did not know the extent of our electrical problems in Nigeria until I embarked on building a factory a couple of years ago. I had called a good friend of mine in Lagos and excitedly told him my plans. He listened patiently and said to me, "Please don't do anything yet until you first come and see me in Lagos." His comment took me by surprise, for I really didn't know what coming to see him in Lagos had to do with building a factory in Anambra state.
Well, he was not a man I associate with frivolous comments, besides; we have been close friends now for nearly thirty years. I arrived Lagos the following week and he took me to a huge factory he owns somewhere in the outskirts of Lagos and showed me around this vast enterprise that employed a few hundred people. But as he showed me around I did not see much pride in his face, instead I sensed in him a man full of pain and anguish about something though I did not know what. For a moment I thought it might be a personal problem, perhaps a minor fight with his wife the night before that has lingered on in his mind.
Soon we returned to his lavish office in the islands and he offered me a seat and finally opened up to me. "This factory thing was a big dream I harboured since our days in London, and I had so much pride when I finally accomplished it," he said. I looked at him with amazement, wondering what the problem could be for he did not look as proud as he sounded. He continued, "But the factory barely breaks even these days, and sometimes I'm just losing money...if not for all those people working there, many of whom are my relatives, I would have closed that damn place a long time ago." I don't want to bore you with the gritty details of my personal conversation with a friend more than two years ago, but I'll just give you the gist of it. He told me that the cost of diesel used in powering the factory most of the time is eating up most of the potential profits brought in by the factory. The factory runs on three generators that range from 300KV to 500KV and it takes a lot of diesel to keep those generators running, which you have to do if you must remain productive. He went on to tell me that he now imports the same items he was making, mostly from China, and apparently his imported goods are not only better made but also far more profitable. I was considerably quenched in spirit by the end of that meeting. And although I had always been a dreamer...especially about Nigeria, the impulse to dream seemed to have been beaten out of me through that singular experience and many more since.
A glance at any credible list of electric power generation by countries would put Nigeria way below the top 50 despite our rankings in the top 10 most populous countries in the world. If we measure our electricity generation in terms of per capita, then Nigeria would most definitely not make the top 100 countries list. For a very long time our leaders have either remained ignorant of the real numbers and its implication to the development they desperately wanted to accomplish, or they are just lying to us. The military are not accountable to the people so I won't bother to go there. President Obasanjo was so passionate about giving Nigerians steady lights that he fired or rather reassigned his friend Bola Ige to the Ministry of Justice and brought in Osushegun Agagu to perform the required miracle. Surely, they told Baba that all we needed was about five billion dollars and thousands of transformers and everything will be fine. Obasanjo was so excited that he went on television and presumably sincerely announced to all Nigerians that by December of the following year, all our electrical woes will become a thing of the past. Akuko! Six billion dollars later and several thousand second-hand transformers from Eastern Europe, nothing changed. If anything, our power generation dropped.
President Jonathan seemed to have been far more serious about giving us all uninterrupted power supply. And I must give him a little credit (Along with Bart Nnaji, the former minister of power) Since Jonathan took over the office of presidency; our power generation has significantly increased from below 3,000 megawatts to now close to 5,000 megawatts. But if we think that 5,000, or 10,000 or even 20,000 megawatts is all we need in this country, then we have seriously miscalculated the energy needs of this country. The sort of energy required to power Nigeria into our so called Vision 2020, 20. First, many of the very large factories across this nation have long been off the national electricity grid. The unreliability of electricity supply meant that many of these industrial giants are now providing all their energy needs solely on their own. I can see them all wishing to rejoin the national grid once they see an appreciable increase in national power supply, and only until then can we begin to measure the true energy requirement of this country. It is also my opinion that the pittance we a putting into the power sector will not take us anywhere close to where we need to be, not even in a hundred years, unless we have to continue deluding ourselves.
I shall now endeavour to put things in proper perspective. In 2012 Nigeria budgeted about a billion dollars for the energy sector (161 billion Naira). For 2013 that budget was cut to less than half of the previous year. South Africa, a country of under 50 million people with steady power supply, experienced some interruptions around the outskirts of Johannesburg and other cities a few years ago. To address this problem the country budgeted about 50 billion dollars to spend on shoring up their power supply. Yes, electricity does not come cheap. I had earlier advocated that Nigeria needs to spend between 10 to 15 billion dollars a year for the next 10 years if we must finally and permanently tackle our electricity menace. We can either spend this money on something this vital, or continue to delude ourselves and opt for the easier things like constituency allowances, governors' security votes, creating more states, and all the other bullshits that do not add one iota of value to the economic development of this country. In another example we can cite China, a country that already enjoys steady power supply. China currently has about 16 nuclear power plants and is building another 25. They are already leading the world in solar power farms, and here is the kicker, China is for the past several years building 2 gigawatts (2,000 megawatts ) of new power plants, mostly coal fired, per week. India is not that far behind in the number of new power plants they are building.
I can hear many of you saying, wait a minute, China is a country of 1.3 billion people so I'm comparing apples and oranges. Well, I don't expect Nigeria to start building nuclear power plants yet, but solar is doable and we do have an abundance of coal in this country. We are certainly more than 10% of China's population so if China is averaging well over 100 new power plants per year, then we should at least target 5% of that and make a commitment to carry them out. But why should we spend all these money if we are embarking on such massive privatisation of these power sector facilities. I am first and foremost a believer in the private sector but there is a huge difference in this sector that will ultimately frustrate the noble aim of the privatisation scheme. Privatisation of the telecom sector has worked remarkably well so far, but I caution that telecom is not the same as power. The energy sector is a very expensive sector that requires far more capital investment to accomplish any appreciable difference. I recalled about seven or eight years ago when several of our ministers including Ezekwesili, camped out in London for about 2 weeks, looking for buyers of these facilities and not even one single credible western corporation showed up. Part of the problem is the way the privatisation is structured. The government has divided the power sector into 3 separate divisions; power generation, transmission, and distribution. And from my understanding, the government seeks to retain total control of the transmission part of the industry. I cannot imagine any private equity or global conglomerate willing to come and invest billions of dollars in power generation only to be held hostage by an antiquated and bureaucratic government controlled transmission system. It's just not going to happen.
This inherent problem now leaves room for mostly indigenous companies to bid for these facilities. So far we have seen the Tinubus and most of the former presidents in action, snatching as many facilities as the government is ready to sell to them. For the record, I'm not opposed to indigenization of those facilities, but I suspect that none of these characters can invest the sort of billions of dollars required to make a tangible difference. I have known some of the most brilliant Nigerians that served in several administrations and many still serving, why can't somebody tell our presidents the truth they must know in other to make the right decisions for this country. It appears to me that there is something in the water in Abuja that make otherwise brilliant minds turn weak and gutless for the sake of safeguarding their jobs. For God's sake, when will someone stand up, grab their balls and tell our president what he must hear and damn the consequences. At least do this for the sake of over 160 million Nigerians, and who knows, the president might even listen and be willing to try doing the right thing. Mr. Nebo, the newly confirmed minister of power has told us during his senate hearing that witches are among the things hindering steady power supply in Nigeria. Trust me my brother, we have a lot of problems in the power sector but witches and wizards are not part of them. Money, lots of money, or lack of it is at the root of all our electrical mago mago in this country.