THE THREAT BY ELECTRICITY WORKERS
There is a general consensus among Nigerians that if the crisis of electricity supply in the country could be resolved, this would be a much better country. Artisans would be able to work and earn a living; factories will spend less on power generation; the security of lives and property will improve, social life will be more interesting, and there is also a lot to gain in the shape of national pride, and in terms of public health. Nigeria is at the moment trapped in a terrible power sector crisis. It generates at the best of times a mere 3,500 megawatts, for its over 150 million people. More than half of this capacity is generated by private companies – Shell, Agip and AES. Many parts of the country are in darkness for as long as six months in a year.
Homes and factories rely on power generating systems; in some neighbourhoods, it is difficult to sleep at night because of the noise from generators. A neighbour once acquired one of those terrible second hand generators, the type that sounds like an aircraft landing on the tarmac, spewing noxious fumes into the atmosphere, the exhaust pipe was targeted directly at my bedroom. It was difficult to sleep; the fumes had a stinging effect, and the neighbour insisted on his right to own a generator; it seemed impossible to get him to understand the threat to other people’s health. One day, however, the generator nearly caught fire, something happened to the engine and the menace was temporarily eliminated. There have been stories of generator explosions and of whole families dying because they had kept their small generator in the room overnight. Nearly every Nigerian owns one of those small generators called “I-better-pass-my-neighbour” which costs about N12, 000. I understand that when you buy that kind of generator, you also have to buy a long chain, like a dog leash, to secure the generator. One fellow kept his own generator in the compound and tied a chain to it, which he attached to his bed- to steal his generator, you will have to pull his bed along with you! Many of us cannot complete a day without inhaling petrol or diesel while trying to fill the generator tank. So much time is wasted, managing generators, and all the accessories that you need: a hose, jerry cans, funnel…so much indignity is involved; it is a shame how Nigeria dehumanizes its people, just because the authorities are unable to generate and distribute regular electricity. There can be no real economic development without an efficient power sector. Nigeria claims that it is determined to become one of the biggest 20 economies in the world, by the year 2020. This will be at best an empty wish if the present power crisis is unresolved. How can Nigeria become an industrial nation with less than 4, 000 MW of electricity? Many companies have had to relocate from the country because of the same crisis. They simply close shop and go to neighbouring countries: it is cheaper to set up a factory in Ghana, Benin, Togo and even Sao Tome than in Nigeria. When you visit other countries and the aircraft arrives at night, the first thing that strikes you is the skyline: the layout of the city below, with shining lights running into the distance. When you look out of the aircraft in Nigeria at night, what you see is the darkness of our cities, a telling metaphor about how in 2010, Nigeria remains a dark country. South Africa with its population of 47 million people, generates 43, 000 MW. Thailand with 70 million people generates 40, 000MW; the United Kingdom (pop. 60 million people) generates about 77, 000 MW of electricity. Brazil (pop. 180 million people) generates 90, 000MW, while the United States with a population of about 300 million generates 2, 900 watts per person, which is more than the Nigerian national average for 150 million people! Are these some of the countries Nigeria will like to rub shoulders with in ten years? With the present confusion, it will take Nigeria more than 10 years to get to the South African level, but with the inefficiency and the corruption in official corridors, it could take much longer. No serious nation will seek to sustain such failure. In fairness to the authorities, there has been some attempt since 1999 to address the challenge of power supply, but so far nothing has been achieved. The late Chief Bola Ige, as Minister of Power under the Obasanjo administration had complained after six months of trying to figure out the extent of the problem, that there is a Mafia that is determined to frustrate any attempt to make the power sector more efficient. This is the challenge that government needs to deal with. That Mafia needs to be castrated, for the good of the country. It is a mafia that is made up of the importers of diesel, and generating sets whose business can only thrive if the status quo is sustained. So powerful is this group that at a recent presentation of the power sector reform agenda at the National Assembly, the Speaker of the House reportedly pointed out that the interest of this group should be considered because of its huge investment in the economy! It is in fact the interest of this group that needs to be destroyed if Nigeria must move forward. The other members of the Mafia are the electricity workers, that is the staff of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, who are organized under the umbrella of a notorious group called the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE). PHCN workers have for many years benefitted from the failure of the power sector, for which they are also largely responsible. There are 46, 000 of them working in 18 companies which were created in 