The East African Crude Oil Pipeline will make Uganda and Tanzania billions of dollars of much-needed revenue, but this fossil fuel project is rushing headlong into the complexities and the paradoxes of global climate politics.
Since 2006, when commercially viable deposits of oil were discovered in western Uganda, the government has been trying to get that oil to international markets.
Its solution is a 1 443km pipeline that will stretch across Uganda and northern Tanzania to the port of Tanga.
The East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) will also make Uganda and Tanzania billions of dollars of much-needed revenue. But, as the world grapples with the threat of climate change, this fossil fuel project is rushing headlong into the complexities and the paradoxes of global climate politics.
In September, the European Union parliament passed a motion that called for an end to all oil exploration and extraction activities in Uganda.
It said the international community must “exert maximum pressure on Ugandan and Tanzanian authorities” to protect sensitive ecosystems, and asked French oil giant TotalEnergies to pause its involvement there for at least a year, and to explore alternative projects based on renewable energy instead.
China’s state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation is the other major player involved in the pipeline project.
The EU’s resolution reignited the #StopEACOP campaign, which is backed by 260 civil society organisations.
Campaigners warn that the pipeline will violate the human rights of the people who will be displaced by its construction, and may threaten the region’s water supplies. It will also double Uganda and Tanzania’s annual carbon emissions, according to a recent analysis by the Climate Accountability Institute.
“It is time for TotalEnergies to abandon the monstrous EACOP that promises to worsen the climate crisis, waste billions of dollars that could be used for good, and bring mayhem to human settlements and wildlife along the pipeline’s path,” said Richard Heede, the institute’s founder.
The Ugandan government does not agree with this assessment. It points out that Uganda is much better than Europe in renewable energy use, with 80% of the country’s energy coming from renewable sources such as hydropower, solar and biomass.
A report by the German Agency for International Cooperation said that although the country has many renewable energy resources, these are untapped. Hydropower is the largest source of renewable electricity at about 2 000 megawatts (mid-2021). But bioenergy, (biomass and biogas) accounts for about 94% of the country’s total energy consumption, with charcoal most commonly used in urban areas and firewood and organic material from crops in rural areas.
The government says its total emissions since 1750 are less than a hundredth of those of Belgium, the seat of the EU. It argues that the new pipeline will provide the funding necessary to invest in even more renewable energy. And the increased energy supply will save the country’s rainforests, it says. If people have access to electricity, they won’t need to chop down trees for firewood, which causes deforestation.
Ugandan officials are outraged that the EU should accuse Uganda of failing to protect the environment. The African continent contributes just 3.8% of global carbon emissions but this figure is distorted by South Africa, which is one of the biggest polluters in the world.
The EU parliament’s intervention regarding the pipeline represents “the highest level of neo-colonialism and imperialism against the sovereignty of Uganda and Tanzania”, said Thomas Tayebwa, the deputy speaker of Uganda’s parliament.
Nor is it lost on Uganda that when Europe’s energy needs were under pressure, because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, European leaders summarily increased their reliance on oil and gas.
“This is the purest hypocrisy. We will not accept one rule for them and another rule for us,” Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, said in a recent statement.
The Ugandan government’s outrage may be understandable, but it is not especially helpful, said Dickens Kamugisha, who runs the Kampala-based African Institute for Energy Governance. “Arrogance will not help us,” he said.
The Europeans may be hypocritical, he said, but that does not mean the East African pipeline makes sense for Uganda.
“After all, the over $5-billion required for EACOP will come from the West or China. You want loans from someone but you don’t want that person to ask you questions? Let us be humble.”
Besides, he adds, the grandstanding would be more understandable if the Ugandan government could be trusted to follow through on its own promises and fix the other barriers that prevent people from getting electricity. For example: it does not matter how much renewable power Uganda generates if eight in 10 Ugandans remain off the grid.
Nor will all those planned billions change anything if they disappear into the pockets of the ruling elite.
Winnie Ngabiirwe, the executive director of Global Rights Alert, said the government promises that the pipeline will bring untold economic benefits to Uganda, but “the efforts to address corruption tell us a different story”.
This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here.