By Dan Agbese
Babatunde Fashola, minister of works and housing, was recently quoted as saying that only a magician could fix the power problem in the country. He probably meant it as a cynical joke. But as the late British prime minister, William Churchill, would say in a matter of this nature, “the titter ill accords with the tocsin.”
Fashola should know why the more the nation spends on power, the more it reaps darkness and the absence of light in a country this big, this rich and this influential on the African continent. He was Buhari’s first minister of works, housing and power. Power has been de-coupled from works and housing and regained its status as a ministry. A new minister, Saleh Mamman, now heads it. He came into office asking Nigerians to pray for his success. I suppose he knew that he had been given an assignment that might not likely make him a celebrated minister among generator merchants at the end of the day. He surely needs our prayers.
Fashola could afford to joke about this great national shame now because a crushing burden has been taken off him. He is no longer to blame for whatever happens in the opaque power sector. I am afraid, the Buhari administration faces imminent defeat in the power sector – unless the magician puts in some incantations. However, if it is any consolation for the president, the power problems defeated presidents Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan too before him. Each of them came into office staking his reputation on tackling the energy challenges and ending the long and interminable reign of epileptic power supply in the country. By the time Obasanjo and Jonathan left office, the generator merchants still had bank managers eating out of their calloused hands.
We thought Buhari would benefit from what defeated his predecessors in office and chart a new path to the Eldorado in the power sector. He first came into office on May 29, 2015, attended by a banner proclaiming loudly his promise to defeat the one national problem that has humbled military and civilian leaders alike since independence.
Nearly five years later, the moment of truth stares us in the face. Fixing the problem has become the problem for the president. The power situation has become progressively worse. This year alone, the national grid collapsed 13 times. As The Guardian newspaper put it its front page story on the power crisis in its issue of December 22, 2019, “the current administration appear(s) clueless in the face of a persistent grid collapse, poor co-ordination and looming strike action by electricity workers.”
As you read this, millions of our compatriots have no reasons to feel the joy of the Yuletide season. It is difficult to be joyful in darkness and gloom. The rich in your neighbourhood rub it in with their ubiquitous I-pass-my neighbour generators that mercilessly shatter your peace of mind.
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The problems in the power sector are too complex even for a magician. But they are not impossible problems. No nation solved its power problems with prayers or the magic wand. Ghana did not; South Africa did not. Ghana is celebrating 25 years of uninterrupted power supply. How did it do it? It is a question Nigeria should be asking itself and the Ghanaians. It needs to learn from others. There is no shame in a small country like Ghana teaching a big country like Nigeria how to solve its power problems.
The solution need not be imported. It is right here in the country. We must take three vital steps if we are serious about solving the power problems. The first step is to admit that the centralised power transmission and distribution system is not working. It calls for the regionalisation of power generation, transmission and distribution. It would be more efficient because the distribution and the transmission lines are much shorter and whatever hiccups there might be in the system could be quickly attended to. It does not make sense for all the power generation centres to feed what they generate into the national grip for transmission and distribution nation-wide. This is not about the national cake. It is about national progress among the comity of modern nations. We need an efficient system to serve our needs. Regionalisation recommends itself as a sensible and pragmatic approach to the power problem.
The second step should be for the federal government to determine what its proper role in the power sector should be: should it be to police policies and ensure compliance with regulations? Or should it continue to be a player in a specialised area in which its incompetence over the years has been demonstrated time and again as a hindrance? The unbundling of NEPA brought in private sector players in the power sector. It has not proven to be the solution we verily believed it would be because we failed to do what we should have done to make a success of the policy.
Both the conception and the implementation of the new policy left much to be desired. The entire process soon became messy. Senate President Ahmad Lawan, recently described as fraudulent. The private players did not have the financial muscle to fully fund what they took on. In what should have been a huge scandal anywhere but Nigeria, the government had to partially fund them. The federal government refuses to let go. It insists on holding unto part of the equity and would not let transmission go to the private players.
This is a clear obstacle to our progress. We cannot have it both ways. We have had enough experience to appreciate the simple fact that the private/public partnership is a mere drag on our progress in this very vital sector. We should review the entire process, throw out incompetent private sector players and let in competent private sector players with the required financial muscle. A full privatised power sector policed by the electricity regulatory agency is the way to go.
Change, the change Buhari promised, has refused to find a berth in the power sector. Nigeria with 200 million people, is still fitfully generating 4,000 megawatts a day. This was the figure before the partial privatisation. Even a steady but pathetic generation of 4,000 mw would still not make an impression on our national power supply needs. It should not be difficult for us to see that we took the wrong road towards the Eldorado. The Guardian newspaper referred to earlier quoted a 2017 report by Spectator Index on the worst performing countries in electricity generation. Our dear country placed second out of 137 countries. Makes you want to weep except that if you weep for Nigeria, you waste your tears.
The third action step would be to make the expenditure on the power sector more open and less opaque. To begin with, we need to know what Obasanjo, Yar’Adua and Jonathan spent on power and what it was spent on it and why. We need to know why the nation did not get its full values for those expenditures. We need to know what Buhari has spent so far on the power sector. These simple enquiries should tell us if the administrations, past and present, threw good money at bad problems and expected to move mountains.
I sympathise with those who have called for a declaration of national emergency in the energy sector. I am afraid that too would take us nowhere. The president does not need emergency powers to find the will to frontally tackle the one sector on which all other sectors depend. If we do not get the power sector right, we cannot expect to make progress in the age of electricity. Electricity is the major driver of a nation’s economic and social development. Industries, big and small, depend on electricity. We do remember, don’t we, that many multi-national companies had to relocate to neighbouring African countries because it was no longer cost effective for them to remain in Nigeria and engage in the daily battle with epileptic or even absent power supply.
A lethal combination of generator merchants, the oil cabal and their compradors in the public sector have held this nation to ransom for too long. They seem impregnable. I cannot put my fingers on any reasons why the government should feel so helpless in rescuing the nation from their unholy grip. Our country must not continue to be the dumping ground for generators from every part of the world. As the foreign manufacturers and the local merchants laugh to the banks, Nigerians groan in darkness. It is unacceptable.