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East African oil and the rise of networked activism

12 April 2022

French energy giant Total Energies and Chinese state-owned CNOOC are pushing ahead with their East African oil project in the face of a concerted campaign to stop it. Below we assess the prospects for the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) and explore what networked resistance to the project might tell us about the future of anti-corporate activism in the age of social media.

Light at the end of the pipe?

A Final Investment Decision (FID) is a major milestone in any project’s life, a signal that the project developers are ready to start spending on construction and that any outstanding financial, social and environmental issues have been settled. However, in the case of Uganda’s Lake Albert Oil Project – whose project partners, Total Energies and CNOOC, took FID last month – many of these issues look far from settled.

Amid rising pipeline construction costs, debt financing for the East African Crude Oil Pipeline (EACOP) has yet to be arranged and many of the most likely lenders for the Uganda-Tanzania pipeline have ruled themselves out, having become the target of an increasingly well-coordinated and vocal campaign to #stopEACOP on the basis of its emissions profile, local environmental impact and alleged impact on human rights. Questions have been asked by Total’s own shareholders about whether the Lake Albert project fits with the French multinational’s ‘net zero’ commitment on emissions and whether it can be affordably financed with only a small pool of lenders.

Pressure is also mounting at home: French Minister for Ecological Transition Barbara Pompili has publicly sought to distance the French government from the project, while the Civil Court in Nanterre will soon hear a suit brought against Total under France’s new Duty of Vigilance Law for its Ugandan subsidiary’s alleged failure to prevent human rights violations and environmental harm. The project, which has already been subject to multiple delays and has inspired numerous controversies since oil was discovered in Uganda in 2006, looks as contested as ever, FID or not.

Our perspectives

Total will probably get its pipeline, but at a cost

In the end, Total will probably get its pipeline. Even if it is unable to secure external financing, the French multinational could still fund the project from its own balance sheet and look to refinance the pipeline once the execution risk has been removed. The Lake Albert project is too important for Total’s long-term regional energy strategy to give it up, and with the Ugandan government finally on board for an export-led development (the proposed refinery will have to follow), Total will not want to lose the recent momentum generated in Uganda and Tanzania.

Moreover, notwithstanding its corporate rebranding and its recent net zero commitments, Total executives clearly still believe that there is a role for oil in the company’s portfolio and in the broader energy transition. Beyond Uganda, Total is continuing its hunt for African greenfield developments to compensate for long-term production declines in its established West and Central African assets – witness its significant light oil discovery offshore Namibia in February.

However, it is also clear that the controversies swirling around the Uganda project will shape Total’s efforts to bring it into production in important ways. With the demand outlook for oil subject to considerable uncertainty after the 2030s, the economics of the $11 billion dollar project dictate that it is brought into production as soon as possible. But in the face of mounting stakeholder scrutiny and scepticism, Total will need to push harder to meet its 2025 First Oil target and pushing harder will increase resistance: the #stopEACOP campaign has become more vocal and more coherent the closer the project has got to first oil, with campaigners finding that ‘urgency’ is the most compelling mechanism for mobilisation. Total may also have to push against parts of the French government and fractions of its shareholder base to get Ugandan oil delivered to market, in ways that would have been unimaginable when it first entered the country ten years ago.

Total’s new urgency could also alter its relations with its East African hosts in unintended ways, especially with Tanzania, through which the pipeline will be routed. The administration of late president John Magufuli offered very attractive tariff terms to ensure the pipeline came via Tanzania, but given Total’s new need for quick progress and the limited returns currently to be derived by Tanzania, how tempting might it be for the administration of President Samia Suluhu Hassan to reopen negotiations on transit tariffs and broader benefits to Tanzania?

Networked transnational advocacy campaigns are becoming more effective

Much of this story is specific to the case. Oil is controversial, climate concerns are rising, and it was always likely to be a challenge to deliver such a complex and high-profile project in an unsettled region with limited prior experience of cross-border infrastructure-led investments. However, we think that there are some broader implications that are worth exploring – particularly, as regards the nature of the ‘resistance’ to the project and the growing effectiveness of networked, transnational advocacy campaigns.

