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New African | Thursday, 06 September 2012 11:57

For Africa, Energy Is Destiny

Energy is as vital to the economic wellbeing of a nation as food is vital to the health of a person. Energy sufficiency invariably leads to greater and more efficient activity and economic growth; energy deficiency translates into sluggish activity, higher costs, lower production and declining rates of growth. In terms of energy, the continent is starving in the midst of plenty. The Boston University African Presidential Centre brought together some of the most critical players, from government, the private sector and international organisations in the energy space to Johannesburg to work out a policy framework that will deliver Africa’s energy needs over the medium term. In this article, Ambassador Stith argues that Africa’s energy landscape should concern not only Africa but advanced nations such as the US as well.

Question: What could cause over a hundred of the world’s foremost problem solvers to come to Johannesburg at the invitation of nine former African heads of state and government? The answer is an international powwow on Africa’s 21st century energy challenges. This policy forum was organised by the Boston University African Presidential Centre and supported by such diverse entities as USAID, McGuireWoods, CAMAC Energy, and Africa-based Safika Holdings, Liberty and Standard Bank. The principle venue was the University of the Witwatersrand, which was celebrating its 90th Anniversary.

There is an emerging consensus that this could well be the African century. This is based on more than inspired hope and lofty rhetoric. This view about Africa’s future reflects the reality on the ground. More than 650m African citizens live in countries where their economies are organised along free market lines. While the rest of the world continues to be mired in recession, the majority of African countries are racking up positive rates of growth.

On the governance front, things are equally impressive. Despite the media’s infatuation with Africa’s failed states, democracy will clearly define Africa’s future. Ten years ago there were 11 democratically retired African heads of state and government; today there are 34! Coups d’état are no longer an acceptable pathway to office. Africa’s leaders are now running for office and as important, leaving office.

There is cause for optimism in terms of Africa’s future; but similarly there is cause for that optimism to be tempered by caution. If Africa is going to deliver on its promise, further development is the key. If the continent is going to overcome its development gap, it must overcome its energy gap. The old pejorative that Africa is the “dark continent” is true in one respect – viz, energy. The extent to which Africa can meet its energy demands will determine the extent to which it develops. For Africa, energy is destiny.

While meeting its energy demands is Africa’s problem, the challenge is not Africa’s alone. From an American perspective, there is more than ample evidence that this is the case. A recent edition of the Nature Climate Change journal projects that by 2100 there will be increased flood risks from Boston to Norfolk because of global warming. While Africa moves to secure its energy future, as an American – more specifically as a Bostonian – how Africa increases its energy supply has profound implications for my future as well.

America has a stake in Africa becoming a proving ground for new technologies rather than a dumping ground for old technologies, which is key if the continent is going to contribute to mitigating the problem of global warming. The good news is that the continent is making some strides in this regard. Organisations like USAID are in the forefront of helping Africa develop clean and sustainable energy strategies. USAID is doing projects all across the continent.

It is involved in capacity building, transaction advisory, policy making and mapping support to a variety of power projects in Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia and South Africa.

As I said, that such initiatives are being launched is the good news. The other news is that such projects are just a start. Ultimately, Africa’s ability to attain energy security rests on political leadership, policy, and its people.

Political leaders at every level will need to lead the necessary country and continental dialogue that must take place if energy security is going to get the sustained attention it needs. As policy issues go, energy isn’t sexy; but it is serious. Because dealing with energy security is a long-term challenge, it requires sustained political will. There were a number of important recommendations put forward at the policy summit we convened:

Supra-regional structures

Africa needs supra-regional structures in the development of energy strategies; this means that African governments need to coordinate their development plans at the continental level so as to ensure continent-wide energy security.

The nations included in these supra-regional blocs must provide: political stability and commitment; consistent regulatory environment, especially compliance and enforcement; complementary growth rates and strategies; compatible tax law, especially incentives for renewable energy; and a comprehensive energy plan for each bloc that addresses each sector’s needs (industry, government, business, residential, transportation).

This is the point at which politics and policy meet. There have been innumerable suggestions and summits focused on the need for coordinated strategies to attain energy security. Yet progressing beyond talk to action is a problem.

To move beyond the gridlock, African leaders at every level must first recognise that the problem exists. By engaging a broader expanse of Africans (and friends of Africa) in this conversation, hopefully it will result in gaining enough momentum to move from dialogue to decisions on cooperative strategies to achieve energy security over the next 50 years.

Beyond politics and policy, Africa’s people, particularly its next generation, must get personally invested in solving Africa’s energy security challenge. For Africa to fulfil its potential and increase its energy capacity will require a tremendous infusion of human resources in the energy sector. Over the next five decades Africa will need: 40,000 C1 technicians; 30,000 C2 technicians; 17,000 engineers and 7,000 research scientists.

The call for Africa’s young people to rise to the occasion and look at training in these fields is the contribution they must make if Africa is to fulfil its future promise. In securing Africa’s energy future, they can either be a part of the solution or a part of the problem.

Public and private partnerships

Many of the first-generation contracts and compacts that African governments negotiated with multinational corporations and multilateral organisations did not yield fair and reasonable returns for many African countries. In recent years, many African governments have revisited the laws and regulations that provided the framework for previous agreements to explore and exploit Africa’s resource potential.

The rules and regulations for how Africa’s resources get tapped have changed. There are new, and some cases, increased requirements, for expanded local procurement and employment opportunities for country nationals.

These sorts of initiatives are welcomed and important; but there is also a necessity for a higher standard of corporate citizenship on the part of companies doing business in Africa. Companies cannot be satisfied with simply complying with baseline legal requirements but must look for other ways to bring value-added to the countries in which they do business that reflect a greater sense of moral obligation. These are just a few examples of the role US public and private sectors can play.

To end on the note on which I started, energy is destiny for this continent on the move. Given the leadership, and commitment to partnership that I saw displayed in Johannesburg at the Summit my centre hosted, I believe that Africa’s destiny of hope and promise will be fulfilled.

* Ambassador Stith served as US Ambassador to Tanzania in the Clinton Administration and is director of the Boston University African Presidential Centre.

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