In the land of darkness
If I may borrow the expression by Allah-De in his frustration over unending power outage: “I am not done with ECN…” Allah-De now of blessed memory was a tireless and celebrated columnist. For the uninitiated and the younger generation, ECN means Electricity Corporation of Nigeria, the sole generator of electric power, sole supplier of electricity and sole distributor of it to homes. The expression “I am not done with ECN…” self-evidently suggests that he had ventilated the frustration and helplessness of Nigerians in his compelling columns on the inefficient shibboleth. Hear him: “The corporation’s General Manager, Mr. Cheng-Fong Hsu is himself not done with his customers. He has been addressing them since the lighting 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 one 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 one of the two Kainji-Lagos electricity supply lines.
“Mr. Hsu says this load shedding was causing his corporation a lot concern. Really? ‘We are losing more from power failure than our customers.’”
Allah-De went on: “…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 electric light available in homes and in industry, has taken Nigeria back to the prehistoric days when the touch that was made of dried wood passed for electricity.”
That was in May 1969. Earlier in March of the same year, Allah-De wrote: “I was not present when the miracle at 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 there shall be light; or may darkness fall upon this household’ and, of course, there shall be darkness upon such household. And so the father and the mother, and the children, the servants and all that dwell therein shall trip on the staircase and fall one upon the other. If you know of any other pipeper 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.”
Allah-De wrote the articles in reference 52 years ago. The question crying for an answer is: What has changed in more than half a century that Allah-De went into combat with ECN? And so following in the footsteps of my boss at the Daily Times, I say: “I am not done with the EKDC.” Two years ago, 50 years after Allah-De last wrote on the matter I wrote to remind us of the unflattering experiences lasting as of then half a century. As I was banging out this column yesterday there was power outage. All afternoon of Tuesday and all night, and early part of the yesterday morning, there was outage. After about four hours, the light went off again. Mr. Hsu may be said to have the courtesy of addressing customers, I am not aware of any display of embarrassment by the new managers of electric power whenever there is outage to warrant speaking to customers.
Over the years, the form may have changed, but not the content. In terms of appellation, the organisation has changed from ECN to NEPA and lastly PHCN from at the point of sale broke into different companies and nomenclatures. There is GenCo to generate power. There is TCN for transmission and there are eight distribution companies, called DisCos
There has been heated debate on whether or not the government should take another look at the sale with a view to reversing it. The Senate has joined in the clamour which has come not only from the end-users, the Labour but from the Federal Government. But the hands of the Federal Government and stakeholders are tied. The agreement between the private investors who bought the enterprise and the government is irrevocable. Indeed, President Muhammadu Buhari had said in October 2017, though disappointed and peeved that the quality of services was poor, said his administration cannot cancel the privatisation of the power sector because it was a complex investment. Its cancellation would attract dire consequences. Works Minister and former Minister for Power, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN) is, however, looking at a window through which there could be possibility of government intervention. He said the other day that the sale licence will mature for revalidation before the year runs out. He hinted that the government might not revalidate the licence.
In May last year, Senate President Ahmad Lawan said during deliberations on a motion over its recovery plan that the power sector privatisation had failed, and called for its review. Without doubts Lawan would have millions of Nigerians as witnesses. Speaking during plenary, Lawan said: “If we leave them for the next 10 years there would be no power in Nigeria…We gave them our common patrimony and they will come back as DisCos and GenCos to look for money from the public. I think it’s time for Nigeria to consider reversing the privatisation of the power sector or they should just cancel the entire privatization process completely.” Lawan went on: “What is obvious is that the DisCos particularly have no capacity at the moment to supply us power. The GenCos have challenges too. It is not good that we give them money—these are businesses. If there are areas we must intervene as a government it must be seriously justified.” The National Economic Council chaired by the Vice-President, SAN and Professor of Law, is for the review of the sale. It was so recommended by the El-Rufai-led Committee set up by the Economic Council. Governor El-Rufai speaking on the sector said: “Electricity supply in the country is broken down completely. The problems are many; the entire sector is broken, there is a fundamental structural problem. The Federal Government has supported the industry with N1.7 trillion in the past three years. The government will take some very tough decisions. There is a lot of blame game. Over 80 million Nigerians are without electricity…It is either we continue the Federal Government pump N1.7 trillion every three years, or we take the tough decision that will ensure a stable power supply.”
My take on the controversy is that the idea behind the privatisation is unassailable. The process of disposing off government assets to the buyers is a different matter, and from the performance of the buyers, the process has defeated the laudable idea. We were looking for a way out of the trap and tyranny of ECN transferred to NEPA. The document prepared to support the privatisation stated “…stalled expansion of Nigeria’s grid capacity, combined with the high cost of diesel and petrol generation has crippled the growth of the country’s productive and commercial industries. It has stifled the creation of jobs, which are urgently needed in a country with a large and rapidly growing population; and the erratic and unpredictable nature of electricity supply has engendered a deep and bitter sense of frustration that is felt across the country as a whole and in its urban centres in particular.”
The privatisation took place in November 2013 and according to reports, the expectation was that by last year the country would have increased its power generation capacity to 40,000MW with an investment of $3.5 billion every year. By 2012 the country’s installed generating capacity was about 7,500MW with an opening capacity of about 4,000MW. Last year the peak generation capacity was no more than 4,950MW.
The government is therefore at a crossroads. For Nigerians, the country cannot continue this way, living in darkness. When Allah-De wrote his column in 1969, he captioned “The Age of Darkness.” When former President Jonathan privatised the sector desirable as it was it has been proven that his Administration did not do exhaustive due diligence and the strategic sector of Nigerian national life fell into wrong hands. The posture of the present administration which campaigned to in 2015 to give Nigeria 40,000 electricity generation distributed 24/7 now under pressure is said to scare potential investors. The Discos reading the handwriting on the wall sought to pre-empt the government; it sued the government last year asking the court to bar it from interfering in its business which is a private business.
I am an unrepentant advocate of free market economy. If the Jonathan Administration was careless, it was not the fault of the DisCos and GenCo. What the present Administration should employ is stick and carrot. Re-negotiation is the carrot. The revalidation of the licence is the stick. If you want revalidation, you must surrender a junk of the holdings for other investors, this time more competent managerially and technically hopefuls, to buy. The purpose of free market economy is competition. As they are today, the enterprise lacks competition. That was the fundamental error. Freedom of enterprise engenders the unfolding of talents and abilities. It is part of purpose of life and existence. This is what is in accord with the Will of the Creator in His Creation, the Most High God. Those who may hinder the unfolding bear grave responsibilities.