GAYA (AFP)- Chinese and Nigerien laborers pull huge steel pipes through mounds of earth as heavily armed soldiers stand guard.
Africa’s longest pipeline is being built near Gaya in southwestern Niger, near the border with Benin.
With a planned length of nearly 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles) – including 1,250 km in Niger itself – the pipeline will connect oil wells in the eastern region of Agadem, an area plagued by deadly jihadist incursions, at the Beninese port of Seme.
Climate activists are calling for an end to investment in carbon-spewing fossil fuels.
But in Niger, the poorest country in the world according to the UN’s human development index, this project is seen as an economic lifeline.
The landlocked West African country became an oil producer in 2011. The China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which operates the reserves, brought oil to refineries in Zinder, in south-central Niger.
For export, Niger initially planned to ship crude oil through the Cameroonian port of Kribi via neighboring Chad.
He eventually settled on the “Benin Corridor”, which ends at the northern edge of the Gulf of Guinea.
The project, which started in 2019, was supposed to be completed in 2022, but the COVID-19 pandemic slowed it down, said Nafiou Issaka, deputy managing director of the West African Oil Pipeline Company (WAPCO).
More than 600 km of pipeline have already been laid and Niger is on track to start selling crude oil on the international market from next July, according to the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy.
More than 700 soldiers have been deployed to provide security for the project, although much of the territory it passes through has so far been spared jihadist violence, according to a security source who requested anonymity.
‘NIGER’S BIGGEST INVESTMENT’
Niger has long been a major producer of uranium, ranking seventh in the world with total production of 2,248 tonnes in 2021, according to the World Nuclear Association, after a year-on-year decline over the last decade.
But uranium revenues continue to fall and the country’s leaders are turning to oil to boost the state budget, much of which goes to fighting jihadists in the southeast and west.
Six billion dollars will be invested in the pipeline.
“It’s Niger’s biggest investment since independence” from France in 1960, said Kabirou Zakari, who heads the ministry’s oil refining department.
From 2023, oil production is expected to increase to 110,000 barrels per day, of which 90,000 barrels will be exported, Zakari told AFP.
Oil could then “generate a quarter of the country’s GDP” – more than 13.6 billion dollars in 2020 according to the World Bank – and “represent around 50% of Niger’s tax revenue”, compared to 4% and 19% respectively today, Zakari added.
He estimated Niger’s oil reserves at around two billion barrels. According to official projections, Niger will produce 200,000 barrels per day in 2026.
Algerian oil company Sonatrach has announced an “encouraging” oil discovery in Kafra, a vast area of 23,737 km2 (9,165 sq mi) bordering Algeria.
The British company Savannah Energy, a key player in the gas industry in neighboring Nigeria, claims to have also found deposits in the Agadem region, where the Chinese already operate.
A black market for petroleum products thrives in the capital, Niamey, and other major cities. A liter of petrol (gasoline) costs 300 FCFA (40 US cents), or just under half the price at the pump.
On Tuesday, Niger’s President Mohamed Bazoum said organized fuel smuggling from neighboring Nigeria had become a “source of supply for terrorists” and called for a crackdown.