Will Africa be the last oil frontier?

The current run on Africa’s oil resources has strong echoes with the continent’s colonial past. The global movement’s task is to not let corporations get away with it.

Photo by Yasmine Arfaoui on Unsplash

A major struggle over resources is unfolding in Southern Africa. In the wildlife preserves of the Okavango delta—home to 200,000 people and spanning parts of Namibia and Botswana—a Canadian oil company is drilling for oil over the fierce opposition of indigenous people, activists, and environmental experts. The company, Reconnaissance Energy Africa—known as ReconAfrica—has a plan objectionable to virtually everyone except its investors and Namibia and Botswana government partners, who have granted permits for exploratory tests: it promises to unleash untold levels of pollution, destruction of water supplies and farmland, the eviction of residents from their land, and permanent harm to animals, including endangered species. ReconAfrica’s rush for what they are calling “largest oil play of the decade” is nothing short of devastating, profit-fueled extraction, with strong echoes of Africa’s colonial past.

ReconAfrica: Drilling at any cost

It’s difficult to overestimate the destructive potential of ReconAfrica’s plans. Investigative journalists, area residents, and activists have accumulated a vast body of evidence of the dangers to Okavango, demolishing the company’s claims to adequate safety measures. As a result, resistance to the drilling plan is growing, along with international attention. National Geographic launched a series of articles in the fall of 2020 condemning the immense threats posed to the wildlife, livelihoods, and environment in the region. Among the most serious is the potential for water contamination, in an area with scarce water supplies. The Okavango is a wetland fed by an inland delta, the region’s major water source. As the one of the articles explains, “Any contamination to the aquifer will be all but impossible to contain and clean up.” ReconAfrica’s license to explore lies adjacent to the main river of the Okavango delta, and exploratory drilling is being carried out 160 miles upstream. Critics of the project have raised serious concerns about the lack of analysis in the environmental impact assessment (EIA) of the effects on ground and surface water, especially given the vast amount of water that drilling requires. In fact, the dangers posed to the water supply affect not only Okavango, but roughly half the population of Namibia, a largely arid country where the river supports the water security of more than one million people. Namibia has already experienced frightening degrees of warming, at a rate outpacing that of other regions.

The National Geographic series lays out, in painful detail, the danger posed to the area’s wildlife: 

The Okavango region is home to the largest herd of African elephants on Earth and myriad other animals—African wild dogs, lions, leopards, giraffes, amphibians and reptiles, birds—and rare flora … including important migratory routes for the world’s largest remaining elephant population … Wild animals use the entire region, which is why Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have created the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). Bigger than Italy, it’s the largest conservation area on the continent. ReconAfrica’s licensed areas overlap with this huge international park.

The danger that the company could pursue hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the Okavango looms large. ReconAfrica has not received a license to frack from the Namibian government, and earlier references to the possibility of using “unconventional methods” (i.e., fracking) have disappeared from their website. Company spokespeople insist that fracking is off the table. Yet a number of senior executives made their reputations by fracking, including CEO Scot Evans, formerly of oil multinational Halliburton. Drilling operations are headed up by none other than the geologist credited with developing the fracking method, Nick Steinsberger, described by an industry publication as “one of the men who made the American shale boom happen.”

South African geologist Jan Arkert believes, however, that fracking will be required to extract the oil from the soil, and that harmful emissions will therefore be released into the atmosphere. Despite the dangers, company representatives joyfully declare the potential for 120 billion barrels of oil equivalent, numbers potentially “laughable because they are so high.” But it’s not only the exploratory glee that mimics the tone of colonial adventurers of over a century ago. ReconAfrica’s public relations spin comes with promises for the people of Namibia and Botswana, and supposed improvements in their way of life, including jobs. But, as with many extractive projects, the drilling is not labor intensive, so the project is not expected to lead to many new jobs; moreover, the skilled jobs on-site are held mainly by workers from Canada and the US. In fact, jobs for residents in the region have been mostly limited to short-term manual labor, and in some cases, workers have been fired after a brief stint and their pay withheld; according to activist Ina-Maria Shikongo of the organization Fridays for Future Windhoek, when the labor commissioner went to investigate, he himself was slapped with a lawsuit by the company. In fact, ReconAfrica has taken pains to emphasize their ostensible “strong social license” and eagerly talk up their efforts at community engagement through a series of public meetings in the region. But, as numerous accounts have described, their outreach was fraught with problems: public notices were only distributed in English—a language not spoken by a majority of the residents—and the sessions themselves, limited due to COVID-19-related restrictions, have included only a small number of people.

