Nigeria/Morocco: King Mohammed VI’s pipe dreams

By Jon Marks
Posted on Monday, 7 February 2022 18:29, updated on Monday, 21 February 2022 17:46

Maikanti Kacalla Baru, Chairman and CEO of Nigerian National Oil Company (L), and Moroccan Director General of the National Board of Hydrocarbons and Mines Amina Benkhadra sign an agreement in Rabat
Maikanti Kacalla Baru, Chairman and CEO of Nigerian National Oil Company (L), and Moroccan Director General of the National Board of Hydrocarbons and Mines Amina Benkhadra sign the Cooperation agreement documents of the Nigeria-Moroccan gas pipeline project, that will connect the two nations as well as some other African countries to Europe, at the King's Palace in Rabat, Morocco May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Youssef Boudlal

Will a proposed gas pipeline linking Nigeria to Morocco ever surmount its logistical, financial and diplomatic hurdles?

When King Mohammed VI visited President Muhammadu Buhari in December 2016, the two agreed on a grandiose scheme to bring Nigerian gas northwards. Moroccan officials have been keen to talk up prospects for this gas ‘highway’ linking 11 countries, who would feed in and take out gas along the way.

Despite considerable scepticism, plans for the Nigeria-Morocco Gas Pipeline (NMGP) have edged forward in the period since then, with studies carried out when the most enthusiastic partner – Morocco – has provided financing or secured external funds. The Islamic Development Bank (IsDB) recently sought expressions of interest for two new consultancy contracts on the scheme, after the Bank, which is headquartered in Saudi Arabia, committed $15.5m for front-end engineering design studies in mid-2021. Some initial estimates published in the media suggest that the NMGP could cost $25bn.

On the political front, Algeria’s decision to stop sending its gas through the Gazoduc Maghreb Europe (GME) pipeline has increased Moroccan impetus to explore other supply options.

The GME connects Hassi R’Mel in Algeria to Spain via the Straits of Gibraltar, passing through Morocco, where off-take gas has been supplying the 384MW Tahaddart combined-cycle power plant. Morocco can survive without GME gas for now – not least due to its coal-fired plants, as well as its burgeoning renewables industry – but in the long run, it still needs gas to be part of the mix”.

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Morocco takes the lead

The NMGP is designed to run offshore from Brass Island, in the Niger Delta, and around West Africa to Morocco, coming back onshore in northern Morocco, where it would ultimately connect to the now-inactive GME pipeline. It would have links into Benin, Togo, Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, Senegal and Mauritania.

On the Moroccan front, the Office National des Hydrocarbures et des Mines is taking the lead on the NMGP project. In November, the media reported that the state-run institution is setting up a unit to oversee the Nigeria project and other downstream infrastructure.

Experts say initial phases could involve extending the existing – and under-used – West African Gas Pipeline to Côte d’Ivoire, while Morocco would build a pipeline integrating its Southern Provinces (disputed Western Sahara), Mauritania and Senegal. This might tie in with the new joint Senegal/Mauritania Greater Tortue Ahmeyim (GTA) gas field – although that project’s developers have other ideas.

The project remains a daunting challenge given its technical and commercial complexity and doubts about the availability of sufficient natural gas from Nigeria. The country has other priorities, particularly the expansion of the Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG) plant. “Give me Trains 9 and 10,” a presidential adviser recounts Buhari saying more than once. Train 7 is under construction.

Similar doubts have long been expressed about an older, rival scheme, the Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline (TGSP). This would link Nigeria to Algeria, supplying northern Nigeria and Niger on the way to the Mediterranean coast, where Algiers would like to integrate Nigerian gas into its export infrastructure. The GME is not Algeria’s only pipeline route to Europe as it also has the Trans-Mediterranean Pipeline running through Tunisia.

The TSGP was conceived in the 1980s as a 4,128km pipeline. It regained momentum during the late ex-president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s first decade, from 1999 when he cultivated relations with Nigeria’s then-president, Olusegun Obasanjo. It is supported by the AU’s Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa. However, analysts have long questioned whether it has a secure feedstock supply and whether there is a real need for such a costly project.

Algeria’s energy and mines minister, Mohamed Arkab, says he is looking forward to the TSGP’s “rapid implementation”. The delays have been impressive, even by Nigerian standards. Arkab told a visiting Nigerian delegation in August that Algiers hoped Abuja would soon ratify the TSGP’s inter-governmental agreement, which was signed in June 2009.

Rabat will soldier on with the Nigeria-Morocco gas pipeline project – an important element of King Mohammed VI’s South-South co-operation strategy. Officials point out it has been helped by rapprochement with Nigeria and by the good personal chemistry between the heads of state, which has endured since that 2016 visit.

But Nigeria remains aligned with Algeria and retains its diplomatic support for the Polisario Front independence movement in Western Sahara. This is much to Rabat’s frustration, as Morocco had hoped the Mohammed VI/Buhari rapprochement would lead Abuja to break with the Polisario.

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