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50 years ago…

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In 2006, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, the great journalist, our boss, Alhaji Alade Odunewu, a.k.a. Allah-De was asked if he was hopeful the then NEPA was up to pulling some magic to improve significantly, even if it was not yet capable of providing electricity 24/7, as they say in modern parlance. Allah-De’s answer was direct and definitive: “Not in my lifetime.” Five years after the interview with The Nation newspaper, Allah-De passed away. NEPA as he prophesied did not deliver.

For days running, what several homes and several companies have been experiencing is “uninterrupted” power outage. In several parts no power supply for even 30 minutes. An official of TNC blamed the outage on rain. He said some of their equipment are giving way under the unceasing downpour in several cities, especially in areas known for maximum rainfall at this period of the year. June is known for rain peak period in the southern parts of the country and fringes of the Middle Belt. The Punch reported on Tuesday that the 27 power plants in the country produced a total of 3, 898 Mega Watts (MW) as of 6am on Friday, which was the highest this month.

As of the end of last month, the plant produced a total of 4, 050 MW, but this dropped drastically to 3, 161MW by June 1. Last Saturday, 3,461.7 was generated, which dropped to 3,429 by 6am on Sunday. According to The Punch report, the nation’s installed generating capacity is 12, 910MW, but available capacity is 7, 652.60MW; the transmission capacity is 8,100MW. The peak ever transmitted stands at 5,375MW.

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Allah-De wrote a number of articles on Nigeria’s power supply. I crave the indulgence of readers to refer to two of them. In the first captioned “The miracle and the ECN”, Allah-De wrote as follows:“I was not present when the miracle of Kainji was performed, but that does not prove my inexcitability about prodigies. I am interested in the Kainji Dam if only for my own selfish end.

“My interest in the dam stems from my curiosity about the business of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, to which I pay warm tributes this morning for its promptness and efficiency in thrusting electricity bills into my garage door month after month.“It is the only corporation that possesses the power to declare peremptorily to its customers: ‘Let there be light’ and of course, there shall be light; or may darkness fall upon the household, and of course, there shall be darkness upon the household. And so, father and mother, and the children, the house helps and all that dwell therein shall trip on the staircase and fall one upon the other.

“If you know of any other piper who is capable of displaying such magic at the dictates of his mood to the annoyance of those who subscribe to his pay packet, I would like to be informed.“It has been explained that the Electricity Corporation was for several years the sole source of power supply in this country. ‘To all Nigerians, ECN was power and power was ECN.’ It however failed to wield its power competently. But the commissioning of Nigeria’s biggest ever project, the ECN is expected to be relieved as far as power generating is concerned.

“The experts say that customers can now look forward to a smoother, uninterrupted electricity supply. That is to say that we do not have to reach for the candle as soon as it threatens to rain. But the question is: was the Electricity Corporation ready for its partner in progress? The facts do not seem to answer ‘yes’.

“Right now, the ECN cannot contribute to its consumers the maximum amount of power which Kainji can supply, simply because the corporation’s transformers which store power from Ijora do not belong to the space age. As a result, the amount of power these transformers can store is limited to a very small fraction of what Kainji is able to give out. The power lines (the electric cables) that carry current from transformers to consumers are also not of this age and, therefore, cannot carry much power from the transformers to consumers.

“What does all this mean? It means that the ECN was caught slumbering when Kainji was ready for business. Otherwise it would have been in possession of modern transformers and power lines by the time the Kainji dam was ready for commissioning. As it is now, the ECN can still afford to be as moody as it was before Kainji. Perhaps that explains why even newspapers of this Kainji era fail to appear in the street because the ECN decided that “there shall be no light,” and there was no light. The whole business looks like the case of the hungry nation which built up a giant food store without making provision for plates with which the food would be served. Kainji Dam is far too important to the nation to be rendered impotent by the famous ECN. Someone should drag the corporation from antiquity so it can be introduced to the age of the dams.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I wonder: Is this story familiar in the age of thermal, solar and hydro? And in the days of GENCO, TCN and DISCO? Kainji is the forebear of Egbin, Delta, Olorunsogo NIPP, Geregu NIPP and Omotosho NIPP. Their siblings include Afam IV&V, Alaoji NIPP, Gbaran NIPP, Okpai IPP, AES, IPP and ASCO IPP. To the uninitiated, ECN is the ancestor of TCN and DISCO. The hydropower plants generate 30 per cent of the output while the rest comes from gas-fired plants. We have moved from ECN to NEPA, and from NEPA there was transformation to PHCN. This was broken into GENCO, TCN and DISCO.

