Dancing the Brazilian Samba: Ending our oil dependence

17 October 2007 at 13:13 | 823 views

By Sheka Tarawalie (Shekito) Manchester, UK.

Sugarcane + Corn = End to fuel problems. It’s that easy, it’s that simple. But it can even be simpler.
American writer Dr Ariel Cohen, Senior Research Fellow at the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davies Insititute for International Studies says, “Good energy policy makes good geopolitics”. I oblige.

No one can doubt President Koroma’s intention to turn Sierra Leone around. He has demonstrated his eagerness to see this come through sooner rather than later. By all means we can all attest to the fact that the president has put great premium on the provision of electricity to the country. He is quoted to have said - as it is true - that “there’ll be no development without energy”. At the moment, it is clear we are under the firm grip of the oil industry. We depend on oil for our electricity, we depend on oil for engine operations (vehicles, generators etc.). Of course we have this long-awaited dream of completing Bumbuna Hydro on 31st August 2009. In many ways, this will be the crowning moment for Sierra Leone’s development. But if we are to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) targeted for 2015, we can’t sit down and wait for Bumbuna. If we have to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, combat HIV/Aids, malaria and other diseases, ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development by 2015, starting in 2009 with Bumbuna would see us lag behind.

Indeed President Koroma is aware of this that’s why we have seen him moving from one electricity power plant to the other in a bid to appraise himself with the somewhat perennial problem of lack of electricity. At the same time we have seen him stave off an intention by the fuel companies to increase prices. In Sierra Leone, an increase in fuel prices means an increase in virtually all other commodities’ prices - a situation that has a direct impact on the ordinary man; in effect, it is at the very heart of politics. The president’s actions are understandable: he says he is giving deep consideration to finding a solution to the electricity problems, and that he needs more time and a meeting with all stakeholders before fuel price increases could be effected. What is clear is that there is the urgency of finding practical electricity solutions, and there is the fact that fuel prices are bound to rise.

“Mr Speaker, the utmost priority of my government is the speedy restoration of electricity supply, not only to Freetown and its environs, but to all district headquarter towns....” were the words of the president during the state opening of parliament recently. He said, as an emergency measure, “government will source out temporary power supply units to augment reliable electricity generation.” ( I guess the president will soon put in place the cabinet sub-committee required by the implementation arrangements of the World Bank-supported Bumbuna agreement which includes “the rehabilitation of the Kingtom diesel generation station in Freetown to make 24MW available” even before the hydro comes into operation). From the explanations of the NPA staff, it seems a whole lot of money is needed in this direction. My fear in that direction is the fear of the president when he said “these fire-fighting measures in NPA must be put to an end.” Because there seems to be an evil spirit working against every attempt to alleviate the electricity problem in our country - it is this spirit of sabotage that must be handled headlong. The frequency of the fire incidences any time a machine is installed is alarming. It is either the work of saboteurs or there is a blatant lack of technical know-how.

I am encouraged by the president’s open-mindedness on the energy matter when he said “government will encourage public and private investment in other hydroelectric power supply systems and alternative energy resources throughout the country”. Today, more than ever before, there is the need for any progress-oriented government and country to look for alternative energy sources other than a total dependence on fossil oil. And the reasons are stark, staring and startling.

The first bitter fact is that in the-not-too-distant future (some analysts put it at between 40 and 60 years; that is, if not in our lifetime, certainly in our children’s), all the world’s oil reserves would run dry. There’ll be no more oil left to meet the needs of a demanding world. And before that, in the approach to the end, when reserves would have started to dwindle, it is apparent that only the very big and powerful nations would have the wherewithal to get supplies. It is only when Sierra leoneans accept this reality that we will start realizing the urgency of looking for alternative energy sources.

Another fact is that today 66% of global oil reserves are controlled by Middle Eastern regimes: Saudi Arabia (25%), Iraq (11%), Iran (8%), UAE (9%), Kuwait (9%), and Libya (2%). We need no expertise in knowing that the Middle East is the world’s most politically volatile region and perhaps more tragically the safest place from which terrorists operate. This in itself means there is always a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the supply of oil - the current price hikes have been caused by a mere territorial dispute between Iraq and Turkey. You would say then let’s turn to the non-Middle eastern regions that have 44% of oil reserves. Certainly, this cannot satisfy world demand. But rather more chilling is the fact that some of the reserves in these countries have already peaked and are declining. At current production rates, Russia (5%) will have no oil by 2020, and Africa’s total reserves including countries like Angola, Nigeria, Guinea and Chad will run dry by 2025. The other regions [North America (6%), Central & Latin America (9%), Europe (2%), Asia Pacific (4%) ] are all predicted to run dry in less than two decades - at which point only the Middle East will be the major reservoir of crude oil (it is projected that by 2020 the Middle East would be in control of 83% of global oil reserves).

