Our energy firms and the Egyptian cows

Our successive power generating firms fit into one of the troubling dreams Pharaoh saw. According to the Bible, the monarch sighted seven very fat cows by the riverside. Then, from nowhere, seven other cows, as lean as bonga fish, emerged, swallowed the seven robust cows and remained unchanged… skinny!

A troubled Pharaoh summoned all the oneiromancers in the land but they fired blank. But a fellow prisoner with Joseph the dreamer remembered him. Joseph was promptly summoned from the dungeon. Interpreting the strange dream, he told Pharaoh that the seven fat cows represented the period of seven years of abundance. The seven lean cows stood for seven years of food scarcity.

The professed dreamer told the king that the scarcity of seven years would be so acute that no Egyptians would ever remember that there was any season of super abundance. He then advised the king to build silos across the land to store foodstuffs in the time of plenty that would last for seven years.

An impressed Pharaoh then appointed Joseph, a total stranger, as his prime minister to oversee the process of shoring up foodstuffs during the season of plenty.

From 1999 when democratic governance sent militicians back to the barracks, successive administrations have pumped colossal amounts of money into the power sector. For instance, during the eight years of Obasanjo administration, he sunk a total of $16bn into electricity generation. But he had less than 3,000mw to show for his efforts! This output is what the London Heathrow International Airport alone consumes. Pray, how would the sector swallow such gargantuan cash and darkness remained and still remains our lot?  Many have called for a probe of the obscene spending by Obasanjo on the power programme that produced no commensurate results.

When President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua emerged after the big spender Obasanjo, he promised to declare a state of emergency in the power sector. But he was hamstrung by death after battling ill-health for a little over two years. His vice president, Dr. Goodluck Jonathan, mounted the saddle and laboured for five solid years, promising to deliver 10,000mw at various times. But as if the sector is jinxed, he too could not go beyond 3,000mw after hurling billions of naira into the bottomless pit.

Apparently frustrated by the problem child, he unbundled the sector. He had inherited the PHCN or Power Holding Company of Nigeria, which witty Nigerians redefined as Please, Hold Your Candle Now… just as NEPA or National Electric Power Authority was decoded as Never Expect Power Always. Expectedly, throughout decades of NEPA’s existence, Nigerians never expected power always. Also, candles never departed from the hands of Nigerians during the inglorious reign of PHCN.

It is even worse now. The agents of darkness which the PHCN midwived were shared among a tiny clique (of friends, moneybags and politicians) that knew next to nothing about the critical sector. Today, we have TCN, Genco and, wait for it, Disco! The trio have continued with the economic sabotage which their forebear, NEPA, was notorious for.

It was the total collapse of NEPA that sent some key manufacturing firms like the Dunlop and Michelin to neighbouring countries like Togo, Ghana and Burkina Faso where electricity is constant. They took off without the courtesy of saying goodbye to the Minister of Power and that of Industries! Those firms that had no wings to fly away from the hostile economic environment went to a gradual death process. Among them was the textile and garment sector that provided millions of direct and indirect jobs.

Then, there are the stubborn, die-hard ones that are still surviving on generating sets. Virtually all business enterprises, major, medium and small, are powered by generators. Private homes are at the mercy of generator merchants who ram all manner of alternative power sources down our throats. Right now, ‘I pass my neighbour’ two times. I used to have three generators… one small and two big. The small one nicknamed Old Reliable has been serving the family for about 15 years now.

One night I came back from the office and switched on the 1.5 horse power air conditioner in the bedroom thinking the light was from the PHCN. It was small generator on duty. I nearly suffered a heart attack as the Old Reliable let out an unusual SOS or save my soul and gave up the ghost. I rushed to the living room and announced the sudden death of the poor machine. Every member of the household felt very bad. But to our greatest shock, the ‘Old Reliable’ bounced back to duty the next day!

The second generator nicknamed ‘Big for Nothing’ was a fake product from China. Tired of wasting money on repairs, I asked my technician to sell off the ‘kalokalo’. The other big one alternates with the Old Reliable. As at the time of putting this piece together, the Disco has danced away from my neighbourhood. It is always the practice during the rainy season. During the reign of NEPA, the story was always that the water levels at the Kainji Hydroelectric Dam were running low. So, we would look forward to the rainy season when the water levels across the hydroelectric dams in the country would rise.

But what do we experience now? It is like electricity and water are enemies in this clime from time immemorial. They are immiscible. At the drop of the rains, electricity would just take off without notice. In most instances, the light would vanish as soon as there is a gentle rumble beyond the clouds. Even breeze as gentle as what comes out of your nostrils can frighten or kill off the music from Disco!

The Buhari administration clocked five years yesterday. His government also inherited the dance of darkness from the lugubrious music played by the trio in the sector. Nigeria is blessed with resources to guarantee uninterrupted power supply. We have surplus sunlight in the north for solar; water is surplus to requirement along the middle belt for hydroelectric power generation, and gas is being wasted in the south-south through flaring since the Gowon era in the 70s for turbines. Yet, it has become impossible to harness these God-given endowments to provide the critical infrastructure to power our economy. Not to speak of the other renewal energy sources like wind. We are also blessed with plants that can produce bio fuels. Nigeria, what a country!

I am aware of the federal government’s efforts to raise the bar with the Presidential Power Initiative (PPI) as the driver. There is also the clamour for the reversal of the ownership of the electricity sector since the three musketeers – TCN, Gencos and Discos – have signed an agreement with darkness. And as if living in darkness is not enough, the regulatory body is spoiling to hike the tariffs. But for the timely intervention of the Covid-19 pandemic, the new tariffs would have come into effect from April 1, this year.

Another unthinkable attempt to kill off the fragile economy and push Nigerians further down the abyss of darkness was the move to ban the use of generating sets. The proposed anti-people law was being baked in the National Assembly before the pandemic came and stepped on the brake pedals. What manner of lawmakers are these?

The question is who will play Joseph to break this power curse placed on Nigeria since the days of NEPA? I remember the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria or ECN. There was nothing like power outage. As a kid, there was no screaming one’s lungs out with ‘Up NEPA’ whenever power was restored.

I will never forget my first appearance in London in the 70s. I was fond of rushing to iron my clothes until my host, sensing the habit of trying to outwit NEPA, kept reminding me that I was in London where electricity was surplus to requirement. It took me weeks to wean myself off the habit. Shall we ever get to that stage in Nigeria? The answer is blowing in the dark!

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