The company’s behavior has been so egregious that a lawsuit has been brought by the family of Andreas Sinonge in Mbambi, whose farm is located near the second borehole—one of over 600 working farms that lie within ReconAfrica’s exploration area, some of which are irrigated with water from the Okavango River. Intending to bring the company and several government ministries before the Namibian High Court, they argue that they never consented to the drilling and that ReconAfrica is squatting illegally.

Indigenous resistance and community organizing

In the face of this corporate aggression, the indigenous San people of the Okavango have mobilized and spoken out in protest. They argue that the area should be protected under commitments of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to the “cultural landscape” accompanying its designation as a World Heritage site. Further, they continue, the exploration violates the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the commitments to protect the environment enshrined in the Namibian constitution. As a result of protest against the violation of the site, ReconAfrica was compelled to accept an exemption for the Tsodilo Hills of the UNESCO-designated area—a small section of the exploration area, but a victory nonetheless.

Activists have been moving into action both locally and internationally. Fridays for Future Windhoek, Frack Free Namibia and Botswana, the Kavango Alive activist network, and Saving Okavango’s Unique Life (SOUL), among others, have grown their resistance over the past year through a series of marches on UNESCO offices, the parliament, and government ministries. In April 2021, Earth Day—and on the heels of US president Joe Biden’s Leaders’ Climate Summit—protesters in Namibia’s capital city, Windhoek, delivered letters to US and German ambassadors. The letter read, in part: … When President Biden said yesterday, “We have to move. We have to move quickly to meet these challenges,” surely this meant stopping even the slightest damage to one of the world’s most delicate and magnificent surviving eco-systems, especially in the name of dirty energy!

In the face of activists’ assertion of their right to say no, the regional governments have insisted, on the contrary, on their “right to explore.” Notwithstanding strong environmental protections in the Namibian constitution, and the fact that both Namibia and Botswana are parties to the Paris Agreement, aspirations for resource nationalism on the part of both have remained firm. In a joint state–corporation press release, Namibian minister of mines and energy, Thomas Alweendo, extolled the initial drilling results as a “great period for the people of Namibia,” hinting at hypocrisy in the idea that the global South should be denied any potential developmental extraction offers. Meanwhile, according to Ina-Maria Shikongo, activists critical of the government’s actions are branded as “outsiders,” and as hostile to the opportunities on offer for indigenous people. ReconAfrica, for their part, has welcomed the government as “one of the friendliest regimes for explorers.”

Extraction in Africa and the “net zero” era

The calls for net-zero emissions and curbs on fossil fuel exploitation have created contradictions where the world’s oil companies face urgent demands to transition to sustainable fuel sources, at the same time that oil is becoming profitable again. During the pandemic, prices crashed globally because of a glut in supply, even dipping into negative territory in the early stages of the crisis. Today, a new oil boom could be around the corner, with prices creeping upward. But even in the economic downturn of 2020, consumption still averaged 91 million barrels a day—more than the world consumed daily in 2012. The world’s largest banks have provided $3.8 trillion to fossil fuel companies since 2016, when the Paris Agreement took effect; global banks provided $750 billion in financing to coal, oil, and gas companies in 2020 alone. At the same time, costs for a “sustainable transition” are enormous, where energy investment will need to rise to $5 trillion a year by 2030 to achieve net zero, from $2 trillion today. These tensions exert contradictory pressures on the fossil fuel industry in a number of directions, the result of a wider capitalist economy inextricably tied to competition and profit: how to invest in new technologies while maintaining a way to profit through extractive industries.