The ramifications of this status quo will be that a handful of Middle East suppliers will be able to dictate and manipulate oil prices and world politics, they could be able to increase their military expenditures (which could lead to an arms race and regional instability), corrupt and repressive regimes will continue to use oil revenues to cling to power, and definitely oil money would continue to flow into terrorist organizations. You could say, then we should pray for more oil to be found in other parts of the world - as has been said of Ghana or even rumoured about Sierra Leone. Yet still, we know that oil is not permanent - and that any conflagration in the Middle east will affect us all.

It is therefore in the world’s best interest - indeed in the best interest of Sierra Leone - to take pre-emptive energy-solution initiatives that will lead us away from oil dependency, thereby reducing both the political and economic value of crude, which is a diminishing resource anyway.

The world has seen this reality, hence the search for alternatives as we are doing in Bumbuna. But even if we succeed in electrifying Sierra Leone through hydropower, we would still be left with the problem of getting fuel for transportation. And this is where the message of Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is on a four-nation African tour should be greeted with enthusiasm. Brazil is famous for being a great football/soccer nation. It is also famous for its auxiliary melodious African-like samba dance and drumming. But that nation is now becoming more famous for being a pioneer in ethanol and biofuel production, which totally releases it from the grip and dependence on oil. Speaking in Burkina Faso on Monday 15th October 2007, Lula called on African countries to take up the use of biofuels, offering Brazilian assistance in developing the technology.

For about 30 years now, Brazil has been pioneering ethanol and biofuel production, and today virtually all vehicles and a great part of the general machinery in that country have been powered by the use of biofuels. The interesting part is that this can be done rather comparatively easily in Sierra Leone where there is vast cultivable land. It is simpler than the Mathematics I earlier made, because it is not really sugarcane plus corn equals biofuel - it is sugarcane or corn. Ethanol fuel is produced merely by either sugarcane (as done in Brazil) or corn, as in the United States.

The other good thing is that this is renewable fuel - it can last as long as human labour lasts: corn or sugarcane can be grown, harvested, and grown again every year. And these are two crops that are already very familiar in Sierra Leone - in fact we have had a glimpse of large-scale sugarcane production during the days of the Chinese-run Magbass Sugar Complex in Tonkolili District. Even ordinary farmers could be subsidized perhaps at chiefdom level to produce these crops. What such a scheme could bring along is employment in the rural areas and its attendant development: when you purchase ethanol, your money goes to the local farmer and the refineries that produce the fuel. The benefits of ethanol and biofuel use are enormous: it reduces pollution and green house gas emissions and therefore contributes less to global warming, it is cheaper to make, and normal cars can easily be converted to allow the use of biofuel (it costs about $30, approximately Le 80,000, to convert a car - just imagine how much will be saved after the conversion!). Even the fuel distribution infrastructure we already have does not need to be dismantled as they can be easily converted to use.

While acknowledging the availability of other non-oil dependent alternatives like solar, marine and wind power, it seems to me that alongside our hydropower dreams for electricity (including the completion of Dodo and the maintenance of those in Bo and Kenema), Sierra Leone will look like paradise if we embrace the Brazilian offer to take the ethanol/biofuel path. Already, some African countries including South Africa, Mali and Senegal have embarked on such projects and have started reaping the benefits. I see no reason why we should not join the train. Speaking in Brazil on 9th March this year about the remarkable achievement Brazilians have made in the biofuel industry, President Bush said, “ reason we are optimistic is because we see the bright and real potential for our citizens being able to use alternative sources of energy that will promote the common good.” He also maintained that “if you are dependent upon oil from overseas you have a national security issue.”

As things stand, as the APC government has come to power on the ticket of promoting the common good, we need to move away from the traditional stranglehold of the oil merchants and NPA saboteurs. If we begin now (and I’m aware that we don’t have direct diplomatic relations with Brazil), we could start seeing results in less than a year. With the new government of national - not tribal/regional - unity about to start operations, I should think we will not be deviating from our path to progress in trying a South-South co-operation by embracing the Brazilians. We will at the same time be indirectly inviting Brazilian football talent - then we all can dance the samba! And this makes me ask, “Are we not entering our own golden age under President Ernest Bai Koroma?” Perhaps!

For now, only God knows!