The African continent has been increasingly in the sights of many global actors such as China, the United States of America, the European Union, Turkey, Japan, India and, more recently, the Russian Federation. The successor to the Soviet Union is not a new actor in Africa, but relations deteriorated with the collapse of the USSR at the end of the Cold War. Its renewed engagement, through its “Pivot to Africa” has been more niched, focusing in the areas of security, weapons trade, oil and gas. Russia’s Tochki rosta or “Points of Growth” – a principle of its 2035 energy strategy – has included a central role for nuclear energy and technology. This article will look specifically at Russia’s energy engagement in Africa and the potential for mutually beneficial relations.
The Infrastructure Consortium for Africa cautions that Africa is facing an energy deficit wherein approximately 620 million people do not have adequate access to clean, affordable and reliable electricity. The latest available statistics from the World Bank say that only 38.3% of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to electricity. Consequently, 600,000 people who resort to using wood fires die annually. The energy crisis in Africa has negative implications on overall economic growth, job creation, standards of living, healthcare and education.
Agenda 2063, the strategic framework for the development of the continent, calls for projects that will harness all African energy resources through the building of national and regional energy pools and grids. The aim is to develop clean power generation transmissions, implement high capacity oil and gas pipeline projects and enhance the exploitation of renewable energy resources.
Is Russia a strategic partner for energy development in Africa?
Russia is a powerful player in the global energy market. First, it has extensive domestic resources in oil and gas. Also, big Russian companies (Rosneft, Gazprom) have an obvious interest in oil and gas exploration in countries such as Egypt, Libya, Mozambique and Nigeria. In Algeria, Gazprom and Transneft are working together with Algeria’s Sonatrech on a pipeline construction project. However, it is in the area of nuclear energy and technology in Africa that Russia has been gradually building up partnerships.
A key element of Russia’s Energy Strategy to 2035 is developing and exporting nuclear energy goods and services, spurring infrastructure and technology development and driving economic growth. It has been in the field of nuclear energy that Russia has recognised its competitive advantage: Rosatom, Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation, was established in 2007, runs 340 enterprises and has 42 nuclear power projects under construction globally. In 2012 it established an office in South Africa to identify partners and suppliers capable of providing quality services and products for its projects across Africa.
The inaugural Russia-Africa Summit held in Sochi, Russia in October 2019 saw the attendance of some 43 African Heads of State, with representation from all 55 members of the African Union. The Summit Declaration calls for increased cooperation on issues pertaining to politics, trade and economics, security, environmental protection, legal cooperation and scientific, technical, humanitarian and information cooperation. On energy, it states that Russia and African countries will “promote energy security cooperation, including the diversification of energy resources, the use of renewable energy sources and implementation of joint projects in civil nuclear energy. Continue mutually beneficial cooperation in the oil and gas industry”.
Moscow has been in negotiations with 12 African countries (Egypt, Uganda, Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa, Nigeria, Sudan, Ethiopia, Republic of Congo, Zambia, Tanzania and Kenya) to cooperate in the nuclear energy sector. The agreement that probably garnered the most notoriety was the Intergovernmental Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Cooperation in Nuclear energy, signed between Rosatom and South Africa, to build eight nuclear reactors. While the controversial $76 billion nuclear energy deal was rendered unconstitutional in 2017, the South African government under president Cyril Ramaphosa has indicated that nuclear will remain part of the energy mix (coal, solar, hydro, photovoltaic, wind, gas and storage). On 18 October 2019, Minister Gwede Mantashe announced that South Africa will expand its nuclear energy, which will contribute 5% to energy volumes. However, a nuclear deal is not on the cards immediately, nor is it a done deal that it would go to Russia.
In October 2017, Nigeria and Rosatom signed agreements on the construction of a nuclear power plant from 2020. This had been preceded by the signing of the Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) in 2009 to cooperate in the peaceful use of atomic energy.
In the case of Egypt (which currently chairs the African Union and co-chaired the Russia-Africa Summit alongside Russia) Rosatom has signed a full contract undertaking 85% of the financing of its nuclear reactor. An advantage of the arrangement is that Russia also takes back spent nuclear fuel for storage and reprocessing, which mitigates environmental concerns raised by climate-change groups such as Friends of the Earth Nigeria and Southern African Faith Communities.
Egypt’s contract stipulates that Rosatom will provide a loan of $25 billion for their 4.5 gigawatt nuclear reactor construction. The loan instalments will be repayable after a grace period of four years at an interest rate of 3%. Projections estimate that by 2026 the nuclear plant will account for 50% of Egypt’s power generation capacity which will meet the country’s rising demand for electricity. The three additional reactors will be contracted by 2028.
Although nuclear power plants are believed to be fairly cost effective when it comes to maintenance and can operate for 60-80 years with little upkeep, the capital costs of building the plants are extremely high, and act as a constraint in the absence of a sustainable financing model. If nuclear energy is to become a feasible energy option for many African states, this dimension would need to be addressed to mitigate risks of liability and long-term debt repayment. The International Atomic Energy Agency advocates for a combination of a public-private sector financing model in the construction of nuclear plants. There is also the matter of how nuclear energy will be governed and regulated in Africa to meet international codes and standards. The Treaty of Pelindaba established the Africa Commission for Nuclear Energy (AFCONE) whose responsibilities, once operational, include safeguarding international standards of the peaceful use of atomic energy. Regrettably, the AFCONE Secretariat is not yet functional to provide this oversight.
Another important dimension to nuclear technology more broadly is research. Rwanda’s agreement with Rosatom includes a focus on applied research and the establishment of a nuclear research centre that will focus on medicine and the use of nuclear technology to transform agriculture, which accounts for 35% of Rwanda’s GDP. In Zambia Russia has constructed a Centre for Nuclear Science and Technology, which was launched in Lusaka in 2018. A similar centre was agreed with Nigeria.
There is wide scope for Russian-African energy cooperation. However, African countries should strategically leverage Rosatom’s expertise and experience to develop their energy sectors and negotiate contracts that are mutually beneficial and based on win-win cooperation. Africa needs to explore better funding models and strengthen compliance and regulatory mechanisms such as AFCONE to ensure that the peaceful use of nuclear energy helps to achieve some of its developmental challenges.