Regional rivals Morocco and Algeria are engaged in two competing gas pipeline mega-projects linking them to Nigeria, targeting the European market, but in a context where the EU would like to do without gas by the end of the decade.
The most recent is the Nigeria-Morocco Gas Pipeline (NMGP), about 6,000 km long, which is expected to cross 13 African countries on the Atlantic coast to carry billions of cubic metres of Nigerian gas to the Cherifian Kingdom. From there, it is to be connected to the Maghreb Europe Gas Pipeline (GME).
No start date has been set: "the pipeline is in the planning stage. We are at the feasibility study stage," said Nigeria's oil minister, Timipre Sylva.
The idea for the project was launched in 2016 by King Mohammed VI during a visit to Abuja, aimed at strengthening partnerships with African countries.
Its revival is explained by the decision of Algiers (the leading African exporter of natural gas) to terminate last year the GME contract serving Spain with Algerian gas via Morocco, after the breakdown of diplomatic relations with Rabat.
These dissensions motivated in particular by the thorny issue of the Western Sahara (a territory over which Rabat claims sovereignty while Algiers supports the Polisario Front independence movement) have deprived Morocco of the Algerian gas that it used to collect as a right of passage.
In addition, the NMGP is taking place in a geopolitical context marked by soaring hydrocarbon prices since the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The implementation of this giant gas pipeline (at an estimated cost of 23 billion euros) remains however conditional on "obtaining the agreement of the countries through which it will pass", recalled the Nigerian Minister of Oil.
By the end of 2022, Rabat and Abuja had signed seven memoranda of understanding with Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Mauritania and Senegal, and another with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
These agreements "confirm the commitment of the parties to this strategic project", the Moroccan Office of Hydrocarbons and Mines (ONHYM) said.
Rabat is counting on Nigeria's huge reserves to create "a stable, predictable and mutually beneficial gas market" in Africa, explains Moroccan geopolitical researcher Jamal Machrouh, underlining also its "strategic interest for Europe".
Europe's future needs?
But questions are emerging at a time when Brussels says it wants to move away from fossil fuels in the medium term.
"We have to count the cost when it (the gas pipeline) is finished. Will we still want to use gas, methane?", the head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell recently asked in Rabat, stressing that Morocco has a strong potential in clean energies such as hydrogen, wind and solar.
The acceleration of cooperation between Rabat and Abuja coincides with the re-launch of the Trans-Saharan Gas Pipeline (TSGP) which will link Nigeria to Algeria via Niger, at an estimated cost of between 12 and 18 billion euros.
Last July, Algiers, Abuja and Niamey signed a memorandum of understanding to materialise this 4,128 km long gas pipeline, without setting a start-up date.
Launched in 2009, the project also aims to transport Nigerian gas to the European continent. Once it arrives in Algeria, it should be shipped there, notably via the Transmed pipeline which already links the Algerian fields to Italy via Tunisia.
"The technical studies are underway," said Algerian Energy Minister Mohamed Arkab in Algiers on 18 February.
According to Algerian expert Ahmed Tartar, the three partners are now "looking for donors".
"We can estimate a delay of two to three years for the finalisation of the project," which "will meet a significant part of Europe's future needs," Tartar, whose country is the third largest supplier of natural gas to Europe, told AFP.
This optimism is tempered by analyst Geoff Porter, who stresses its "great vulnerability to jihadist attacks" in the Sahelian zone and to the hostility of "local communities if they feel they are being exploited for a project from which they derive no benefit.
Another downside is that Europe, which is seeking to free itself from Russian gas, may not accept "a strong dependence on a single supplier", whether Algerian or Moroccan, according to the Moroccan researcher Machrouh.