Tackling a Perennial National Shame

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By Dakuku Peterside

There is a universal consensus on the central role of in economic growth such as production and productivity, human development such as life expectancy, knowledge and decent standard of living. Electricity makes it possible to achieve the full potentials of any society and makes life worthwhile in a modern society. Unfortunately, but true, Nigeria does not only have a problem with electricity but the problem appears to have solution. This is despite the fact of our national endowment such as gas. How did we get here? Is there nothing that can be done to tackle this national embarrassment?

The big question then is: how do we provide regular, safe and reliable to 160 million Nigerians? What policy and regulatory changes do we to embark on to fast track generation, transmission and distribution?

A few weeks ago, I stumbled on the history of development in Nigeria and how the first power plant was built in 1898 in Lagos. I also read about how the British colonial administration passed the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, ECN Ordinance .15 of 1950 which sought to integrate supply to make it more efficient. All these eventually led to the merger of ECN and Niger Dam Authority, NDA in 1972 to become National Electric Power Authority, NEPA.

For many years, and curiously under the military administration of the 1970s, NEPA tried to keep faith as the haulier of Nigeria’s socio-economic agenda. And relatively too, the power company acquitted itself with this relatively new role by steering Nigeria into a greater industrial society. NEPA also positively affected the quality of life of the average Nigerian family with the good life and opportunities offered by power. But the glorious era of the 1970s appears to be the end of the good old story.

Then enter the 1980s era. A combination of factors turned NEPA to a leprous national service provider. First, demand for electricity outstripped supply due to lack of investment in the sector. Secondly, mismanagement of gargantuan dimension set in and finally politicization of strategic power issues including insensitivity about clear signals to transit to private sector driven business model.

While I ruminated over the interesting story of this power behemoth, I was also agitated at the seeming success it recorded both during the colonial and immediate post colonial Nigeria.  I later found out that at the centre of PHCN’S success story in those days were careful planning, patriotism of its personnel, hard work and discipline. Today, NEPA has an offspring but her story is radically different. In the eyes of most Nigerians, Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN is inefficient, corrupt, indolent, irresponsible and unpatriotic.

However, the unfortunate side to Nigeria’s recurring electricity problem is the obvious lack of any immediate solution in the horizon. The story has remained the same since the Obasanjo era that came with a lot of expectations and promises particularly with the appointment of the late Chief Bola Ige as Minister of Power, the heavy investments made even at the detriment of disobeying the laws of the country through the late Umar Musa Yar’Adua era to the present.

But the big question is: why has this electricity problem persisted? Many people have attributed this intractable electricity crisis to so many things, including resources and the lack of will to act.  But I also have my reservations as a concerned Nigerian. Money to my mind is not a major obstacle towards building an effective power sector. Nigeria is among eight top members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, OPEC in revenue earning. Nigeria is also believed to have natural gas reserve of 184 trillion cubic feet which is the largest in Africa and the seventh largest in the world. This gas resource is a critical national endowment to propel and ensure self sufficiency in electricity generation.

However, one truth that needs to be stressed is the abysmally low electricity generating capacity of Nigeria when compared with other countries. Egypt, Belgium, Iran, South-Africa, South Korea and Malaysia are all countries with far smaller population but with very intimidating power generating capacity that exposes our embarrassing shortfall in electricity generation. There is even a joke, though an expensive one which claims that Nigeria’s 160 million population use as much power as a tiny area around Narita Airport in Tokyo. But the fact that South-Africa’s 49 million population consume 55 times more energy per head than Nigeria is joke. I appreciate the fact that South Africa has its own share of this electricity challenge too.