The #stopEACOP alliance is a paradigm of the modern, networked social movement. Claiming the active support of more than 260 civil society organisations, the alliance presents a big picture, collective message – “For People / For Climate / For Justice” – while leveraging the individual campaigning of its diverse organisational membership and the ‘spontaneous’ decentralised activism of its followers. In this way, small-scale youth-led protests outside Total petrol stations in France are linked to the longstanding but previously low-profile anti-pipeline activism of local Ugandan NGOs, the tenacious campaigning of old hands like BankTrack and the Duty of Vigilance legal proceedings initiated by Friends of the Earth France and others.

There is arguably a latent weakness in such networked and often ‘virtual’ alliances. The Arab Spring showed that while social media was very good at bringing people onto this streets, unity of purpose was harder to sustain in the face of real-world pressures and constraints. However, in the world of policy debate and conflict (which is less dependent on real-world mobilisation than, say, overthrowing a dictator), virtual campaigning can still have very significant real-world consequences. The capacity of social media to link organisations and – critically – to link issues works to shape broadly coherent and adaptable narratives to which governments, companies and wider publics feel increasingly compelled to respond, as was clear in recent corporate decisions to suspend or cease operations in Russia following the invasion of Ukraine. Activist alliances learn from each other and from past successes, with some members being prominent in multiple campaigns – for instance, #stopEACOP has strong links of membership and style to the #stopcambo campaign against Shell’s North Sea Cambo field – and lessons were surely also learned from the #NoDAPL campaign against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which linked indigenous activism, climate protest and anti-corporate campaigning under the collective, big picture message of ‘Mní Wičóni’ (‘Water is Life’).

The linking of issues and the capacity of networked campaigns to span local, regional and global scales is not limited to climate concerns and pipelines – in 2020 activists quickly linked Rio Tinto’s destruction of aboriginal sacred sites in Western Australia to the Black Lives Matter movement, by way of George Floyd’s killing, which took place the day after the demolition at Juukan Gorge. As all these examples show, companies are increasingly vulnerable at corporate level to criticism relating to their behaviour at local level, and activists and other stakeholders are becoming increasingly adept at identifying and exploiting perceived divergences between what companies say about their ‘purpose’ and their actions on the ground.

Networked advocacy and the just transition

Given the fluid, evolving and unpredictable nature of transnational advocacy networks, it is inherently difficult to anticipate the issues around which such networks will congeal in the future. But as the Juukan Gorge case suggests, areas of commercial activity that touch on questions of corporate power, resource extraction and indigenous and community rights are arguably most vulnerable to this kind of mobilisation. Although there are few indications of it at present, it would not be surprising to see more networked mobilisation around the ‘just transition’ in the years ahead as the world moves to a low carbon, electrified future. The mineral intensity of this transition – with demand expected to skyrocket for a wide range of metals involved in the manufacture of clean technologies – means that corporate-community encounters in the search for new mineral supplies will multiply, and the potential for corporate-community conflict over the distribution of costs and benefits of this ‘green transition’ will likewise expand, creating fertile ground for new networks to form across local, national and international scales.

Corporations are arguably poorly equipped for responding to these challenges. Their communications operations are often ‘old school’, slow moving and based on a belief that transparency and disclosure will be sufficient to foster informed and rational debate. Total, for instance, has responded to #stopEACOP  with an unusually high level of disclosure of project documentation on its website in an attempt to justify the project on the basis of the company’s “rigorous research and assessment.” However, as political anthropologist Andrew Barry has argued in relation to BP’s Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline, transparency and disclosure often simply “[multiply] the surfaces on which disagreement can incubate and flourish”.

In the BTC case, Barry argued, disclosure of certain facts about the project’s impacts – those that had been defined through an established industry impact assessment methodology – merely brought into relief a range of political and societal effects of the pipeline’s development that had not been the subject of BP’s disclosure or assessment, including the potential for growing inequality and corporate legitimisation of governments with limited popular legitimacy. Moreover, while greater disclosure is welcome, an emphasis on transparency and ‘informed debate’ is not well adapted to the passionate politics of today’s public discourse and the role of emotion in the mobilisation of contemporary social movements. Dealing with emotion is not the modern corporation’s strongest suit, but developing greater capacity for listening and creating platforms for more profound dialogue with stakeholders at local, national and regional levels are surely not beyond the realms of the possible.

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