The EU’s “hijacking” of an African clean energy initiative threatens to leave millions in the dark

A US$10 billion initiative to boost energy in Africa by adding 10 gigawatts of renewables on the continent by 2020 is facing an uncertain future, as civil society groups have clashed with the European Commission and France over how to run the program.

The African Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) was conceived at the 2015 COP21 climate summit in Paris, where world leaders agreed to slash greenhouse gases by investing in renewable energy. However, African civil society organisations (CSOs) now accuse Europe of “hijacking” the initiative.

In a joint statement, a coalition of CSOs from across the continent charged European donors with attempting to exert inappropriate influence over the initiative.

The groups accused the Europeans of seeking to divide its African partners and drive the AREI away from its “values of people-centred approaches, community rights, equity and a bold vision of Africa taking a global lead towards flourishing societies powered by clean, renewable energy.”

The controversy stems from the Commission’s “undue approval” of 19 pre-existing renewable energy projects despite the objections of several African board members and despite the fact that “none of the projects had been evaluated based on AREI criteria,” according to Brandon Wu of ActionAid USA.

At a 4 March meeting in Conakry, Guinea, the French Environment Minister Ségolène Royal and the European Union Commissioner for International Development Neven Mimica presented the AREI’s Independent Delivery Unit (IDU) head Youba Sokona with a list of 19 pre-selected projects.

They asked him to present them to the AREI board, despite the fact he had only seen the list two days earlier.

In addition, neither France nor the European Commission sits on the AREI board. Sokona, a well-respected figure with decades of experience in global energy and climate change, refused and subsequently resigned. Royal later announced the nomination of a new head, Seyni Nafo of Mali.

“While we acknowledge that the EU has scaled up support for African renewables since COP21 in Paris, these most recent behaviours are completely unacceptable,” said the coalition of African civil society groups in the joint statement which was issued by the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance (PACJA).

The EU’s contribution to these “new projects” amounts to something in the figure of €300 million (US$330 million), less than 7 per cent of the €4.8 billion (US$5.3 billion) investment pledged.

One of the projects, the Tendaho geothermal field in Ethiopia, for example, was launched in 2014 before the AREI was established. Another, the North Core 330kV Transmission Line between Nigeria and Niger via Burkina Faso and Benin, is a regional infrastructure project and it would be misleading to characterise it as a new renewable energy project, according to observers.

“Recycling existing projects as ‘new’ ones for AREI virtually ensures it will fail to meet its goal of 10 billion watts of ‘new and additional renewable energy generation capacity by 2020’, leaving Africans in the dark,” said the African CSOs.

Respecting African sovereignty

Over 100 international civil society groups – including Oxfam, WWF, Friends of the Earth and ActionAid – issued their own statement in support of their African colleagues and condemning the actions of the EU and France, stating:

’’AREI will simply not work if its core principles are undermined from the outset.
AREI is an African-led initiative that, with proper governance, has the potential to address the energy needs of African peoples and the planet’s climate challenges.

’’Only by respecting the initiative’s African sovereignty, ensuring projects are aligned with AREI criteria, and providing genuine support can the EU and France help to meet these goals,’’ the groups said.

The EU has defended its actions saying that it was acting in the spirit of cooperation and support for the AREI, including the development of its governance structures. In a statement issued after the 4 March meeting, the Commission said it remained committed to “its leading role in the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative” by turning its “pledges into real projects with true impact on the ground”.

Carlos Gordejuela, an EU Commission spokesperson for Humanitarian Aid, Crisis Management, International Cooperation and Development, further elaborated to Equal Times in an email exchange that the AREI board “decided by consensus to endorse 19 projects presented, including 14 identified by the European Commission and EU Member States plus 5 presented at the COP22 meeting.”

Sam Ogallah, programme manager at PACJA, expressed his disappointment that African governments had so far remained silent for fear of jeopardising their relationships with the EU. “We’ve heard nothing from African governments on this matter…but we [civil society] will do everything possible save the AREI,” he added.

Repeated requests by Equal Times to various governments and to Egyptian diplomat Wael Aboulmagd, who represents the African governments on the AREI board, to share their views on the developments, went unheeded.

However, Titilope Akosa, executive director for Centre for 21st Century Issues, a Nigerian NGO working to end inequality, told us that one of the most worrying aspects of the recent controversy was the way it undermined the participation of African women.

Despite the fact that over 600 million people in Africa lack access to power it is women who bear the brunt of energy poverty, particularly in rural areas, as women and girls are usually responsible for finding and using cooking fuels, which can impede on their access to education and work.

“Any project approved under this climate will not address the energy needs of African women,” she said.

“The promises of people-centred and gender responsive clean energy solutions capable of addressing the chronic energy poverty which affects women in Africa disproportionately – and which the AREI stands to reduce – may not be realised after all,” Akosa lamented.