Cameroonian lawyer NJ Ayuk is leading the UN-backed Team Energy Africa, despite a criminal record and alleged involvement in money laundering
An oil and gas lobbyist and convicted fraudster has teamed up with the UN to mobilise private sector investment in energy development across Africa – including, controversially, fossil gas.
Njock Ayuk Eyong, better known as NJ Ayuk, is chairman of the African Energy Chamber, a trade group that connects oil and gas executives with government officials.
The Cameroon-born lawyer describes himself on his website as “an internationally-acclaimed thought leader, lawyer, thinker, speaker and entrepreneur, who advises major companies on corporate strategies with a focus on investing in Africa’s future”.
Behind Ayuk’s slick appearance and gushing marketing prospectus is a murkier past.
Court documents seen by Climate Home News show Ayuk was convicted of fraud in the US for impersonating a congressman. In connection with his law firm Centurion Law Group, which brokers oil and gas deals across the continent, he was investigated for money laundering by Ghana’s central bank.
This hasn’t stopped the UN Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) from giving him a prime platform to promote gas extraction in Africa during the Cop27 climate summit.
Sustainable Energy For All (SEforAll), which works with the UN to ensure access to sustainable energy worldwide, was part of the initiative spearheaded by Uneca. Following Climate Home’s reporting, SEforAll pulled out of the alliance on Wednesday, citing the African Energy Chamber’s involvement.
In 2007, Ayuk pleaded guilty to illegally using congressman Donald Payne’s stationery and signature stamp to obtain visas to the US for 11 people from Cameroon while an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland. He was sentenced to 18 months’ probation and expelled from the country.
In 2015, The Finder newspaper reported allegations that Ayuk was involved in laundering $2.5 million in Ghana and repatriating $1m to Equatorial Guinea, where he lived. The director of Centurion’s subsidiary in Ghana was arrested and detained during the investigation. GT Bank told investigators that Ayuk showed up at a branch with two bags containing $2.5m in cash, to deposit in a Centurion company account.
Ayuk reportedly told the bank that the funds were for legal expenses related to Centurion’s activities in Ghana. The case appears to have stalled.
Climate Home reached out by email to NJ Ayuk for comment but did not receive a response.
After publication of the story, in a lengthy response published on the African Energy Chamber’s website, Ayuk accused Climate Home of having an anti-Africa agenda. He did not address his criminal record or the money laundering allegations.
Ayuk wrote: “We are proud about the work we do at the African Energy Chamber and our work to make energy poverty history.”
Earlier this year, the African Energy Chamber partnered with the UN Economic Commission for Africa (Uneca) to create Team Energy Africa. At the time, SEforAll was part of the initiative.
A brochure describes it as “an informal coalition of like-minded African investors and institutions keen on investing in, and championing Africa’s energy transformation”.
The initiative aims to unlock $500bn of private investment to deploy 250GW of clean energy by 2030, bring electricity to 600 million Africans and spur economic development.
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For the team, gas, of which there are large reserves across the continent, has a role to play to eradicate energy poverty. Both the heads of Uneca and SEforAll have previously supported gas as a “transition fuel” from dirtier coal and oil to renewable energy.
“One conversation will be around gas. We need to go to Cop27 to talk about this. We need a team with the private sector in the room, ” Vera Songwe, who headed Uneca until September, said of the initiative.
‘Gas baby gas’
“Drill baby drill: that should be Africa’s message to the world. If you want to solve energy poverty, gas baby gas,” Ayuk told Africa Energy Week in South Africa last month. “We need to go to Cop27, backing up our energy producers. We should not be apologizing for our energy sector.”
In a comment piece he published from Sharm el-Sheikh, Ayuk argued that African governments “must push back on the attempts by certain global interest groups and financiers” to prevent the continent from developing its gas reserves.
“This leads us to believe that Africa cannot rely on international partners,” he said.
Oil and natural gas will be playing an ongoing role in Africa’s energy mix for years to come. Renewables are expensive, unreliable and can’t do the heavy lifting for now. We need to drill for Gas and Make Energy Poverty History while fighting Climate Change. #cop27egypt #COP27 pic.twitter.com/RYx8hssMvl
— NJ Ayuk (@nj_ayuk) November 5, 2022
Team Energy Africa formally launched at the Africa Energy Week organised by Ayuk’s Africa Energy Chamber in South Africa last month.
Photos of the presentation seen by Climate Home show that a “natural gas expert group” is planned alongside a “renewable expert” one.
The team will be crucial in “driving private sector investments to boost energy sector growth in Africa whilst ensuring the continent does not continue begging for funding from international parties,” Ayuk said.
The event trailed a dashboard to showcase how African energy investments are being utilised. It included gas projects in Senegal. Climate Home understands it is due to be launched at the SEforAll pavilion at Cop27 on Tuesday 15 November. A senior Uneca official told Climate Home this was “a flagship Uneca initiative”.
Jean-Paul Adam, climate director at Uneca, told Climate Home the initiative was about “African investors channeling their own resources into investments across the continent”.
Uneca “is working with a range of private-sector partners to support this initiative. The major focus of these investments will be in renewable energy,” he said.
However, after being approached by Climate Home for comment, SEforAll decided to pull out from Team Energy Africa.
Tracey Crowe, chief of staff at SEforAll, said: “The initiative was first envisioned as a UN vehicle to serve as a catalyst for transformative private sector investments in clean energy. With the inclusion of a new partner that does not share our views on a clean and just energy transition for all countries, we are no longer a part of this programme.”
While proponents argue Africa must use all resources at its disposal to lift people out of energy poverty, critics warn fossil fuel investments are a risky bet.
“Far be it for global north nations to tell global south actors what to do with their assets. Whether it’s a good idea for economic reasons is another question,” said Kaya Axxelsson, research assistant at Oxford University’s Smith School. “In some places it may not be wise to build new gas infrastructure that gets stranded and locks them into a cycle of debt, especially when renewables may be a cheaper and safer option.”
The majority of gas projects under development across the continent are destined for export, not alleviating energy poverty. European nations are seeking extra supplies in the short term to replace Russian imports, but this demand may not last as they scale up renewables.
The Don’t Gas Africa coalition is urging African leaders at Cop27 to back wind and solar energy instead.
“The African dash for gas is pure folly and will only bring more climate harm to the people of Africa,” said Mohamed Adow, director of Power Shift Africa. “It’s horrifying to see an African Cop used to promote fossil fuels and exacerbate the climate suffering of African people. What is especially galling is that most of the gas being proposed will be sent to be burned by Europeans.”
The story was updated after publication on 09/11/2022 to include SEforAll’s decision to pull out of Team Energy Africa and NJ Ayuk’s blog post.