With tensions between Russia and Nato over Ukraine remaining high, various scenarios are being worked out for the near future. The US and its Nato allies are clear that there will be consequences for Moscow should there be a Russian invasion of Ukraine. In fact, US President Joe Biden has suggested imposing personal sanctions against Russian President Vladimir Putin should he cross the line. It has also been suggested in recent weeks that Russia could be cut off from the global banking system by removing it from the SWIFT network.
If that happens, senior Russian officials say that shipments of Russian gas and oil to Europe will stop. In fact, Russia provides Europe with more than 40% of its natural gas supply. Another possible casualty is the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that is projected to double the amount of gas flowing from Russia straight to Germany. The US state department has said that the pipeline will not move forward if Russia invades Ukraine. In other words, energy transfers between Russia and Europe could get severely disrupted in both cases – if Russia decides to weaponise energy projects or if Moscow sends troops into Ukraine.
This presents a serious problem for Europe. And while efforts are underway to work out contingency plans in case of energy disruptions, a long-term solution is desperately needed. The only viable way Europe can wean itself off Russian gas is by investing in and fast tracking inter-continental energy projects with Africa. The latter can supply Europe with all its energy needs and benefit itself from such transfers. True, this is not without challenges given the development status of many African nations as well as political/ security instability in some African nations. Which is precisely why both a reliable source and a safe route need to be worked out to transfer energy from Africa to Europe.
Currently, energy links already exist between Europe and Africa via the Maghreb-Europe Gas pipeline linking the Hassi R’mel field in Algeria through Morocco with Spain, and the Medgaz pipeline directly linking Algeria to Spain. However, last November, Algeria decided to close the Maghreb-Europe Gas pipeline due to ongoing political tensions with Morocco. That in turn has its roots in the dispute over the Moroccan Sahara where the separatist group Polisario Front backed by Algeria has been trying to create a fictitious Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. The latter is neither recognised by the Arab League nor the UN. But Algeria continues to support the Polisario as a proxy to undermine Morocco’s growing influence in the international arena.
However, the US in December 2020 had recognised Moroccan sovereignty over the Moroccan Sahara and proceeded to open an American consulate in Dakhla. Nonetheless, Algeria’s intransigence means its relations with Morocco deteriorated in 2021 which is now affecting energy exports to Europe due to the closure of the Maghreb-Europe Gas pipeline. Therefore, if Africa is to serve Europe’s energy needs a different source and route need to be worked out. And currently the only project capable of meeting this demand is the Morocco-Nigeria Trans-African Gas Pipeline project. Conceived in 2016, the more than 5,000 km and $25 billion pipeline project plans to export Nigerian natural gas to multiple West African nations and via Morocco to Europe.
The proposed route of the Morocco-Nigeria pipeline too is a viable one as it builds upon the already existing West African Gas Pipeline that transports Nigerian gas to Benin, Togo and Ghana via sea link. Extending this sea-based pipeline along the West African Atlantic coast through countries such as Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Conakry, Guinea-Bissau, Senegal, Mauritania and Morocco is ambitious but practical. And from Morocco the gas can be easily transported to Spain and Europe. True, there is also the proposed Nigeria-Algeria trans-Sahara gas pipeline which has been talked about for years. But that project is going nowhere given that the proposed route is highly unfeasible as it traverses large stretches of restive territory in the Sahara Desert where governance systems are weak.
Plus, after the abrupt closure of the Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline, one isn’t sure if Algeria can be relied upon for future exports of gas to Europe. Therefore, in the long term, the Morocco-Nigeria pipeline can become the main energy artery for Europe, providing it with an important strategic hedge against Russian gas exports. Thus, Europe must not only press to quickly actualise the Morocco-Nigeria pipeline, but also shun designs by some actors to keep the Moroccan Sahara issue simmering. It should firmly follow the US’s lead on the Moroccan Sahara issue and enhance stability in North Africa, which in turn will help guarantee European energy security through the Moroccan-Nigerian pipeline. The choice for Europe is clear.