…I’m not hopeful that we can make the needed change in this matter, to be candid, because Nigeria has never been a truthful country. The darkness we are in is at once a symptom of our dark hearts, as it is a metaphor for the state of our nation. Perhaps someone signed a pact with the devil. For now, it is difficult to imagine how this conundrum will be unraveled.
“An age was called ‘Dark’, not because the light failed to shine, but because people refused to see it.” – James Michener
Owei Lakemfa, one of Nigeria’s best columnists recently titled his write-up “Let There be Light, But Not in Nigeria”, in a throwback to the very beginning of creation, when God commanded, “Let there be light!”. The next verse goes, “And there was light”. According to Biblical accounts, before God gave that command, the Earth was formless and in a depressing state of darkness. That singular command changed everything. According to Owei, perhaps God also gave a command that Nigeria as a country should not be part of the equation. What we are seeing these days is a total breakdown of the process by which there could be sustainable electricity in the land. As a matter of fact, for most Nigerians, this country may be plowing through its own Dark Ages – an age where the sun shone each morning and blazed in the afternoon, but people lived in darkness because Nigerians simple refused, quite vehemently and obstinately, to see the light.
I was with a group of middle managers from the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) recently. Among other issues, we discussed the state of electricity in Nigeria and I gave them feedback from the Nigerian masses; that we believe TCN is the problem with Nigeria’s electricity. Highly educated Nigerians argue that TCN is the last vestige of government ownership in that sector, government having sold off the aspects of electricity generation and distribution, and so it must be the jinx that still ails the electricity sector. Those who are ‘enlightened’ believe government should privatise the entire spectrum, but would that solve the problem? Maybe, maybe not. Nigerians believe, one way or another, that government is still to hold responsible for the failure to deliver electricity. And by God, Nigerians are right. When government ran the whole show, things were pathetic. But now that they’ve privatised most of the value chain, things are beyond dismal. Our friend and ex-governor of Lagos State, Babatunde Raji Fashola boasted that any serious government should be able to fix electricity in six months. He has spent more than a year battling with the issues, seemingly losing the war and getting his reputation whitewashed all at once. What could be wrong with Nigeria’s electricity sector? Are we truly jinxed?
My friends from TCN mounted a spirited defence for their organisation, which is what prompted this article. They explained that even they – TCN – were owed over N100 billion by electricity distribution companies (DISCOs) for services rendered; and that there were times the TCN had to inform generating companies (GENCOs) not to generate electricity because the DISCOs were not ready to take this. The DISCOs are not taking electricity because Nigerians are not paying.
The entire infrastructure should simply be built on Nigerians paying for electricity. But years of blind stealing and sabotage has created a gaping hole in that sector that may never be filled. Higher tariffs are being contemplated, to make Nigerians pay for the sins of the past, but people are staunchly resisting these and rightly so.
The imminent collapse of the sector – which saw more than 20 system shut downs (six total collapse and 16 partial) in the last one year – has led to government putting up taxpayers’ money as bailout for these private companies which intended to make a kill. In April 2015, government put up a bailout of N213 billion.
For starters, government agencies are some of the biggest debtors. As I type this, many of our federal government agencies have been cut off by the DISCOs. But that cannot last for long as the DISCOs will soon be arm-twisted to do the needful. For the government agencies, it is a case of misplaced priorities and sheer impunity. They usually have the money to make themselves comfortable. You visit these agencies and they look like luxury car lots. If they refrained from buying that extra car, they’d be able to pay their electricity bills and the entire infrastructure will be under less pressure. Meanwhile, if state and federal secretariats refuse to pay their electricity bills, you can trust that the police and army barracks won’t bother as well. Some of them have owed for decades and no one can approach them. Our leaders have been so irresponsible, not being able to do right by this country by focusing us on the things that matter. We seem to have arrived at an epoch where anyone just acts as they like. Pity. According to reports, government agencies are owing more than N156billion.
Ordinarily, we should be back to the scenario whereby Nigerians pay for services enjoyed so that the wheel of progress can keep turning. What is the result? Many issues crop up. The TCN staff said in many parts of Nigeria – they mentioned the Niger Delta – people don’t believe they have to pay for electricity because they see it as part of their entitlements. In other places, no matter what you do, the grid can be compromised by ‘tapping’ and other illegal connections. The imminent collapse of the sector – which saw more than 20 system shut downs (six total collapse and 16 partial) in the last one year – has led to government putting up taxpayers’ money as bailout for these private companies which intended to make a kill. In April 2015, government put up a bailout of N213 billion. Right now, the minister has announced another bailout of N701 billion as guarantee fund for services rendered by these private sector players.
