LET'S TAME THE POWER SECTOR MONSTER
By Emma Agu
Can any honest person oppose the capture of biometric data in our civil service? Can any patriotic Nigerian constitute a stumbling block to the unbundling of the bastions of inefficiently run pivotal institutions that have constituted an obstacle to rapid economic development in spite of Nigeria's abundant natural resources?
Is it still fashionable for labour or any segment of society to remain blindly trapped by the old-fashioned labour practices that arrested development in Soviet-era Eastern Europe? Does it not amount to bare-faced sabotage to scuttle the sustained improvement in power supply, a development that is already receiving the applause of Nigerians?
These questions and more are bound to resonate in public discourse as the nation is subjected to one of the most ill-informed and badly-timed strikes in its history. As we are all well aware, the leadership of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) had ordered workers of Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, to embark on strike since Monday ostensibly to protest the presence of soldiers guarding power installations in the country.
While the stated reason for the action is that the presence of soldiers constitutes a threat to workers' safety, power sector insiders insist that the real motive of the strikers is to prevent shortlisted companies, among those that have expressed interest in the unbundled companies, from carrying out the due diligence precedent to making an offer. If the later is the case that will amount to being criminal in the extreme.
But let us begin with the biometric data saga. One wonders what disability PHCN workers will suffer by having their biometric data obtained. Is there a health hazard, a social stigma or any economic drawback inherent in such a harmless exercise?
Could it be that somebody, somewhere, is afraid that accurate demographic information could checkmate the padding of staff lists and stop benefits to a cabal that could include beneficiaries of workers check-off dues? If anything, workers stand to benefit from proper biometric information because it ensures transparency, accountability and proper planning.
If the biometric data saga is laughable, the objection to power installations being guarded by soldiers is patently absurd, irritating and provocative. What, with the obvious security threat posed by terror groups of all hues? While PHCN staff union is entitled to being hypersensitive to the return of jackboot patrimony especially in a democracy, we must be vigilant and guard against any subterfuge aimed at hoodwinking us into accepting the elevation of private interests to public goals.
I stand to be contradicted but considered against the facts the PHCN workers union cannot be sincere. For far too long, soldiers have been guarding construction workers in various parts of Nigeria either from errant natives or dare-devil militants. If no labour union has raised eye-brows against this practice, why is the power sector union kicking against the same principle in the case of a more strategic national asset such as PHNC installations?
One thing stands out clear: the PHCN staff union has shown an unusual interest in the affairs of the power sector since the Goodluck Jonathan presidency and the emergence of Professor Barth Nnaji as the arrowhead of the administration's power sector reform agenda. But such behaviour is as baffling as it is inexcusable.
For, beyond Nnaji's sterling antecedents as a scholar and patriot, he stands out for his passion for the job, loyalty to Jonathan's agenda and doggedness in trying to dismantle the power sector cabal that has defied previous administrations and frustrated the nation's developmental aspirations.
To buttress this argument, one only needs to scan through the progress made in the power sector since May 2010 when President Jonathan co-opted Professor Nnaji into the Danjuma-led Presidential Advisory Committee (PAC) with specific responsibility for the power sector.
A good starting point will be in the area of technical capacity where, under Jonathan, power generation rose from 2400 megawatts to 3, 800 megawatts within one year. But as we will all remember, the system collapsed due to the inability of the existing transmission infrastructure to carry the load, thereby exposing a major defect in power sector planning.
Truth is, over the years, previous administrations focused on power generation without a corresponding investment in transmission and distribution. It is to the credit of the Jonathan Administration that that deficit has been addressed. It is also not surprising that many consumers have started dreaming of reliable power supply.
But it is in the area of staff welfare that the Jonathan Administration deserves even greater commendation. And to wit, the PHCN workers don't really dispute the claims. To the President's credit N57 Billion Naira was released last year to settle the monetization benefits of PHCN staff.
For a group of workers who had to wait for seven years before accessing their due, it is contradictory that instead of showing gratitude, they have decided to betray the gesture of the President.
As if that was not enough, based again on Nnaji's recommendation, President Jonathan went on to make provision of N142 Billion Naira in the budget to enable PHCN staff either acquire shares from the companies to be unbundled or, in the alternative, easily access their retirement benefits. But the icing on the cake of PHCN workers remains the salary raise that has jacked the organizations monthly wage bill from seven billion naira to N11 Billion Naira.
A PHCN insider confessed that the wage hike came to the workers as a pleasant surprise, especially against the background that Nnaji got the President to release Nine Billion Naira, to settle the differences for the months of June, July and August.
Against the background of the foregoing, it stands to reason that the current crisis could only have been ignited by a desire to derail the power sector reforms. Three reasons have been adduced for this. To start with, it has been suggested that when consummated, the ensuing corporate governance environment will frustrate extant practices that permitted for ghost workers and bloated check-off.
That's shameful, isn't it? Besides, there is a strong opinion that a cabal in the power sector that has benefitted from unreliable public power supply has developed an unpatriotic liaison with some PHCN labour leaders to frustrate the power sector reforms. You need not go far for the reason.
Reliable power supply will terminate their strangle-hold on Nigerians. Third, and perhaps more sinister is the speculation that the internecine arm-twisting by the Ajaero-led union is a dress rehearsal of the strategy for the 2015 general elections. Should that be true, then we must ponder the sinister make-up of those who want to p
lunge the nation into a power gridlock just to achieve very narrow political goals. Haba!
In fact, industry watchers believe that the current strike has two immediate motives: First, to prevent shortlisted companies from carrying out due diligence on the companies to be unbundled; second, to thwart the bidding process due in the next week or so. How else do we interpret economic sabotage? How much more unpatriotic can an individual or a group be?
With the unparalleled opening of the economy through the unbundling of the aviation and telecoms sectors, only a wicked pessimist and selfish predator will insist on sentencing us to perennial state control of a critical facility like the power sector.
We should not have any apologies for breaking that crippling monopoly, a wicked Leviathan, manipulated by wicked people to arrest Nigeria's development and subjugate Nigerians to endless misery characterized by crippling unemployment, arrested development of the productive sector and capital flight.
Those were the same blights that the 2005 Electric Power Sector Reform Act (EPSRA) set out to obliterate. We must remain focused on that and refuse to be held down by a cabal whose time is up. When all is said and done, PHCN has been precluded from going on strike.
Or are PHCN union leaders above the law? By the way, who are they and their co-travellers working for? While on this, the nation's gratitude should go to those patriotic PHCN staff that defied threats from their union leaders and kept faith with the country by risking their lives at their duty posts. Without their sacrifice, the gains of the past few months would have been completely eroded through the mindless sabotage of some selfish power mongers.
Come to think of it. Are we incapable of learning from history? If the truth must be told, PHCN staff should be thankful to President Jonathan and Professor Nnaji. Without looking too far, it's all too clear that concerted effort is being made to insulate PHCN staff from the misfortune that befell workers of the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited (NITEL).
If NITEL staff had allowed for a smooth unbundling of the company anchored on the measured worker-friendly steps now being taken in the power sector, it can be argued that NITEL staff would have been insulated from their present predicament.
The choice before PHCN staff is clear: either taming the obnoxious power sector cabal and enjoying a smooth transition or capitulating to their selfish ploy and risking a rough yet inevitable transformation.
Emma Agu is publisher of Zest titles and a commentator on national issues.