Likewise, global powers claiming the mantle of “net-zero” aspirations are embarking on a new period of “green imperialism.” These are the dynamics of the “sustainable transition,” and activist forces and the left must understand this new terrain as one on which we are compelled to fight. ReconAfrica is on a no-holds-barred drive to extract profit for as long as that window of opportunity remains open. And because of mounting pressures on the industry, its tendency to cut regulatory corners, as reported by environmentalists and activists—no matter the cost to communities and wildlife—will only intensify. On the one hand, a small, “junior” oil company like ReconAfrica cannot go it alone: as the company itself has stated, they will need the bigger resources of an oil major to step in and pull off the exploration success they claim lies in the Okavango. Given these pressures, when National Geographic revealed, on May 21, the existence of a whistleblower Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) complaint against the company—citing more than 150 instances of false and misleading statements to investors—the news was shocking but not entirely surprising. In response, ReconAfrica hurriedly filed 22 amendments with Canadian securities regulators and lashed out at the magazine for running “false” statements and a “hit piece.”

On the other hand, in the “net-zero” landscape, Big Oil needs “wildcatters” like ReconAfrica: small companies willing to take risks in “unexplored” territory, who can continue to deliver a return on investment in fossil fuels in less heavily regulated regions of the world. In this context, oil majors might be more compelled to sell off their assets to producers more willing to buck the pressures towards “greening” their enterprise. In late May 2021, an avalanche of change—from stockholder rebellions at Shell, Exxon, and Chevron to a groundbreaking court ruling in the Netherlands compelling Shell Oil to slash emissions by 45 percent by 2030 compared to 2019 levels—are only the latest developments for high-profile companies like BP and Shell who had already made “net-zero” commitments.

The fossil fuel industry is fighting for its future in Okavango and other extraction “hot spots” across the continent. Extraction continues under the guise of these “new finds” by companies, like ReconAfrica, who opt to violate regulations and human rights. With historically weaker regulatory enforcement, countries of the global South will be likely destinations for these “last great discoveries.” As Francois Engelbrecht of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa explained to CNN, “The big risk is that the global North makes the transition, and that Africa becomes the dumping ground for the world’s fossil fuel technologies—the last place where this kind of energy is being pursued.” A 2020 study, for example, found that European oil exported to Nigeria exceeded EU pollution limits by as much as 204 times. Ina-Maria Shikongo describes the stakes well: It’s slavery on another level, it’s a continuation of colonialism. The transition has to be about saving lives, so everyone has a fair share. We have all of the raw materials but we live in poverty, but it’s an imposed poverty.

While Big Oil and governments of the global North advocate for market-based, “net-zero” so-called solutions to the crisis, frontline struggles underscore the actual stakes: the oil industry—super-majors and “junior” operators alike—will not leave the fossil fuel world stage quietly. Fortunately, the global resistance continues to grow, accelerated in no small part by struggles like the one in Okavango that is helping to reshape the terms of this fight beyond its borders. The coalitions knitted together to stop ReconAfrica in Namibia and Botswana both put the worst, most outrageous abuses on full display in Southern Africa and likewise provide strength and insights for the wider movement. As Ndaundika Shefeni of SOUL remarks, “As opposition grows across the region and world, unlikely alliances are forming of spiritual leaders, cultural organizations, conservation charities and grassroots community groups.”

These are the forces that will most decisively stop extraction and avert a climate emergency, on terms to meet the needs and interests of ordinary people, including those currently in the crosshairs of profit-fueled extraction. This is the strategic vision embraced by activists across the continent and beyond, some fighting for decades, as they continue to challenge disastrous oil exploration, from Nigeria’s Niger delta region—the site of drilling for three-quarters of a century—to the new East African Crude Oil Pipeline planned to run through Uganda and Tanzania, home to world-famous wildlife preserves. As Nigerian environmental activist Nnimmo Bassey puts it, “Now is the time for ReconAfrica to spare Okavango, [and] the people of Namibia and Africa, the avoidable harms which will result from their mindless pursuit of profit at the expense of the people and planet. Anything less will be nothing other than willful climate and ecological crimes.”

The global movement will not let them get away with it.

This was first published in a special “Africa” issue of the journal, New Politics. It is republished with kind permission of the editors.

About the Author

Lee Wengraf is the author of Extracting Profit: Imperialism, Neoliberalism, and the New Scramble for Africa (Haymarket Books 2018 and re-issued by Daraja Press in 2021) and a contributing editor at the Review of African Political Economy.

Further Reading