Journalism in the service of society

A nation in darkness

‘All that the average Nigerian wants is stable and efficient power supply. If Nigeria is supplying power to Niger Republic, then there can be no excuse whatsoever for failure at home, other than the fact that it may be a conspiracy against the masses of our people. Let there be light!’

FOR the umpteenth time, the epileptic national grid collapsed over the weekend again, resulting in blackout in most parts of the country. A terse statement from the Ministry of Power attributed the collapse to “the partial shutdown of the Oben gas plant to address the repair of critical gas processing equipment. The incident unfortunately occurred at a time when other power plants on other gas sources are undergoing planned maintenance and capacity testing.” You cannot fault this empty logic, can you? This has been the story of power supply in Nigeria and it is unlikely that things will change. In times past, we used to look forward to the rainy season because it births a temporary moment of stability in electricity generation. It is possible that this year, some supernatural forces have blocked the flow of water in all the dams, especially now that diesel sells for about N800 per litre.

Power generation is the main issue with regard to the socio-economic development of any nation. In Nigeria however, successive governments have deployed it for political gains, knowing the importance that Nigerians attach to it. Thus in 2015 when it was canvassing for votes from the electorate, the All Progressive Congress stated as follows:

“Generate, transmit and distribute from current 5,000 – 6,000 MW to at least 20,000 MV of electricity within four years and increasing to 50,000 MW with a view of achieving 24/7 uninterrupted power supply within ten years, whilst simultaneously ensuring development of sustainable/renewable energy.” – Manifesto of the All Progressive Congress (APC), submitted to the people of Nigeria in the wake of the 2015 general elections.

Seven years down the line, the electricity situation has not fared any better, if not worse. For instance, I have never experienced electricity supply in my home town since I was born, as we are not connected to the national grid at all. Indeed, the entire Ondo South Senatorial District was disconnected from the grid about twelve years ago even though attempts are underway to reconnect. Several towns and villages are like my home town, locked out of any form of development at all, yet we are classified as oil producing.

The impression that our leaders in power have conveyed to us is that it is practically impossible to have stable and permanent power supply; that we don’t have the resources to build the needed energy plants that will meet the needs of all Nigerians; that we must accept generators as second nature, if we must function and survive, as a people. Churches, banks, schools, small businesses, factories, government ministries and departments, police stations, the courts and even PHCN itself, all depend on generators. Indeed, a story was once told that a President was set to commission a newly built power plant and a generator had to be hired to power the commissioning ceremony. It is that bad.

Electricity is listed in the Exclusive Legislative List of the Constitution, the implication of which is that only the federal government can deal with issues related to power, although it has since been discovered that off-grid developments are not covered by this exclusive design. Over the years, it has been the sole business of the federal government, to legislate on, regulate and provide electricity, with the debilitating effect of poor management, bureaucratic bottlenecks, corruption, incompetence and sheer greed, all holding that powerful sector down. We have been told several tales of billions of dollars pumped into the power sector, with little or no results, making Nigerians to conclude that there must be some demons and principalities, holding the power sector in the jugular. And it is one out of the many nuts that this administration has not been able to crack.

The average experience of those depending upon public power supply is that of total frustration, resulting from absence of any supply at all, irregular supply, low voltage, high voltage, load shedding, constant blackouts, extortion by members of staff of the companies involved and naked corruption. This has in turn led many to believe that there is some sort of collusion between the regulators, transmitters and the distributors of power, with generator importers and marketers, with diesel marketers and suppliers, with candle manufacturing companies and the importers of rechargeable solutions generally, to milk us dry.

Having cornered all exclusive rights over the power sector, the expectation was that the federal government would do all in its power to satisfy the demands of the citizens in respect of power consumption. All over the land, power cables and conductors line the space, some disjointed, some expired, some others so very weak that they cannot even transmit the available power. In some tragic cases, these exposed cables have fallen upon innocent passersby, leading to instant electrocution.

To get electricity to the consumer, there has to be a transformer, to which power will be transmitted and thereafter distributed to individual consumers. These transformers are in most cases archaic, old, dysfunctional and unable to bear the load of the electricity consumers. So, what happens in most cases is that the fuses plugged to these transformers get blown up due to excess load, whilst some get stolen outrightly, leading to blackout. In some other cases when the fuses don’t work optimally, there is then the problem of low or high voltage, which impacts upon and at times damage valuables, at times leading to fire incidents resulting in several deaths. The law regulating the power sector grants absolute immunity to the players.

