Friday, 22nd September 2023

Light the candle: How the energy crises beat Buhari

By Dan Agbese
14 April 2023   |   3:55 am
President Muhammadu Buhari signed 16 amendments to the 1999 Constitution into law on March 18. Perhaps the most significant of these was the amendment that has removed electric power generation, transmission, and distribution from the exclusive legislative list to the concurrent legislative list.

President Muhammadu Buhari signed 16 amendments to the 1999 Constitution into law on March 18. Perhaps the most significant of these was the amendment that has removed electric power generation, transmission, and distribution from the exclusive legislative list to the concurrent legislative list. States are thus permitted by this amendment to assume the power to let electric light shine on their people in the 21st century in the giant of Africa. I offer my commiserations to the village candle merchants.

The Senate initiated this bill in 2022 as one more legislative effort to solve the country’s stubborn energy crises. The legislators believed that our country has much to gain from living the truth that a problem shared is a problem solved. The truth may descend on the nation with a pleasant surprise sooner than later. But take the advice of an old codger. Do not cross your fingers. 

Our power sector is ailing. The energy crises have defeated all our presidents. Buhari is the latest victim. As a presidential candidate of his party in 2007, he issued a manifesto in which he bared his mind on the country’s myriads of social and economic problems and his proposed solutions to them should he receive the people’s thumbs up to become our president. Tackling the energy crises was one of them.

Under “Power supply, energy policy” he promised to take the road not yet taken to solve our energy crises.  Among his policy objectives was this: To “Facilitate involvement of multiple actors in the provision of public electric power supply in the country, and the active public private sector partnership that will facilitate private capital investment in the sector on a viable commercial long-term basis.” 

Manifestoes are written like that because some measure of obfuscation is necessary in public policy initiatives. On that pillar, according to him, would rest among others, “A national programme for the expansion of electricity generation, which will entail the establishment of new power installations with an initial target of additional 10MW of generated electricity within four years.”

In 2015, he received the thumbs up from the people and became our president. I am told he came into office suffused with the enthusiasm of a man destined to solve our energy problem. But eight years later as president, the energy crises have defeated him. At a campaign rally in Ogun State, the then presidential candidate of the president’s party, APC, Ahmed Bola Tinubu, said “they can’t even generate enough power to roast popcorn.”

The 10MW of electricity promised in his manifesto remains a mirage. Power remains at best epileptic and at worst, non-existent for millions of fellow Nigerians. A brief period of power supply is followed by a long period of power outage. Call it the Nigerian energy shuffle – one positive switch of light followed by a long negative switch of darkness.

A front-page banner headline in the Daily Trust of April 11, 2023, summed up the plight of the people reeling in the worsening energy crises: “Consumers groan over epileptic power supply.” As Buhari leaves office in a few weeks, I am sure he must still be wondering why the energy crises humbled him as it did his predecessors in office.

The new law does but raise false hope on curing our ailing energy sector. Those who think that bringing the states as players must temper their excitement with the darkening realities that follow us like the shadow. Nigerians as individuals and corporate bodies have always provided their own electricity, thanks to generators from Asia. We are the world leading importers of generators. 

One thing will not happen with the states becoming players. We will not witness a dramatic improvement in our public power supply. Most of the states are too poor to think of setting up their own independent power generation plants. I fear too that this will provide a new avenue for the corrupt enrichment of state governors and their business compradors.

But one thing will also happen. It will be business as usual. Individuals and corporate bodies must still bear the burden of providing their power supply in their homes and offices. 

Given our tendency to turn every solution into a new and more complex problem, thanks to the money-smart men and women among us, I will not hasten to organise a requiem mass for the generator merchants. The facts of what we are up against in the energy sector are depressing and despairing. 

Experts estimated that the country needs between 25,000 and 40,000 megawatts capacity for its over 200 million population. Our current installed generating capacity of 12,522MW can in no way approach this important threshold. It can only generate 4,000MW. Even in a miracle-saturated nation such as ours, it will take much more than a leap of faith, if not foolishness, to believe that this could end the energy crises. 

As of now, according to Ogaga Ariemu, in his paper, “Nigeria’s ailing power sector: How FG’s projections failed,”  “our current power generation stands below 3,800MW, and the per capita electricity usage is 136 KW/h, one of the world’s lowest. In Libya, it is 4,270 KW/h; India, 616KW/H; China, 2,944KW/H; South Africa, 4,803KW/h and Singapore, 8,307KW/h.” 

The energy crises have humbled every one of our leaders, in khaki or agbada. However, it will be unfair not to appreciate what they tried to do to solve the multi-dimensional problems in the sector. The fact is that every effort missed the path to the solution of the energy crises. Ours is the only country on the continent with an ailing energy sector this bad. I suppose the devil just did not give any one of them a chance to be recognised as our energy sector messiah. Pox on the horned one.

In 2005, the Obasanjo administration enacted the Electric Power Sector Reform Act. This was moved to the next level with the Roadmap Power Reform of 2010. This ambitious initiative was aimed at a comprehensive transformation of the power industry with improved public and private investments. The government expected this to raise the power generation capacity to a whopping 40,000MW five years later by the year 2020. This was what gave President Goodluck Jonathan the confidence to tell Tell magazine editors at an interview that they should be prepared to dash him their generators. The editors wisely held on to their generators.

One of the major reforms in the sector was to create independent power generation and distribution companies to improve efficiency in the system. The new companies were TCN and DisCos. The privatisation was effected in 2013 to the bells and whistles of hope from the harassed populace. DisCos soon became part of the energy shuffle. This compounded the problems and the relief the country hoped for evaporated in the heat of corruption in the system, beginning with the sale of the new companies to companies that went into the business because they saw them as the new cash cows. They could not bring in the required funds to run the business. Deprived of the oxygen of investments, the distribution companies, one after the other began to end up belly up, taking down our hopes for improved power generation, transmission, and distribution.

Ariemu pointed out that “the debt burden, poor balance sheet and lack of investment are hallmarks of challenges facing DisCos.” He quoted the Minister of Power, Abubakar Aliyu, as having said that nine out of the eleven DisCos were on the verge of bankruptcy by last year. The sick cannot cure the sick, apparently. 

One of the critical problems in the power sector is the national grid. The wisdom in creating the national grid lies in the peculiarity of our federalism, an unwanted face of military federalism in which centralisation is the soul of our national development. All power generated are fed into the single basket of national grid from which power is then distributed. This national distribution system relies on a dilapidated distribution system that makes it impossible for the little that is generated to be evacuated, transmitted, and distributed.

Under the little weight of power generated, the national grid frequently collapses throwing the country or parts thereof into avoidable darkness. There were at least nine such collapses last year. This year has recorded at least four of such collapses so far. 

Despite putting power in the concurrent legislative list, the responsibility for our energy policy is still that of the Federal Government. To really move forward in this troubled sector, something must give. One of these is to discontinue with the folly of a frayed wisdom of maintaining a national grid system that has become a serious problem in the energy sector. 

If the national grid was a wise step in the past, it has become a sclerotic step in the present. Time to consider regionalising power generation, transmission, and distribution in the country. Its advantages are obvious, to wit, regional power generation caters to a smaller populace; it shortens the distribution line; it will be cheaper to have shorter and a more efficient transmission system in place of the current dilapidated distribution system. Centralised federalism ought to have sensible limits in our country.