Algeria, Niger and Nigeria have signed a memorandum of understanding to build a 4,000-kilometre (2,500-mile) Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline. Algeria’s Energy Ministry said the natural gas pipeline would stretch across the Sahara desert. It is estimated that, once the $13 billion pipeline is complete, it will transport up to 30 billion cubic metres (1 trillion cubic feet) of gas annually from Nigeria north through Niger and on to Algeria. From there, it could be pumped through the undersea Trans-Mediterranean Pipeline to Europe or loaded onto Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) tankers for export.

The idea was first proposed over 40 years ago, but progress stalled. The new momentum comes as the European Union seeks to wean itself off Russian gas during the war in Ukraine. The security situation in the Sahel region and tensions between the governments in Algiers and Niamey also delayed the project. It wasn’t until 2021, when Algeria and Niger reopened their border, that discussions to construct the pipeline restarted.

According to Algerian broadcaster Ennahar TV, the Trans-Saharan gas pipeline is expected to span around 4,000 kilometres from Warri in southern Nigeria to Hassi R’Mel in Algeria, where it would connect to existing pipeline infrastructure, forming a gas conduit across Sahelian and Saharan Africa to Europe.

On paper, this sounds like a good idea, but the reality could have been crafted in another galaxy. The idea was first mooted about 40 years ago, and an agreement was signed between the three countries in 2009, without much progress. A key bone of contention has been funding and it has not exactly gone away. In the past, China was the natural lender of last resort to such grandiose mega projects but the taps to relatively interest-free Chinese loans have dried up in the face of slow economic growth and more pressing geopolitical priorities.

The European Union does not have spare spending power so high-risk projects are unlikely to excite decision-makers in Brussels. Despite a host of European Union states trumping their ambitions to shelve themselves off Russian gas addiction, there is early evidence of a reversion to a short-term, nationalist approach which will prove fatal to the kind of collaboration that the Trans-Saharan gas link requires. The French, Germans, Italians and Spanish have embarked on the kind of shuttle diplomacy tours of the continent that suggest that competition, not collaboration will be the name of the game.

Furthermore, none of the pledge states control huge swathes of the territory on the pipeline’s proposed route, with a mix of Islamist insurgents, separatist groups and kidnapping rings possessing an effective on-the-ground presence. In the absence of security in these segments, how do the states that have struggled with securing pipelines within their natural borders intend to make a use case for this investment?

To crown it all, there are important support infrastructure gaps, from roads, rail and telephony to an effective policing and adjudicatory apparatus. If all these concerns are addressed (a remote possibility), the project will take years before coming online; time gas-hungry Europeans simply do not have as shifting geopolitical realities hem them into a wall.

There is a more straightforward business case to be made for expanding existing LNG infrastructure (and providing security cover) in the Gulf of Guinea. It would provide Nigeria with a quicker route to exploit current market conditions to the fullest, both domestically and internationally. In the final analysis, the success of the project will largely depend on how the countries involved are able to rein in armed groups operating along the pipeline’s routes. Their record, on this count, as well as limiting oil theft does not exactly inspire confidence. This project is simply put, a pipe dream of epic proportions.