By NBF News
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I recall in October 2006, I was in South Africa for a conference when one of the participants upon learning that I am a Nigerian asked me about the state of electricity in the country. My reply, of course, was simple; we are still battling with the problem.

The gentleman who had visited Nigeria few years back, had narrated his ordeal and his embarrassment. He concluded that the solution to the country's epileptic power, if by then had not been solved, may need a divine hand.

The importance of electricity to Nigeria's development cannot be over-emphasized. From manufacturing, to the self-employed artisans, down to the household consumers, Nigerians have suffered the untold hardships from the poor state of the power sector.

It is no longer news that some manufacturers had been forced to relocate to other West African countries due to the high cost of doing business in Nigeria which was further aggravated by the non-availability of electricity and high cost of running generators.

But has the electricity been like this time immemorial? It may be necessary to go down memory lane. Before the popular National Electricity Power Authority (NEPA) which transformed into the present Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), there was Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) established in 1950, a body charged with the integration of power

Niger Dams Authority (NDA) was set up in 1962 to explore and develop the hydro potentials available in the country specifically along the River Niger amongst others. The NDA developed the hydro stations, the high voltage transmission lines and 132KV and 330 KV substations. The electricity so harnessed was sold to ECN. The amalgamation of the two bodies harnessed in 1972 ushered in the entity called NEPA.

One might be inclined to assume that ECN and NDA did better than NEPA. But a cursory look at the total electricity demand then was very low, as well as industrialization and commercial activities when compared with the present state of electricity demand.

No doubt, power generation transmission and distribution is capital intensive and require modernization in line with the new technologies. But what we have seen over the years is the total neglect of the sector with most of its facilities in a state of disrepair since installation. Recently, a publication quoting the Chief Executive Officer of Egbin Power station, Mr. Jonathan Ogbonna, stated that the station needs N33.6 billion to overhaul the station's six units of generation and distribution equipment to enable the organization function efficiently.

The CEO said that the station should be overhauled every five to six years, but the situation on ground is the fact that one of the units that had been due since 1990 had not been overhauled. 'At the moment, only one of the six units has been overhauled, while two others have been sent to South Korea for repairs and they are being expected soon. By May 2010, one of the units had worked for 24 years without it being statutorily overhauled.

'The standard practice is to upgrade or replace boiler or turn control equipment every 10 to 12 years due to obsolescence and advances in technology' he said. For the workers in the sector, the above report on Egbin was nothing new as it has always been the same for over 10 years.

According to a report by the Senior Staff Association of NEPA then, submitted to the Technical Board constituted for the turn around of the sector by former President Olusegun Obasanjo, maintenance has been the real problem.

The statement on Egbin has read: 'Egbin has been in operation since 1985. Installed capacity was 1320mw Available capacity is 660mw. Each of the units is supposed to be overhauled every five years, but none had been overhauled till date. The three units in service are due for annual maintenance inspection'.

The best practice required that 10 per cent of the cost of construction should be set aside for the operation and maintenance of the power plant annually, but the reverse was the case.

But for former President Obasanjo who made the issue of revamping electricity a priority, the previous military regimes before Obasanjo, the report added, completely neglected NEPA and this was climaxed during the General Babangida and Abacha regimes.

For too long, there was no board rather relatives and friends were planted in the Ministry of Power and Steel to exploit the little funds accruing to the authority from poorly generated revenues to the consternation of the Nigerian public.

Though the Nigerian factor beset with corruption which has been the cankerworm never allowed the Obasanjo's government to succeed. As NEPA then turned a windpipe in which several billions of Naira was siphoned. It is also a fact that the organization as a body cannot be left out of the corruption, top functionary of the labour union, Comrade Bede Opara, the incumbent National President of the Senior Staff Association of Electricity and Allied Companies (SSAEAC) pointed out that the general indiscipline among governmental top functionaries aided this.

As far as he is concerned, what is left of PHCN today is the selfless sacrifice of the workforce, who have continued to toil day and night to keep the systems running without adequate supply of gas, power, transformers, distribution transformers, transmission lines to mention but a few. 'The major problem we have in our sector has been undue political interference. Most of the money reported to have been budgeted for the sector never got utilized for the purpose it was budgeted for.

'We said it then that it is not sufficient for government to announce how much it had injected into the sector. It is more beneficial to determine the percentage of the money, that was actually utilized on the sector and the percentage consumed in corruption.

The quest for solution to the power sector, however, has prompted government canvassing for the privatization of the sector and promptly inaugurated the National Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) to put things in proper perspective backed with the Electric Power Sector Reform Act 2005.

Though the workers' unions at some point resisted the privatization of the sector based on the fear that it will spell doom for the country's social and industrial development.

The General Secretary of National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) in a petition to President Goodluck Jonathan dated 28th April, 2010 had challenged those canvassing for privatization to name any country that witnessed improved power generation after privatization.

'We equally went further to state that the private sector is only interested in profit maximization and that what is obtainable elsewhere where such policies are contemplated were tariff adjustments up to 500% within the first three years of reform. The poor gets poorer while the private sector smiles to the bank with billions of naira', he expressed.

The unions' fear may have come to the fore as Jonathan presidency has dared Nigerians by accepting the Professor Barth Nnaji's recommendation to increase tariff from the current rate of N4 per kilowatt hour (pkh) to N22pkh effective from end of June 2010. This no doubt may be a further means of impoverishing Nigerians living with less than one dollar per day. It would have been justifiable if there had been a commensurate improvement in electricity.

The unbundling of the PHCN into 18 companies, six power generation companies, the transmission company of Nigeria and 11 distribution companies may have been commenced with the appointment this year of the presidential taskforce.

Also the union may have been seen to have resisted the task force operations in Abuja and Lagos, but Comrade Opara said the act should not be interpreted as the workers total apathy to reeform of the sector.

'How could one describe a taskforce whose responsibilities are ad-hoc in nature, but went ahead to take over the office of the Managing Director of PHCN to carry out its job? 'Similarly, what impression does the presidential task force team think it's creating by visiting sensitive PHCN locations without any official statement announcing her visit or any other member of that team', he demanded.

The SSAEAC President said the workers in the past had always supported past committees or technical teams at any time of their visit, stressing that none of such had never physically ejected the then MD/CEO of NEPA/PHCN and usurp his paraphernalia of office. He insisted that the unions are not averse to the right reform of the energy sector, but insisted that labour issue should not be swept under the carpet or overlooked.

'For us going through the backdoor in the name of 'anointed committee' without addressing labour issues as contained in the collective agreement earlier reached is not what we expect as we have always reiterated our commitment to dialogue as a way forward. 'Our position has always been that liberalization in the sector should be done in such a way that will encourage private participation in power production, generation and distribution while it gradually disengaged from PHCN, to enable it participate in the deregulated Electricity industry independently'.

Opara said that the measure of any public policy must be the impact of such policy on the ordinary people in fulfillment of section 17 (1) of the 1999 constitution which provides that government actions shall be humane'.

He added: 'Section 14(2)(6) which stated that 'The security and welfare of the people shall be the primary purpose of government. 'Aside from this, the two-in-house Unions in the sector have consistently encouraged the government to facilitate dialogue as we have resolved that what befell the workers of Nigeria Telecommunication Limited (NITEL) in respect of their entitlement will not be the lot of PHCN workers', he said.

The labour leader insisted that PHCN workers are not opposed to the effort of government to fast-track the implementation of the Power Reform Act as they believe that such will improve significantly on the power situation in the country.