Stop taking advantage of Africa's fossil fuel dilemma

A cloud of smoke produced by an industry. [Getty Images]

A 75-year-old man was recently killed by an elephant that strayed from the Murchison Falls National Park in Uganda into a farm in Buliisa District, where he and two men were working.

When I visited Uganda last week, the man's story was fresh.

Murchison Falls, one of the country's oldest and largest parks, has a new tarmac road passing through it.

The road is not for the wildlife, neither was it meant for locals, but for transportation of oil by TotalEnergies.

The people blame the invasions on vehicular traffic and noise at the national park.

Yet, this is just one reason the communities would have issues with Tilenga, Kingfisher and East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) projects, whose start the government has allowed. They cited poor compensation for land taken, harassment and other ills by state machineries.

One justification for new fossil fuel projects in Africa is desire for infrastructure, quick returns and economic growth, and the fact that the West developed through fossil fuels.

In the Sh443.8 billion EACOP project, for example, with 62 per cent stake for TotalEnergies, 8 per cent CNOOC, and 15 per cent each for Uganda and Tanzania, job opportunities and economic growth have been promised.

Africa accounts for up to 80 per cent of people without electricity. Many in this lot are also jobless.

It is true that Africa harbours deposits of natural resources worth billions, or trillions of dollars.

It is also true that even with the crude oil projects in Africa, the continent's GreenHouse Gas emissions per capita would not be anywhere near the huge global emitters.

But there are known problems with such projects. To begin with, there has not been proof of a fossil fuel project, or mining, in the sub-Saharan Africa that drastically changed the lives of local people for good. Only a few people get rich quick.

Even where stakes are shared equally between investors and host nations, oil projects have done little to help people.

Today, for instance, despite decades of extraction, stranded assets haunt Niger Delta, communities there eat dirty oil in food (you can touch oil in fish and cassava before they are cooked), the soil is messed with oil, and abject poverty still an issue.

And now reports show scary trends, with life expectancy reduced to 45 years, cases of cancer increasing, impotence and miscarriages as well. These besides asthma, associated with suit and dust from gas flaring.

If you thought such jobs as manning oil fields or transportation would be for local communities, then know security forces are a menace there. Unfortunately, oil is always discovered where poor people inhabit. Kenya tried Tullow Oil in Turkana, but today there is little to show for all the hype.

For Uganda and Tanzania, borrowing to raise their share of investment in EACOP comes with insurance and interest costs. But what if in the end there is no return on investment?

African leaders may be justified about using fossil fuels to industrialise, as the West did, but two wrongs don't make a right. They should instead work on policy frameworks to enable transition to renewable energy.

Affordability may be an issue at first, but in the long run, renewable energy is cheaper. Africa needs help to exploit its renewable energy sources.

It needs the adaptation, mitigation and loss and damage funding to tackle climate change, pollution and biodiversity loss.

Any new investor on energy in Africa should therefore start with renewables.