In Ghana, an Activist Forms a Coalition Against Coal
Goldman Environmental Prize recipient Chibeze Ezekiel helped block a coal-fired power plant
To fight the establishment, sometimes a stealth attack is in order. Chibeze Ezekiel, an environmentalist in Accra, the capital of Ghana, deployed what he calls a “submarine approach” to thwart plans for a massive coal-fired plant. On Monday, he was awarded the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for his efforts.
“We did not come out publicly to make any noise,” says Ezekiel, 41. “We understood that we are dealing with government, which has the resources and the machinery…. Thirty or 40 people cannot push government that much. But if you build the people’s power in the community and also build some alliances with the bigger NGOs, then you have a stronger force.”
In 2013, the Ghanaian government announced plans for a coal-fired power plant and port in Aboano, a coastal town in the Ekumfi district, powered by coal shipped from South Africa. The high-profile project was touted by the government as a solution to the country’s acute energy crisis. Nearly half of Ghana’s electricity is produced by hydropower, which has been impacted by climate-change-related droughts, and its supply of natural gas has been very unreliable.
By 2015, power outages had become so frequent that businesses were collapsing and Ghanaian celebrities had made #DumsorMustStop, referencing the slang term for the outages, into a social media cause.
But the coal plant would incur high costs of its own. The project’s 2015 environmental and social impact report outlined a $1.5 billion 700MW plant, with the potential to expand to 2000MW, and identified operational impacts including air pollution from its emissions and potential groundwater contamination from the leaching of fly ash. Along with the health hazards posed by the coal power plant to the 52,000 residents in the area, burning coal is a primary source of carbon emissions and thus a major contributor to climate change.
Facing an election in 2016, the government sought to emphasize the plant’s benefits—cheap energy, job creation—and downplay any negatives. Ezekiel, along with six other members of 350 Ghana Reduce Our Carbon (G-ROC), an environmental group he had helped start in 2013, went to Ekumfi to find out what the government representatives had been telling the local communities. Over the course of a few days, they visited the villages in the area and learned that residents had not been told of adverse impacts. “There were people who were themselves scared or unhappy about the project, but they had no one to talk to,” says Ezekiel. “But because we came to the community, they found solace in our presence, opened up to us, and also helped to foster an alliance.”
Once back in Accra, G-ROC organized a meeting to share their findings with several other nonprofits and collaborate on stopping the plant. Together, they honed their message: how the promised jobs would end after construction was completed, and that cheap energy came at a cost to public health and the environment. While another group, Ghana Youth Environmental Movement, lobbied against the plant on social media and in the street, G-ROC worked behind the scenes.
To put pressure on the government, G-ROC wrote to different agencies, asking questions about the project. While no answers were forthcoming, they could tell they were having an impact since allies within the government began contacting them with information to strengthen their case. In October 2016, about six months after their campaign started, a government official said the project had been shelved. A few months later, the residents of Ghana voted for a new government, replacing the president and majority party in parliament.
It was the first activist campaign that Ezekiel had organized, but he was well prepared for it. Growing up in Accra, he was supposed to take over the family business in importing and reselling secondhand clothing. But in his mid-20s, friends got him interested in social work. In his late 20s, he attended the University of Ghana, where he studied psychology and sociology. During his time there, he started a nonprofit called the Strategic Youth Network for Development. “My ambition was to promote youth inclusion in decision-making processes. This ambition was based on an observation that young people were often marginalized or disenfranchised in decision-making processes that directly or indirectly affected them,” he wrote in a post for the Facebook page We are African Borns.
In 2009, he attended a formative two-week program in Istanbul. Sponsored by the World Bank, the British Council, and the Istanbul Technical University, it trained young people from developing countries to become champions against climate change. It was the first time that Ezekiel had heard about this existential threat. With a $500 grant he received from the program, he went to Ashaladja, a town near Accra that had been affected by flooding, and talked to the chief and elders about climate change and how the community could adapt to it. In 2013, he attended 350.org’s Global Power Shift conference in Istanbul, where nearly 500 people came together to discuss climate change action. When they got back from the conference, Ezekiel and seven other attendees from Ghana formed 350 Ghana Reduce Our Carbon.
Since the victory against the coal plant, G-ROC, whose members are 22 years old on average, has been working on creating grassroots demand for renewable energy. In February 2019, the new government released a renewable energy master plan. “[It] is prudent that Ghana begins to develop its renewable energy resources to continue to keep it clean, reduce dependence on imported fuels for power generation, while at the same time, contribute power towards the energy needs of the country for accelerated economic development,” reads the report.
Ezekiel’s original organization, Strategic Youth Network for Development, is helping to keep attention on Ghana’s nationally determined contributions—the country’s individual efforts to reduce its carbon emissions—to the landmark 2015 Paris Agreement. The group’s public awareness campaign on social media is designed to help the public understand it—and demand commitment from the government.
“Young people are seen to be vulnerable, that they don’t have the political will or the political power,” says Ezekiel. “But on the other side, they have the skills; they have the social media expertise. This whole campaign [against the coal plant] was masterminded and led by young people. We are bringing an army of young people promoting climate change action and renewable energy.”