Italy clinched an agreement in early April to ramp up gas imports from Algeria by around 40% in its first major deal to find alternative supplies following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In a visit to Algeria, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said the agreements reached were a significant step in Italy’s drive to cut its reliance on Russian gas. “Others will follow,” he told reporters in Algiers following a meeting with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune.

Italy, which sources about 40% of its gas imports from Russia, has been scrambling to diversify its energy supply mix as the conflict in Ukraine escalates. Ministers have tapped numerous countries like Congo, Angola, Azerbaijan and Qatar to find the capacity to try and replace the 29 billion cubic metres Italy receives from Russia.

Italy is not the only country seeking alternative supplies. The European Commission has proposed Europe cut imports of Russian gas by two-thirds this year and phase them out by 2027. Draghi has previously said while replacing 30-40% of supplies from Russia could be done immediately, it would be much harder to replace the rest. In a statement, Italian energy group Eni said it had agreed with Algeria’s Sonatrach to gradually raise flows in the Transmed pipeline starting this year and reach 9 bcm of extra gas per year by 2023-24. In a separate statement, Sonatrach said it had signed a deal but gave no details on volumes. Algeria is Italy’s second-biggest gas supplier.

The Transmed pipeline has a daily capacity of more than 110 million cubic metres but currently transports only around 60 mcm. Rising domestic consumption, under-investment and political instability, including the closure of a pipeline to Spain over a dispute with Morocco, have capped Algerian exports. But last year its gas export to Italy rose 76% to 21.2 billion cubic metres and on Monday daily flows exceeded those from Russia.

In shoring up its newfound determination to serve as a geopolitical bulwark against a revanchist Russia, the European Union’s fevered attempt to sever its main economic connection to the Kremlin presents a unique long-term opportunity for African countries, particularly energy exporters. Leading the way are the countries which already possess substantive economic ties in the gas sector, Algeria and Nigeria.

On 4 March, the German-African Business Association advised Germany’s freshman economy minister Robert Habeck to travel to Algeria, Angola, Egypt and Nigeria, to help “free Europe” from its dependence on Russian gas. Habeck was not the only European minister to pick up that cue. As Mr Draghi was securing Italy’s short-term energy supplies in Algiers, a formal EU delegation was in Abuja to explore similar opportunities and Nigerian Vice President, Yemi Osinbajo made all the right noises about Nigeria rising up to the plate.

The producers’ geographic proximity to Europe relative to their competitors and the fact that many of the operators in these markets are either Western or joint ventures involving Western firms is a huge draw. Algeria is the 10th-largest gas producer globally and one of the top five LNG exporters to Europe with the most extensive pipeline connections to the European mainland after Russia and Turkey.

Nigeria is the fourth largest LNG supplier to the EU, sending 40% of its cargoes there. Tanzania, which has the sixth-largest gas reserves in Africa, says it has been working with Shell to utilise its vast offshore gas resources and export them to Europe and elsewhere. Away from gas, France, the European state with the least exposure to Russian gas is deepening economic and security cooperation with Niger in order to guarantee access to one of the world’s premier sources of uranium.

Russia, dealing with the loss of some of its biggest customers in an era of renewed great power competition, is not taking any of this lying down. In addition to a growing presence in the Central African Republic and Mali, and making overtures to Burkina Faso, it renewed a 2015 security cooperation agreement with Cameroon this month. Both countries agreed to exchange opinions and information on defence policies and international security, as well as to develop relations in the areas of joint training, medicine, topography and military hydrography.

Notwithstanding, challenges persist for African states and some of them are geopolitical. The Maghreb-Europe Gas Pipeline which conveys natural gas from Algeria through Morocco to Spain and Portugal has been at the centre of geopolitical tensions between the North African neighbours. Last October, political tensions between Algiers and Rabat led to the contract between Sonatrach and the Moroccan Energy Ministry not being renewed. The main problem was that Algiers did not agree to pay 10% of gas revenues as a fee to Morocco, as it had in the past. Western Sahara, which Algiers recognises as independent but Rabat considers as part of its territory is a big reason why. In any case, Algeria does not have enough spare gas capacity readily available.

Further south, Nigeria’s historic underinvestment in gas infrastructure compared to its oil industry means a lot of spare capacity cannot be brought online quickly. In 2021, Africa’s second-largest gas exporter was unable to meet its export targets. Security concerns in gas producing fields in the Gulf of Guinea are an added concern. Even further south, Mozambique, which sits on one of the largest single gas fields in the world has most of its capacity shut in by one of the continent’s deadliest insurgencies in its production hub. Tanzania has no set timetable for production ramp-up.

Nevertheless, the promise of long term gain for African producers exists. Gas purchases are typically enshrined in long term contracts, and hence such a ramp-up of supply will provide long term revenue assurances for an opportunistic Algeria as well as a desperate Nigeria. It may also impact Gulf of Guinea piracy as well as events in the Indian Ocean. If Nigeria becomes strategically important to energy security in Europe, then European states are likely to make the investments to deal with the maritime security challenges that coastal West African states have been unable to address. The French-funded and Rwanda-led counterinsurgency effort in Mozambique might receive sanction from Brussels and Berlin. In the short term, Algeria and Nigeria will need to ensure that the usual execution bottlenecks do not stand in the way of such a project, as Europe will explore all its options and settle for the best one.