Still, the DISCOs, who now interface with the public, claim that Nigerians people are not paying for electricity. Perhaps they are giving up. I am aware of some of the wars between customers and service providers in some rural areas. I once spoke to a staff of KEDCO (Kaduna Electricity Distribution Company), who told of how they are sometimes beaten up, and how their management is so heartless by telling them to administer estimated billing (flat charges) in poor areas like Sabon Tasha where they did not supply any electricity. I wish they had known that Andrew Yakubu had several billions stashed right in front of their noses; the poor KEDCO staff and even poorer villagers!
All of these problems have led to a situation where most rural areas in Nigeria have not seen five minutes of electricity for the past three years. Some of them for seven years. As long as the electricity infrastructure in these rural areas are moribund and unused, vandals will simply make away with what the government has bought with untold amounts. Transformers will be stolen, feeder pillars will be cannibalised, cables will be removed and the entire grid system will be compromised. Even if the infrastructure were intact, my TCN friends tell me that electricity cannot be supplied to a few people in a community, who have meters. I had thought that with the meters, anyone who refuses to pay for electricity should simply not be availed of the service. They say electricity is delivered in bulk. Meanwhile, the DISCOs have pointed refused to supply even meters that people have paid for, and they seem to prefer their estimated billing regime, leading to their being accused of being fraudulent.
This is also the time to deploy renewables and any form of alternative energy that can help the situation. I had once suggested that our building code be amended such that any middle income to luxury house comes with solar panels. No one listened.
In short, for as long as the eye can see, except the government decides to fix the infrastructure and supply electricity to the vast majority of Nigerians for free, we should forget electricity. The DISCOs, being private sector entities, also prefer to supply only those who pay, especially if they have political, economic or media power, or they can pay a premium to grease the pockets of their operatives. Most estates in Abuja have to pay some person or the other in the nearest DISCO in order to have constant electricity. A friend told of how when he lived close to Obasanjo Library in Abeokuta he had constant electricity (because they were on the same ‘line’). He enjoyed the same good luck when he lived close to an Army barracks in Lagos, but he is suffering now as he moved to some obscure suburb where the people don’t count. I joked that if kidnappers or armed robbers had an estate exclusively for their members, DISCOs will probably know how not to deprive them of electricity.
Ordinarily this is how private sector providers behave. In California’s first experiment with privatising electricity in the early 2000s, the boys at Enron, the company that won the contract showed Californians ‘pepper’. Even in a well-regulated environment like the USA, these boys will switch off electricity in vast swathes of the state and only bring it back when people are dying of heat and ready to pay a much higher price. The scandal is documented and led to the ouster of Governor Gray Davis and the ascension of Arnold Schwarzenegger. If this could happen in the US, Nigeria stands no chance. These private sector guys will ensure we see hell. See this link to understand what the ENRON boys did to Californians.
My TCN friends say they expect the GENCOs and DISCOs to return their licenses in a couple of years, out of exhaustion and frustration. These private companies seem to have downgraded and streamlined their businesses to focus as much as possible on only what can pay for itself. They have since realised that they won’t be creaming off in Nigeria as quickly as they had hoped. . Foreign partners are abandoning local ‘investors’, some of which have no technical competences before buying these asset but were driven by an opportunity for a quickly buck only. These companies have laid off tons of staff. Ordinarily Nigerian businessmen who invite their foreign ‘investor’ friends have no patience. The types of ‘investors’ they get also dine with Nigeria with a long spoon and always escape as soon as they can. We now have a scenario where DISCOs and GENCOs are at war with each other, DISCOs have issues with consumers, TCN is under accusation and also being owed, consumers are refusing to pay, and investors are bailing.
In my own view, we have to deploy all the tricks in our pouch, and for once we need to be truthful to ourselves. This is also the time to deploy renewables and any form of alternative energy that can help the situation. I had once suggested that our building code be amended such that any middle income to luxury house comes with solar panels. No one listened. But the rich people should know that this current regime is unsustainable. Majority of Nigerians cannot sleep and wake up in darkness and we expect there not to be crime or that Nigeria will be livable for the rich. But I’m not hopeful that we can make the needed change in this matter, to be candid, because Nigeria has never been a truthful country. The darkness we are in is at once a symptom of our dark hearts, as it is a metaphor for the state of our nation. Perhaps someone signed a pact with the devil. For now, it is difficult to imagine how this conundrum will be unraveled. Welcome to Nigeria’s Dark Ages.