To survive these frustrations, you have to develop an alternative means of power supply on your own, the commonest of which is the generator. The generator has to be powered through fuel or diesel and it has to be maintained constantly, to serve you. The generator comes with its own health hazards, such as noise pollution, dangerous fumes, which has led to the death of several persons. The sum total of the Nigerian experience then is that the generator has become the main source of power supply, whilst public supply is more of the standby option. The generator is all over the country, in small units of “I better pass my neighbor” or the bigger diesel units. You need a huge financial capacity to maintain the generators. Nigeria being a tropical region with our very hot temperature, you will most probably need an air conditioner to survive in our climate, which takes a fortune to sustain through the generator.

The absence of basic infrastructure fuels corruption and is a disincentive for selfless service, as our leaders in office, having tasted the allure of stable power supply through generators funded with the commonwealth, would want to perpetuate their lives of luxury when out of office, and so they use this as an excuse to dip into the public treasury to amass enough resources to help them secure and sustain basic infrastructure when out of office, all of which are out of the reach of the common man. Stable power supply is critical to life and existence, it is vital to economic growth and development and it is the foundation upon which all other development initiatives can blossom. We just cannot survive without power.

It was this terrible scenario that the APC promised to change when it was canvassing for votes in 2015, but now, seven years in office, all we get is one story or the other, leading to the usual blame game of failure of past regimes. From the manifesto of the APC, the federal government was to generate at least 5,000 MW of electricity yearly, with equal capacity to transmit and distribute it. Whilst commissioning traffic lights in Lekki Phase 1 in Lagos on 12thNovember, 2014, Fashola as governor of Lagos State then, had asserted that any serious government will fix the power problem in six months. In clearly a matter of fate, Fashola was subsequently appointed minister in charge of power, after the 2015 elections. He could not fix it in four years. He had power but could not deliver power. And those who took over from him have not fared any better.

Egypt, an African country not as endowed as Nigeria, commissioned Siemens in 2016, to build a power plant that could generate 14.4 gigawatts of electricity and this was completed and commissioned in July 2018. The cost was a paltry $7.2b, less than half the money purportedly spent on electricity in Nigeria for eight years. Nigeria had engaged the same Siemens to transform the power sector but nothing has changed.

From all the foregoing therefore, I have reason now to believe that our leaders use epileptic power supply as an instrument of oppression, to frustrate many Nigerians, to halt their development initiatives, to collapse their industries and investments, to the extent that they would have no other alternative than to surrender to the programmes and policies of the ruling government, however wicked and obnoxious they may be and thereby weaken the base of any possible opposition, invariably leading to dictatorship, totalitarianism and despotism.

Part of the solution to the power problems is to decongest the exclusive list of the Constitution and allow States, Local Governments, corporate entities and other players to intervene in the power sector chain. This is part of the restructuring that Nigerians yearn for and it is certainly not rocket science at all. Government should divest itself from active involvement in the power sector beyond regulation. This should be the major focus of this administration, in the light of the manifold benefits accruing from stable power supply. Beyond this however, consumers should embrace the reality of the economic implications of stable power. We cannot do the same thing and expect different results. The amount we all spend on diesel or fuel far outweighs the tariff increase that we are so scared of. In some estates in Lagos for instance, it has been the case of willing buyer willing supplier, by which arrangement some homes and offices do enjoy about 22 hours supply on a daily basis. So, we need to find some balance between a stable power supply and a realistic tariff regime.

In addition to this is the need for the power distribution companies to brace up for some revolutionary methods, such as massive investment in infrastructure, especially transformers. There has to be a change somehow, which translates such investment into substantial improvement in the power distribution chain. All that the average Nigerian wants is stable and efficient power supply. If Nigeria is supplying power to Niger Republic, then there can be no excuse whatsoever for failure at home, other than the fact that it may be a conspiracy against the masses of our people. Let there be light!

*Adegboruwa is a Senior Advocate of Nigeria, SAN

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