OPINION: Democracy, Electricity and a Nation’s Romance with Darkness

By Jerome-Mario Utomi

The growth, prosperity and national security of any country says development practitioners are critically dependent upon the adequacy of its electricity supply. And, the link between electricity supply and economic development is such that the health of the industry is a matter of deep and personal concern to all citizens. Nigeria is no exception. Even Barrack Obama, a former president of the United States of America (USA), underlined the above assertion when he remarked in his book; the Audacity of Hope, that a nation that cannot control its energy sources can’t control its future.

In view of this premium placed on electricity, there is a reason to worry that Nigerians may experience something more than mere circle of regret. As inability to achieve stability in the past prevented the nation from solving its developmental problems that includes but not limited to; unemployment, lack of investments, dwindled industrialization and painfully prevented the nation from BRICS membership, an acronym coined for an association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, despite being the giant of Africa and the most populous black nation in the world.

Such importance also explains why successive administrations right from May 1999 when democracy re-emerged on the political space called Nigeria made more than a few effort- developing different roadmaps to boost power supply in the country. Of which these efforts failed to achieve far-reaching results.

Finding answers to; what led to the failures, how such failures impeded the nation’s democracy and development in the last two decades, discover if the nation have recovered its equilibrium resulting from such ‘conflict and turmoils’, and most importantly whether the present administration has absorbed the right lessons from past failures in order not to repeat same, form the objectives of this piece.

With this point highlighted, let’s focus on more specific details.

In 2005, the government of Former President Olusegun Obasanjo going by media reports attempted to solve the power problem with the power sector. As part of that reform, the then National Electric Power Authority, which was renamed Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, was to be unbundled for Privatization. But the Reform did not go far before Obasanjo left office in 2007, but before then, he had according to media reports, sunk $16 billion into the NIPP without anything to show for it.

Late President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua, who took over from Obasanjo, also acknowledged the enormity of electric power problem and promised to confront it headlong by declaring a state of emergency in the power sector. He never did so for the more than two years that the regime lasted. But President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan, who was also a key member of the Yar’Adua presidency, showed some zeal to confront the problem when he set up the Presidential Task-force on power on August 26, 2010 with a clear mandate to come up with a power reform time-table. The task-force came up with a road map for power with medium term target to build total generation capacity of 14,218mw by December 2013.

Aside from noting that by the middle of 2013, owning private generating sets in the country will be out fashioned as all homes and factories in Nigeria will start to enjoy uninterrupted electricity supply, President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan (as he then was), at the launch of the plan also stated thus;

‘As President and Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, I and my Vice President, Arc. Namadi Sambo, GCON, are conscious that what we do with the Nigerian electricity supply industry will go a long way in determining whether Nigeria remains in darkness or joins the rest of the world in the race for development. Our commitment is to bring an end to our nation’s stunted growth and usher in the fresh air of prosperity by pursuing a new era of sector-wide reform which is driven by improved service delivery to every class of customers in the Nigerian electricity sector’.

Regrettably, at the time of his departure from office in May 2015, President Jonathan like his predecessors neither achieved the 14,218 mw which was the medium target of his power roadmap nor the promised fresh air of prosperity.

Very recently, President Muhammadu Buhari, who was still basking in the euphoria of his victory in 2019 general election, launched a similar roadmap for the power sector. Which according to government sources form a part of the outcome of meeting President Muhammadu Buhari held with a German Chancellor, Angela Merkel on August 31, 2018.  And will have Nigeria partner with the German government and Siemens, in implementing projects geared towards resolving challenges in the sector, expand capacity for future power needs and supply in Nigeria. The Plan under the Presidential Power Initiative is expected also to transmit and distribute a total of 11,000 Megawatts by 2023. And handle other critical Transmission Rehabilitation and Expansion Programme such as the Alaoji to Onitsha, Delta Power Station to Benin and Kaduna to Kano among others.

Before we are led to wholesomely approve and applaud this roadmap, it is obviously important to state that it is not without its pitfall.

Take apart the fact that electricity tariff pricing under this regime is reputed for non infusion of human rights principles of participation, accountability and transparency, very key of such drawback has to do with inconsiderate policy somersaults, and use of technicalities by the administration to generate excuses for non performance.

Illustratively, early in the year (2020) there was a reported proposition of hike in tariff by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC). Which detailedly stipulates that residential customer category (R3), in the Ikeja Disco who pays N26.5 per kilowatt/hour, will start paying N36.49 per kilowatt/hour beginning from July, indicating an increase of N9.99.among others. But the plan has to be put off till the first quarter of 2021 following a declaration by the National Assembly leadership  that measures need to be put in place as the time was simply not right and appropriate for such hike.

But in flagrant disobedience to the NASS directive, a new price regime of N66.00 per kilowatt/hour, that is unthinkably higher, and more painful than the initially proposed N36.49 per kilowatt/hour has since been introduced.

Under this condition, it will be difficult implementing meaningful people-purposed change in the nation’s electricity sector when institutions are the cause of the problems in the first place. And engineering prosperity without confronting the root cause of the problem and the politics that keeps them in place is unlikely to bear fruit as deconstructionists/ institutional structure that creates failure will also prevent the implementation of such interventions.

There is another vivid example why the nation may continue to romance darkness.

In July 2014, it was reported that Lagos State Governor, Mr. Babatunde Fashola,(as he then was) while marking his 2,600 days in office at an elaborate ceremony held at the Blue Roof of the Lagos Television premises, going by media reports said that voting out the ruling Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) from power in next year’s general election is the only way the country can have stable electricity. Electricity crisis in the country he added is caused by lack of ideas and insincerity of purpose on the part of Federal Government.

Contrary to his earlier comment, instead of providing the missing idea, Babatunde Fashola, as Nigeria’s Minister of Power Works and Housing in December 2018, while speaking at the Nextier Power Dialogue in Abuja, stated that the federal government should not be blamed for poor electricity supply across the country. Arguing that since the sector had been privatised; it was not the Nigerian government’s fault if citizens fail to enjoy stable electricity supply.

“There are problems without a doubt and we must deal with them, “But let me remind you, all of the assets that the Ministry of Power used to control power were sold by the last administration before I came. And so if you don’t have power, it is not the government’s problem. Let us be honest,”

What a paradox!

While such inconsistency, failure, failing are traced to Fashola, it remains a sin that Mr President must share from its guilt as the first opinion that is formed of a leader’s intelligence according to Niccolo Machiavelli is based on the quality of men he has around him. When they are competent, he can always be considered wise, because he has been able to recognize their competence. But when they are otherwise, the ruler is always open to adverse criticism; because his first mistake has been in the choice of his ministers.

Finally, as Nigerians continue to wait for President Buhari to engineer positive fruit bearing decision in the sector, evidence before the global community shows that President Buhari’s newly inaugurated Economic Recovery and Growth Plan (ERGP).will definitely run into challenge unless something theatrical is done to make available in the country stable and affordable electricity.

Jerome-Mario Utomi(jeromeutomi@yahoo.com), is a Lagos-Based Media Consultant.

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