FEATURE ARTICLE

Michael NnebeThursday, January 9, 2014
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THE CONSEQUENCES OF PREMATURE PRIVATIZATION OF NIGERIA'S ELECTRICITY

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esterday, the minister of power, Prof. Nebo, speaking on behalf of the president, gave a six-month ultimatum to the new private power facilities owners to drastically improve power or else. Akuko! Mba anabalu agu. The truth is that our electricity supply has gradually been declining since the official handover on the first of November. At one point in November Nigeria was generating less than 2000 megawatts of electricity. In my immediate neighborhood, it had gone from up to eighteen hours to considerably less than half that each day. Before you get excited at the presidential ultimatum, I need to remind you all that in May 2011, our president also issued a similar ultimatum to cement manufacturers to bring down the price of cement or else. Well, not much has changed since and hell has not frozen over, so please don't expect any miracles now.

The truth is that I had repeatedly warned throughout last year on the potential for such problem if we privatize the power sector prematurely, but those in power were probably too busy drinking Champaign in Abuja to hear my lonely voice in the wilderness. I wrote no less than ten articles on the issue of power in 2013 alone, consistently warning the government of potential pitfalls in their power privatization exercise, essentially saying that these buyers do not have the money to make a substantive difference in our electricity supply. Two weeks ago, the world witnessed a mass protest in Argentina with people burning facilities of power companies in protest for power disruptions. The Argentinean government had apparently sold off their power company ten years earlier to private hands. Bear in mind that Argentina had attained steady power supply before this selloff. But the private owners failed to make the necessary and costly investment required to keep up with growing power demands, and now they are experiencing power outages and the people find it difficult to bear, hence the protests.

In spite of their problems I wish that Nigerians have close to what they currently have in Argentina. People would be clamoring to make Jonathan president for life, for achieving near steady power supply. In Nigeria, our government has made it incredibly profitable for those who bought power distribution facilities. These companies can now make billions of naira without even supplying an atom of electricity. About two years ago I paid 400 naira service charge per meter, now they are charging 750 naira per meter. The rates have also gone up that the same amount of credit now last me half as much in usage. These fees are paid regardless of whether your neighborhood had light or not. I'm not exaggerating; there is a certain community in Lagos that has not seen electricity for more than seven months, but it did not stop the power company from collecting their monthly service charges on presumably thousands of meters in that estate. Last week, one of the owners of this estate was on Channels television lamenting on their plight. Incidentally, the man was a PDP chieftain so go figure.

In my humble opinion, I think the president is giving ultimatum to the wrong people. Our problem lies exclusively in inadequate power generation. Whatever problem there is with power distribution can be easily solved, but without enough generated power to go round the president can give all the ultimatums he wants, it won't change the outcome. We may well, see some patched up improved supply within that six months, but even that would only be a temporary thing. We recalled how Bart Nnaji's administration patched up all the available power in Nigeria to come close to 5,000 megawatts of power and close to steady supply in some areas. In the end, even that attempt crumbled as we suddenly returned to roughly 3,000 megawatts of power generation within six months of Nnaji's departure. There is and should not be any shortcut to this problem. Nigeria's government must invest heavily in building new power stations across this country, or we will remain where we are currently, and continue to issue empty ultimatums to those who do not have the capacity to make a difference.

Quite frankly I knew this was coming, and as soon as our government handed over ownerships in November, I went and bought a second generator to make sure I was not left in the dark. I will advice Nigerians to prepare themselves for a protracted period of back and forth between politicians and their allies who bought these facilities. Make sure that your generators are well serviced, and if you use gen a lot, perhaps you should consider buying a second one if you can afford it because in the end nothing will come out of these rattling. In spite of all the promises, here is my reality in Nigeria today with regards to power. The electricity supply in my immediate neighborhood has been drastically reduced, and it is no longer unusual to go a whole day or two without electricity supply. My bills have gone up, almost doubled, and as a result of this diminished supply I am now generating more carbon monoxide in the air, poisoning myself and my neighbors even while I at the same time inhale their own generated poisoning as everybody runs their generators more often now.

But the question I have for President Jonathan and Prof. Nebo is this; did you guys not expect this to happen? When you warn and give ultimatum to these new owners, do you really mean what you are saying? Where did you expect them to suddenly find the billions of dollars required to alter our fortunes in this power sector when you guys have failed to do so for many years. Or are you just saying all these now just to appease Nigerians to believe that you guys really care and are fighting on behalf of Nigerians. Perhaps that was the original intention of the government; to wash their hands off this menace so that they can now fight these faceless bad guys alongside the hapless citizens. Well, you guys can't fool us, at least you can't fool me. By neglecting all my warnings on this you have become the architects of this disaster that is gradually unfolding before our own eyes. You should thank your lucky stars that Nigerians are an extremely passive bunch who would do absolutely nothing even if our power supply is reduced to zero. Such is the moral and expectation of the average citizen in Nigeria today that no one ever gives a damn anymore, and that, as far as I am concerned, is the true tragedy of our democracy. May God help us!

Michael Nnebe is a former Wall Street Investment Banker and the Author of several novels, including; