It was almost a personal obsession of former President Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger – the quest for energy independence from Nigeria.
He took on the planned construction of the Kandadji hydroelectric dam. When it wasn’t going fast enough, he fired the Russian contractors, talked a good game to convince investors and secured loans from multilateral organisations and insisted it was going to be his legacy.
The dam was supposed to be built 180km northwest of Niamey, by the Russian state-owned hydroelectric specialist Zarubezhvodstroy, with completion originally scheduled for 2015. The $170m deal was canceled after what Nigerien president Mahamadou Issoufou called “intolerable delays.”
The Russian firm was awarded the contract in 2010—when the country was governed by a transitional government led by General Salou Djibo— and scheduled for completion around 2016. It was repeatedly criticised for its slow progress and was beset by countless delays to the chagrin of President Issoufou.
A new deal was reached in 2019 and this time the Chinese came on board. The construction phase of the Kandadji hydroelectric project began in 2019 and the contract was awarded to a Chinese firm, China Gezhouaba Group Company (CGGC).
“It is not only a question of producing electricity, but also of regenerating the river’s ecosystem, while creating the conditions for local development. The work also concerns environmental protection with the displacement and resettlement of populations. What is important here is the growth and development focus in the implementation of the Kandadji programme,” said Mahamadou Issoufou.
The Nigerian president met with Zheng Zufei, the director of CGGC, to ensure that the Chinese company can deliver the project in 2020. The dam will be 280m high with a length of 8,780m. The reservoir will cover an area of 282 hectares. Upon completion, the dam was projected to have a capacity of 130MW of power. Much of the water from the dam will be used to run the four turbines of the power plant below. The dam will also be used to irrigate fields and strengthen Niamey’s drinking water supply.
The AfDB is the main donor to the project and its also supported by the World Bank, the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), and the French Development Agency (AFD). Together with the Government of Niger, these financial institutions were set to mobilise a total of €130 million for the implementation of the project.
After President Issoufou left office, the project continued until last week when the Chinese contractor Gezhouba Group, responsible for the $800 million Kandadji hydroelectric project in Niger, announced it was suspending construction, citing the freezing of a significant portion of its funds due to the prevailing sanctions following the coup.
The group’s statement included their intention to cease operations and lay off their workforce temporarily while expressing the possibility of resuming work once their financial situation stabilizes. Once finished, the dam is projected to enhance the country’s power grid by 50 percent.
Following a military coup that deposed the country’s president Mohammed Bazoum, the Economic Community of West Africa applied sanctions to the coupist which includes disconnecting their power lines from Nigeria’s electricity grid. Supply from Nigeria accounts for 70 percent of the electricity used in Niger. Under a bilateral agreement, Niger buys electricity from Nigeria to augment its own meager production.
Analysts say the action could have unintended consequences.
“The strategic decision of Nigeria to halt its electricity provision appears to be a form of leveraging power, akin to Russia’s gas supply cutoff to Europe. “From my perspective, this choice does not align with Nigeria’s enlightened self-interest,” said Wolemi Esan, Deputy Managing Partner of Olaniwun Ajayi, a leading Lagos-based law firm.
Esan said it was misleading to think Nigeria’s power supply to Niger was altruistic. But it’s really done to deter Niger from building a dam upstream on the River Niger. The concern is that if Niger proceeds with its dam project, Nigeria’s downstream flow could be significantly diminished. This situation draws parallels to the challenges posed by the Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) on the Blue Nile.
“The repercussions of cutting off electricity supply to Niger are manifold. First, Nigeria has conveyed a strong message to Niger that Niger should pursue energy independency. Regrettably, this stance will expedite Niger’s Kandadji Dam Project, potentially leading to reduced water flow downstream into Nigeria.
“Secondly, this decision risks rendering Nigeria’s substantial investment in the development of the 33kv power line to Niger a stranded asset. Thirdly, it will deprive the Nigerian economy of the opportunity to earn the much-needed foreign exchange, through the sale of electricity to Niger by Nigerian power generation companies,” he said.
Life has become tougher since the Nigerian supply was disconnected and media reports in the country indicate the soldiers who take over the government are coming under increasing pressure to fix the power situation.
This is going to be a tough call. “Niger has significant energy potential, rich and varied, that is weakly exploited,” says said Salifou Gado, an engineer in a paper published by a local think tank Energy Charter Secretariat Knowledge Centre.
Like Nigeria, Niger is blessed with natural resources but they are poorly managed and offer little benefit to its people. Data from official sources indicate that proven reserves of uranium in the northern region of Agadez are estimated at about 450 000 tonnes. Mineral coal reserves located in northern Niger are over 90 million tons. Around 70 million tons in Salkadamna, in the Tahoua region. It has an estimated one billion barrels and Natural gas reserves estimated at about 18.6 billion m3.
But its hydroelectric potential is more extensive. It is estimated at approximately 280.5 MW, including 130 MW in Kandadji, 122.5 MW on the River Niger in Gambou, and 26 MW in Dyondyonga on Mekrou. Solar energy is possible throughout the territory where the average insolation level is 5 to 7 kW/ m2 / day with an average of 8.5 hours per day. Wind speeds, ranging from 2.5 m/s in the south to 5 m/s in the north, are in favour of wind turbines to pump water, the energy think tank said.
Yet the country has been unable to translate these potentials into assets for its people. The country has two major electricity operators, both public. These include the National Electricity Company (NIGELEC) founded in 1968 and which has a monopoly on transmission and distribution, and the Coal Company Anou Araren (SONICHAR), which produces electricity in a thermal coal power plant.