA will be publishing a weekly blog series using this “wicked problem” lens highlighting chapters from the Extremisms in Africa anthology which speak to the complexity of preventing and countering violent extremism and offer solutions at the nexus of development, humanitarian action, and security.

A “wicked problem” is defined by Williams and Van ‘t Hof (2014) as a problem which has “multiple stakeholders involved in complex and unpredictable interactions.” This systems thinking perspective should encourage the reader to not only focus on the actions and motivations of the individual stakeholder (in this case the violent extremist actor) but the root causes of vulnerability, the linkages between multiple stakeholders within a conflict system at the local, national, and regional level, and how these constituent elements comprise the whole of the system.

A “wicked problem” is defined by Williams and Van ‘t Hof (2014) as a problem which has “multiple stakeholders involved in complex and unpredictable interactions.”

Chapters featured will include:

– Hybridity and Fragmentation: Implications for Regional Security Policy in the Sahel and Beyond – Bethany L.  Mcgann

– The Global Health Threat to Human Security: How Pandemics May Set the Scene for Bioterrorism – Craig Moffat

– The Potential Impact of Artificial Intelligence on Human and National Security in Africa – Futhi Luthango

– Using Evidence-Based Research to Directly Improve P/CVE Programming: A Case Study of a Social Network Analysis in Somalia – Fatma Ahmed, Laura Nettleton & Jem Thomas

– The Libya Crisis and the Need for African Ownership of Peace and Security Processes on the Continent – Lebogang Seshoka

– Neocolonial/Colonial Extremes: Defining Direct Colonialism, Reaction and Resistance in Contemporary Ambazonia and Western Sahara- Matt Meyer

– Fulani and Jihad: The Argument Against Simplistic Narratives in West Africa – Madeline Vellturo

– The Escalation of Extremist Violence in Southern Africa and the Need for More Collaborative Security Responses – Stephen Buchanan-Clarke


We’d love to hear from you! Join The Wicked Conversation by leaving your comments below, or send your letter to the editor to stephen@gga.org.


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STEPHEN BUCHANAN-CLARKE is an independent analyst with several years’ experience working in conflict and post-conflict settings in Africa on national security and development issues. He currently serves as Head of Programme for Good Governance Africa’s Human Security & Climate Change Programme, and has been involved in the editing of all three volumes of the Extremisms in Africa series, as well as authoring several chapters.
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