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On 17 May 1969, Allah-De wrote again in his column which was captioned “In this age of darkness.” The column read: “I am not done with ECN, the corporation that has treated many a household to illumination wonderwork for the past three weeks. The corporation’s general manager, Mr. Cheng-Fong Hsu (that sounds eatable) is himself not done with his customers. He has been addressing them since the lightning magic began, and he spoke once again yesterday.

“The Electricity corporation, says Mr. Hsu, lost about 7,000 Pounds revenue daily owing to load shedding (that is the jargon for the wonderwork) during the past two weeks. I shed no tears for that, Mr. Cheng- Fong Hsu, neither do I weep about the hackneyed explanation that the load shedding was made necessary by conversion work on two Kainji-Lagos electricity supply lines.

“Mr. Hsu says this load shedding was causing his corporation a lot of concern. Really? ‘We are losing more from power failure than our customers.’ Cold comfort, that is cold comfort for irate customers, Mr. Hsu! Whoever is interested in promiscuous combat involving heavy sums of cash down the drain and staged in utter darkness, with the Electricity Corporation?

“For good measure, another official of the ECN was quoted in the newspaper report as DISCLOSING (capitals mine) that the corporation suffered a loss of 20,000 Pounds in the two days of acute power failure. Horses laugh. I greet that with horse laugh.“This columnist insists that nothing said so far by Mr. Hsu and his aides is compelling enough to win my sympathy. I do not weep for them; I shed no tears. Because the Electricity corporation established for the purpose of making light available in homes and industry, has taken Nigeria back to prehistoric days when the torch that was made of dry wood passed for electricity.

“In the two weeks when the ECN decreed that there should be no light, many homes have had to journey back to the era when the very first attempts were made by man to secure light during hours of darkness. We have had to experiment with electricity as it was known to grandpa. Just because the delinquent corporation refused to perform, we have had to try the bonfire basket, the Egyptian and the Roman methods of illumination used long before Edison perfected the incandescent electric lamp. In two weeks of home darkness we have hurried back to the stone age lamps that properly belong to the museum, thanks to the incorrigibility of the ECN.

“After all the fun, is anyone now ready to say what went wrong with our electricity? Is anyone in the position to say categorically that children shall trip no more on the staircase; that the wheels of industry shall grind without power interruption, that consumers making for the 18th floor of skyscrapers in the city shall no more be trapped midway in the lift?

“Are the engineers, the technicians available in sufficient numbers? I can tell Mr. Cheng-Fong Hsu from electricity consumers that they do not understand why electricity in the Kainji Dam era should be so erratic. I can tell him that his customers are wondering (in spite of its legal immunity) whether the ubiquitous bills would reflect the fact that consumers were forced to live the life of the stone age for well over two weeks.

“They are wondering, dear Mr. Cheng-Fong Hsu.”I ask again, Ladies and gentlemen, does the story sound different today from what it was 50 years ago when Allah-De wrote from his observatory? And I say after Allah-de, the customers, Nigerians are wondering, dear Mr. Usman Mohammed, managing director of TCN. Nothing can be more ridiculous than the electricity providers blaming the prolonged outage on the rains. In places like western Europe, we shall be laughed to scorn to put out such excuses. In those countries whether it is winter or summer, they grapple all the year round with water. In winter, they grapple with blizzards and snow. In summer it rains regularly and at no time do they have power outage.

Industries, Lagos Chamber of Commerce, the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria and similar bodies have all shouted themselves hoarse on the rising production costs. As of now it is 60 per cent in most industries. Families struggling in the circumstances of the nation’s parlous economy have had to throw away foodstuff as there has been no electricity to power their freezers. What about implications for security that is on its own sufficient cause for worry even in broad daylight? For how long will all this mess continue?

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As an advocate of free market economy, I consider privatization of government enterprises the right step in the right direction, the power sector included. As they say, government has no business being in business. The way to go from the power debacle is to renegotiate the sale of PHCH. The power industry requires heavy foreign capital with investors bringing their managing directors, technical directors, deputy technical directors and finance directors.

It is only fair to expect an investor to appoint his own finance director so he can know how his money is being spent. Nigerians should supply the chairman, chief engineers, deputy chief engineers and finance controller. When the sector stabilizes, the executive capacity of Nigerians for this sector can then be reconsidered.

Without power all efforts at industrialization for the economy to flourish and to tackle unemployment will be a mirage. The mess has gone on for too long. For how much longer is it to continue? It is to be hoped that the next minister of power would have the determination, strong-headedness, focus, preparation and application to tackle the problem head-on. Babatunde Fashola’s hands were tied by the terms of the sale—obviously.

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In this article:
Alade OdunewuNEPA
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