2005, following the unbundling of then NEPA, the precursor of PHCN. Many stories have been told about the notoriety of PHCN workers: they do not provide electricity, yet they expect people to pay for services not rendered. PHCN bills are often unreasonable; the only explanation by the marketing staff is that they have been given targets to meet; and it is their duty to tax the public. When a few years ago, the pre-paid meter was introduced, we were all excited because it meant respite from PHCN’s strange bills, but because it robbed electricity workers of the tyrannical power they had exercised over the public, they soon stopped distributing the meters. PHCN workers have also been accused of willfully sabotaging electricity installations in the country. The company like Nigeria Airways, and NITEL, which used to be owned and managed by the Nigerian government, provides another good reason why the Nigerian government should not run any business. Government business in Nigeria is regarded as nobody’s business, and those who mismanage government are, like our lawmakers, interested only in their own pockets. I once went to a PHCN office to pay electricity bills, and was surprised to see that the source of electricity to the office was a power generating set. I support the argument that the Nigerian government should hands off the electricity business and hand it over to private investors: this is the main target of the Power Sector Reform Agenda which was launched in August 2010 by the Jonathan administration, and it is perhaps the boldest move in this sector since late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua threatened to declare an emergency in the power sector and then did nothing after setting up a committee to plan towards that emergency. Under the proposed reform plan, the Federal Government intends to sell its stake in 17 of the existing power companies (6 power generating companies, 11 distribution companies) to private investors. It will retain only the Transmission Company of Nigeria, which will be managed on its behalf by a private manager. This may turn out to be the threat to the entire plan. Government should not hold on to any of the companies. The argument that government should oversee power transmission because of national security considerations is ill-advised. The biggest threat to national security in Nigeria as we have seen are government officials who are forever willing to betray their country. The other threat to the proposed plan is coming from electricity workers who have threatened again and again to go on strike to frustrate the power sector reform. The union has gone on strike twice since August, and it is threatening to do so again before Christmas. NUEE has openly declared its opposition to the reform plan on the grounds that it will mean job losses for its members. The organisation however does not enjoy the sympathy of Nigerians. Whenever its members announce a strike, the response from the public has been one of complete indifference. For as long as anyone can remember, electricity sector workers have been on near-permanent strike. Professor Bart Nnaji and his team who are managing the power sector reform have promised that the reform agenda will turn out to be a revolution similar to what has happened in the telecom sector in Nigeria. That sounds attractive, but not enough effort has been made to explain the proposed reform to the various publics involved. The Federal Government Presidential Task Force on Power needs to take electricity workers through the details of the proposed reform and educate them accordingly. Many Nigerians are also in the dark about the proposed reform. The process of inviting and accepting bids for the companies to be privatized must be transparent. NUEE is alleging that there is a plan to sell the companies to highly-placed government officials and their friends: that concern should be addressed. What do Nigerians want? We want regular electricity supply. There are many Nigerians who are ready and willing to pay more for electricity, if it is available. Private investment in the electricity sector should translate into greater efficiency. Consumers will pay only for services rendered, and there may well be greater discipline in terms of electricity usage. Hopefully, the current weak electricity sector infrastructure will be replaced. Many Nigerians, even when there is power supply don’t even bother to turn off their switches. If they have to pay for every minute of electricity usage, they will be more disciplined. The Presidential Task Force on Power has been showing so much enthusiasm about its assignment, and Professor Nnaji sounds in particular as if the revolution is truly around the corner. This enthusiasm will only make sense if it translates into measurable outcomes and great improvement. The privatization of PHCN companies must not end up like the NITEL privatization. Enthusiasm alone is not enough as BPE prepares to invite bids for the companies. If President Goodluck Jonathan is able to deliver on his administration’s promise of regular electricity for all Nigerians, before May 29, 2011, he would have earned the votes that he seeks. If he fails, the story of the power sector reform failure will also be told. As for NUEE, the anger of its members is misplaced. Going on strike three times within four months smacks of desperation. The only ones among them who need to be afraid are those who may not have sellable skills and may not fit into a new regime in the power sector. Whatever needs to be done to end the reign of darkness in the country must be done for it is the key to the future and our happiness.