China’s Oil Gambit in Africa’s Conflict Zones

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China’s Oil Gambit in Africa’s Conflict Zones

Across the continent, China is doubling down on energy investments even in the face of local opposition and violent conflict.

China’s Oil Gambit in Africa’s Conflict Zones

A Chinese worker from China Oilfield Services Limited (COSL), a contractor for China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC), stands by machinery next to the drilling rig at the Kingfisher oil field on the shores of Lake Albert in the Kikuube district of western Uganda, Jan. 24, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Hajarah Nalwadda

As China, the United States, and other players jockey for position in present and future energy sectors, the African continent faces a pivotal moment in its oil and gas industry. With abundant hydrocarbon discoveries and soaring prices, African countries confront a critical decision: stick with their vast oil and gas reserves or make a decisive shift by embracing renewables.

At times, the energy competition is high-risk and high-reward. Despite the challenges associated with operating in volatile regions of Uganda, South Sudan, and Nigeria, foreign companies persist in pursuing oil exploration ventures. This has raised concerns about energy ventures exacerbating existing conflicts, fueling instability, and perpetuating human rights abuses. 

China’s oil exploration activities in these conflict zones have the potential to complicate regional dynamics and trigger geopolitical tensions among competing powers. As the African continent is poised to become a big player in energy markets, the decisions made by African countries will have far-reaching implications – not only for the affected regions but also for global markets.

The origins of this complex game can be traced back to the colonial era. The Europeans made the initial move, drilling for oil as part of their expansionist agenda. After gaining independence in the mid-20th century, African nations strategically forked their paths, seeking to reclaim control over their assets and resources.

In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, China emerged as a player, maneuvering to gain control of certain parts of the oil and gas industry on the continent. China’s strategic maneuvers involve bankrolling the ruling elites in many African countries, expected oil resources in exchange. Rather than making moves to promote peace and mediate between warring parties, China prefers to be a supplier of cash in exchange for resources.

Now, however, China is encountering resistance. Local communities demand a share of the wealth and threaten to disrupt China’s strategic plans.

A war in Sudan is currently being fought between two conflicting generals, causing a major humanitarian crisis. In Sudan, China’s approach is on full display – but not for the first time. 

Since the 1990s, Beijing has strategically tapped into Sudan’s oil reserves and provided material support to African elites dealing with the insurgency in restive South Sudan and the Darfur region. Even after the South gained independence, which happened following U.S. involvement, China has maintained its presence in the oilfields, and the relationship has grown symbiotically.

As the newly established Republic of South Sudan plunged into civil war, China quickly fortified its positions, negotiating the protection of its valuable oil and gas assets.

However, despite a peace agreement in place, political and ethnic tensions have persisted, threatening to initiate another conflict. Also, the health and environmental concerns of the people living near China’s oil exploration fields have been left unattended, as if the people there were mere expendable pieces on a gameboard.

Furthermore, across the border in Uganda, China made a move earlier this year akin to a strategic gambit. The East African Crude Oil Pipeline, envisioned to run from oil fields in Uganda through Tanzania to reach the Indian Ocean, has become a lightning rod of controversy. Activists fear the pipeline will harm the environment, and millions of people relying on it. Human Rights Watch said in a recent report that the pipeline has already “has devastated thousands of people’s livelihoods in Uganda.

“EACOP has been a disaster for the tens of thousands who have lost the land that provided food for their families and an income to send their children to school…” Felix Horne, a senior environment researcher at HRW said in the report’s release. “EACOP is also a disaster for the planet and the project should not be completed.”

In addition to the environmental and human rights concerns, the pipeline runs through a volatile corner of the region. Merely a few miles away, an Islamist insurgency persists, launching attacks on civilian and military targets, thus posing a threat to the newly established infrastructure. Given the controversy, Western lenders bowed out of the project – but China was there to step up, with its Export-Import Bank and “several other Chinese banks” set to provide the $3 billion needed to build the pipeline.

China’s strategic maneuver has already stirred unrest among local communities and activists. People are being uprooted from their lands without proper compensation for a debt-laden project that will empower Ugandan elites and is already shrinking the country’s chances for sustainable growth.

On the opposite side of Africa, China is also heavily involved in risky and controversial energy exploration projects.

In Nigeria’s tumultuous Delta region, oil infrastructure not only causes environmental degradation, but also faces violent attacks from militant groups. Chinese companies’ gambit to explore oil reserves thus comes along with heavy military involvement at the coast. Analysts say that these maneuvers further entrench deep-seated conflicts and exacerbate the plight of vulnerable populations. Undeterred by the risks, China’s oil companies continue to make strategic advances.

Meanwhile, the United States, once a dominant player in Nigeria’s oil sector, watches cautiously as China emerges as a powerful rival. The strategic interplay between these global giants creates a climate of uncertainty, raising questions about potential confrontations in the race for Africa’s prized energy resources.

But don’t get overly entranced by the China-U.S. competition; Nigeria remains the central player. Balancing the lure of Chinese investments against concerns over sovereignty and local welfare, the nation treads a delicate path. Skeptics caution Nigeria to avoid falling into the trap of short-term gains, urging careful consideration of the long-term implications of their partnerships.

China is positioning itself to best weather the complex energy landscape, with its investments in Africa just one part of a larger equation that also includes renewed outreach to the Gulf states and investments in pipelines stretching through Pakistan and Myanmar. The ever-changing global dynamics of oil supply and demand loom large on the horizon. In response, China is strategically diversifying its oil sources and investing in infrastructure to facilitate the transportation of captured resources to international markets. 

Meanwhile, with the world climate crisis growing worse with each passing moment, each move in Africa’s energy industry carries profound consequences for the continent’s future and the ever-evolving African energy landscape.

Embracing renewable energy sources could not only alleviate environmental concerns but also offer a path toward sustainable and inclusive development. Cooperation, transparency, and responsible energy practices are the key to a future that benefits both the African continent and the global energy landscape.