By Thandile Chinyavanhu, Greenpeace Africa’s Climate and Energy Campaigner

While global leaders have politically endorsed the scientific consensus to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, as stipulated in the Paris Agreement, there is a growing clamber for oil and gas exploration in the Global South. A clamber that brings to mind the Scramble for Africa. 

The Scramble for Africa was a short-lived history lesson that was basically skimmed over in high school classrooms; so for those who do not know, the Scramble for Africa was the rush to conquer, claim, and colonise parts of Africa by seven western countries in the late 1800s. 

This particular game of “empire” is now playing out again on a familiar playground; large portions of our oceans, valuable wetlands, and biodiversity hotspots are being partitioned. As Africans once again, we find ourselves fending off advances from imperial forces; only this time the charge is led by carbon majors Shell, British Petroleum (BP), Total Energies, and Exxon Mobil.

Carbon majors do not have the most stellar reputation in Africa, their relationship with the continent has often been an antagonistic one, upholding hegemony and often leading to acts of cruelty. When the discussion around the exploration of natural resources in Africa emerges, politicians often spew paternalistic rhetoric and remove the agency of communities and their self-determination. For instance, in the case of South Africa’s government coming to the defence of petroleum powerhouse, Shell, when it sought to explore for fossil fuels on the country’s coastline. 

This political response is particularly detrimental as this escalates from minimal public consultation to dealing with civil society politically, and ultimately with force. We have watched similar events play out across the continent for decades. 

A cache of evidence compiled by Amnesty International revealed Shell’s complicity in human rights violations the Nigerian military committed against the Ogoni people in the 1990s after they protested against Shell’s pollution. Shell encouraged the actions of the Nigerian military, fully aware of the threat of murder, rape, and torture, and in one instance, went so far as to pay a military commander — notorious for committing atrocious human rights violations — and even provided the military with material support. 

In the same decade, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission findings (gathered post-apartheid) fingered Shell for its complicity in aiding and abetting the apartheid regime in South Africa by helping the oil-scarce nation get around anti-apartheid oil embargoes in the 1980s. The human rights violations of these carbon majors continue into this century. 

These examples show that as more information emerges, it becomes evident that carbon majors had knowledge of climate change and actively engaged in climate denial, misinformation, obfuscation, and even engaged in tactics to weaken and delay climate policy in order to avoid accountability and continue their polluting practices. Now, as the tide signals a shift away from fossil fuels, these carbon majors continue to distract from the science by promoting the fallacy that gas is a low carbon feedstock through lobbying and strategically placed advertorials. 

The continued exploration of fossil fuels by major carbon-emitting corporations such as Shell and Total is in complete opposition to the global consensus on a “phase-down” (and ultimately a “phase-out”) of fossil fuel use towards low-carbon energy sources in the face of damning evidence, existing legal judgments compelling climate action, and mounting risk of litigation. 

Southern Africa continues to contend with carbon majors seeking exploration off-shore. Greenpeace Africa, its partner organisations, and affected communities contested the planned seismic survey (previously mentioned) by Impact and Shell off the Wild Coast of South Africa, the latter of the two cases, which proved successful in thwarting Shell’s attempts to destroy the environment in the short term. Now civil society sets its sights on the planned exploration in block 5/6/7 by South Africa Total Energies, Shell, and PetroSA across the 92,000 km stretch of ocean off the coast of the Western Cape — world-renowned for its beauty and rich biodiversity. 

In Mozambique, environmental justice organisations sought to stop fossil fuel companies from encroaching upon the Quirimbas Biosphere Reserve, threatening the livelihoods of local communities through disrupting access to potable water, interfering with the ability of fishers to provide for their families, and driving forced removals from ancestral land. Public consultation with the communities has been limited, and where undertaken, it has been marred by corruption and corporate hostility toward community members. 

BP has begun exploration of the Greater Tortue Ahmeyim, bordering Senegal and Mauritania. This project threatens to disrupt the highly biodiverse region and could contribute significantly to climate collapse. The first of several projects it intends to pursue in the region over the next 30 years. This project could contribute 2.2 billion metric tonnes of carbon emissions and use up 1% of our 1.5 degree Celsius carbon budget.

ReconAfrica’s oil exploration in the Okavango Basin has been marred by poor community consultation and environmental violations. The project has already caused disruption to the community's lives and threatened to displace them from their homes. ReconAfrica has recently been accused of the destruction of 2.5 km of pristine bushland within the Kapinga Kamwalye Conservancy, established for the protection of wildlife such as elephants. In addition, they are accused of improper handling of wastewater and allegedly bribing officials in exchange for their silence.

A case with emerging urgency and importance is the decision by the government of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) plans to auction 27 oil blocks and three gas blocks across the Coastal Basin, Cuvette Central, Graben Tanganyika, and Lake Kivu. Three of the oil blocks overlap with conservation areas, including the mega peatland complex. Scientists consider this one of the largest carbon sinks in the world, estimated to hold three years' worth of the world's total fossil fuel emissions. Peatlands have a crucial role to play in climate mitigation. The wetlands that are composed of decaying plant debris are responsible for removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it. Should these reserves be disrupted for industrial processes, billions of tonnes of carbon may be emitted into the atmosphere, leading to climate catastrophe. 

A study by the University of Oxford predicts that renewable energy will account for less than 10% of Africa’s electricity generation in 2030, while total generation will double. Africa is at a huge risk of being locked into a high emissions trajectory and being saddled with stranded fossil fuel assets. Multinational corporations have no intentions of ramping down production, they continue to acquire stakes in exploration blocks across the continent in an apparent game of monopoly, desperate to eke out profits from the fossil fuel industry before its social licence has completely waned.

Fossil fuel companies and African leaders continue to exhaust tired rhetoric of the white man’s burden to rationalise the plundering of resources at the expense of communities. They fail to recognise the harm of exploiting and infantilising these communities. Leaders need to be openly aware of this scramble for Africa’s fossil fuels, and what it is costing us, and our future generations. Make no mistake, this is simply neo-colonialism.

This article is part of Global Citizen's content partnership with Greenpeace Africa. You can learn more about Greenpeace Africa and its campaigns here


Defend the Planet

Fossil Fuel Companies Are Continuing the Scramble for Africa & We Need to Talk About It