In 2013, United States President Barack Obama launched the Power Africa project with much fanfare in Cape Town in South Africa. The ambitious project is a $7 billion one handled by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) with the goal to double electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa over the next five years. In his words ‘The program would provide light where currently there is darkness and the energy needed to lift people out of poverty.’ Five Hundred and Ninety Million Africans lack access to electricity and six countries were in focus – Tanzania, Kenya, Nigeria, Liberia, Ghana and Ethiopia. The funds for this grand agenda will come from the Export-Import Bank, a government backed lender who will bring in $5 billion. The White House was also able to secure at least $9 billion in pledges from the private sector. The US Congress also showed more than a passing interest as two members: Ed Royce and Eliot Engel introduced a bipartisan bill to bring power to at least fifty million Africans by the year 2020. The indoor air pollution from wood stoves kills 3.5 million Africans annually more than the deaths from the combination from HIV/AIDS and malaria.
However some critical questions arise from this ‘laudable’ initiative. Firstly, will there be a conflict in enhancing energy with Obama’s climate goals? Africa cannot power itself through solar and wind power alone. Tanzania for instance is in a haste to tap massively into its large offshore natural gas reserves. How will this add up to Obama’s earlier pledge to cut back on greenhouse gas emission? Some environmental rules could limit America’s involvement in the project. The Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) which pledged $1.5 billion in energy projects for sub-Saharan Africa has an internal cap on greenhouse gas emission. These rules will prevent OPIC from funding more than one medium-sized natural gas plant which will be grossly inadequate.
Secondly, what really constitutes electricity access in Africa as it is relative? Some households may just need a little to power their cellphones and light a few bulbs. Others may need it to run a small home based business. There is no clear benchmark as to a generally acceptable standard of what passes off as supply. Roger Pielke Jr, an environmental studies academic at the University of Colorado opined that the international community’s definition of modern energy access is so scant that it may mean providing people with 2.2% of the energy the average American uses.
Thirdly, how much money will the project gulp? A recent report by World Bank and International Energy Agency estimated that the light up Africa project will most likely cost between $120 to $150 billion annually over and above the existing levels to bring energy access to everyone by 2030. The amount raised so far is a mere drop in the ocean. It will also mean the alteration of regulations and institutional frameworks in these poorer nations. How easy will that be in view of the mind boggling red-tape?
Fourthly, is this a way of Uncle Sam drumming up business for her companies and allies under the guise of aiding the beleaguered continent? United States Consultancy, Taha Tech secured a $64 million consulting contract and Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s African Governance Initiative was not left out in the largesse as they clinched a $3 million deal.
Fifthly, will this project outlive Obama whose term will be coming to an end next year? His Democratic Party suffered a devastating defeat in last year’s mid-term elections while the EXIM and OPIC are battling for survival in Congress.
Sixthly, there is the perennial issue of corruption which has made nonsense of such noble initiatives in the past. Former Central Bank Governor and current Emir of Kano, Sanusi Lamido Sanusi opened the can of worms in 2013 when he alleged that $20 billion was not remitted to Nigeria’s coffers by the state owned NNPC. The Tanzanian Parliament is currently reviewing a report on graft in the energy sector. What is the assurance that these funds will not develop wings as has been the sad case of how the local bureaucracy can act as a clog in the wheel of progress? The anti-corruption laws are still rather weak with too few successful prosecutions for the big fishes.
Seventhly, privatization is a key requirement needed to be met by the aforementioned countries. That exercise is still riddled with graft and nepotism in Nigeria for example. The privatization of the power sector didn’t alleviate the suffering of the hapless hoi polloi. Rather it merely transferred the ownership of strategic power plants to individuals who had access to the government at the centre and in most cases bought it at giveaway prizes. There are still unexplained questions that trailed the controversial sales of some government assets when Mallam Nasir El-Rufai, the current Governor of Kaduna state held sway at the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE). The system has a way of stifling progressive ideas and initiatives.
Africa’s development can only come from within as experienced with the Asian Tigers. Let us cast our minds back at the US/Africa summit held in Washington last year. It was crystal clear that there was an agenda by Obama to prevent African nations from using coal under the guise of meeting climate ambitions. The developmental needs of the continent were coldly ignored who badly need roust energy to succeed. There are significant coal reserves in the continent that can be used to provide sufficient electricity beyond the cook stove and light bulb ‘solutions’ that is the focus of many of the so called international development agencies. The recent draft proposal for Sustainable Development Goals is unclear on how it purports to meet the gargantuan needs of the continent. The target set by the International Energy Agency is a mere five hours a day. How will this meet the demands of hospitals, schools, industries and businesses both large and small scale? Rather than crying wolf as to climate issues, the question should be how can coal be utilized without compromising the environment? Pragmatic solutions should be sought rather than the problems being magnified. It is still possible to strike a balance between the two.
For how long will Sovereign African States outsource their brains to the West? Our power problems should be solved ourselves with our peculiar technology rather than waiting for manna from the west that always turns out to be worse than a little lad crying his eyes out for a piece of candy in the moon.