By Ikeogu Oke
The danger emergency experts pose to the Nigerian power sector became clear to me and deserving of exposure in the public interest on July 15, 2016.
By emergency experts, I mean people who presume to be very knowledgeable about specialised subjects and with that presumption air misguided views or make unrealistic propositions about such subjects.
The risk such people pose to the power sector had existed before that date and has continued to manifest afterwards. But that was when I first encountered the phenomenon directly as a guest of Kakaaki, African Independent Television’s breakfast programme, through some utterances by my interlocutor.
That episode of the programme was dedicated to power issues and held in the wake of the judgement by Justice Mohammed Idris of the Federal High Court, Ikoyi, Lagos. The judgement had reversed a 45 per cent increase in electricity tariff introduced by the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) – on the ground that the increase violated the court’s substantive order restraining NERC from increasing tariff before meeting certain statutory conditions.
I was invited to the programme to discuss the implications of the judgement with Mr. Onu Uche, my said interlocutor, the Executive Secretary of the Lagos-based Consumer Rights Project.
And while, like Mr. Uche, I upheld the judgement, especially on technical grounds, I also stressed that there is an argument for increasing tariff and an argument for not increasing tariff. And that I happen to support the argument for (lawfully) increasing tariff because the increase is necessary to generate enough revenue to run the power sector effectively and sustainably in the interest of all stakeholders. Beyond that, the wrongness of a process does not necessarily negate the rightness of the end it seeks to achieve, as in the case of the tariff increase.
However, the very evidence of the danger emergency experts pose to the power sector emerged with Mr. Uche’s response to one of the anchors’ questions.
He began the response with a hackneyed, unsubstantiated allegation of misconduct in the privatisation of the power sector, ending – predictably – by calling for the exercise to be “revisited,” having blamed it for “the avalanche of inefficiency, maladministration and non-performance” (in the sector).
And I must mention in passing that when I appeared on the same programme with Mr. Joe Ajaero, the Secretary General of the National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE), on April 25, 2106, he made similar allegations, hinting at his having evidence that one of the Distribution Companies (DisCos) was improperly sold to some unqualified bidder. But he failed to substantiate the claim even with repeated promptings by the anchors.
Needless to add that we must discourage representatives of such organisations or others making wild allegations that undermine the integrity of such landmark ventures as the power sector privatisation and those associated with it, apparently in support of vested interests fighting for the soul of the power sector. Otherwise we would be collectively guilty of tolerating calumny – a socially destructive vice.
Now, having also alleged that “the way and manner the privatisation was structured… did not give room for … market power as provided under section 82 of the Electricity Power Sector Reform Act,” Mr. Uche expatiated that “… it has made it such that most of these DisCos operate as core monopolies in the sector,” adding, “… what that means is that … whether the people are providing good services or not, you subscribe to their services; and it is not supposed to be so.”
Then he offered what he deemed a solution to what he saw as an anomaly. “There should be fair competition,” he said, “like what we’re experiencing in the telecom industry, where NCC … brought out what they call mobile portability, so that if you try this network and it’s not working for you, you could switch over.”
As I hinted in my response at the programme, anyone with even the slightest knowledge of how the power system works, compared to telecoms, would recognise the impracticability of his presumed solution to a non-existent problem of lack of competition he wrongly blamed on the privatisation of the power sector.
This is because, unlike telecoms, especially its GSM component, the circuit that brings electricity to our appliances is a solid link from the generating stations through the transmission lines and then the distribution lines right down to any means by which we connect the appliances to receive electricity.
This explains why we can move around with our cell phones without a visible link to our telecom networks and still enjoy telephone services in transit. But we cannot do the same with, say, our electric irons, which we must plug to a visible power source for it to function. I hope this analogy suffices to explain the difference even to the layman, and convince all that his recommendation of providing for what would amount to “electricity portability” compared to “mobile portability” is impracticable.
To achieve such parallel portability, different DisCos will need to build their own generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure and run parallel networks to connect each electricity consumer. In doing this, they will cease to be DisCos and resort to managing power systems holistically. This, too, is impracticable.
Unfortunately, it is people with such wrongheaded views who with “passionate intensity” a la W. B. Yeats now seek to influence policy in and give direction to our power sector, even against established technical norms. We risk disaster in the power sector if we accede to their recommendations.
When they are not making such impracticable recommendations, they are raising unfair doubt about the performance and integrity of top functionaries in the power sector, apparently to undermine public confidence in the sector for political reasons, as reflected in a recent editorial by one of our dailies highly critical of the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola, entitled “Fashola’s Missteps in the Power Sector,” and a synchronised story published online, alleging that the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Power, Mr. Louis Edozien, and other individuals “cut dubious financial deals under Buhari.”
I once visited Mr. Edozien in his office and was so surprised by his Spartan appearance and that of the office that I made a special remark about that. So I would be surprised if the allegation is not unfounded.
Even one of the AIT anchors asked my interlocutor “how much of political interest is embedded in all these we’re saying.” So much. Because power has become a recognisable means of undermining the re-election of an incumbent government in our country, and we can expect such attacks on the power sector and its key functionaries to intensify as we approach the 2109 elections.
But this mix of politics and electric power is hazardous to our nation, especially as those behind it may resort to sabotaging power supply to achieve their political goals, and undermine economic activities that depend on electricity.
*Oke, a former staff of the National Electric Power Authority and Technical Adviser (Media) to the former Minister of Power, Professor Bart Nnaji, lives in Abuja.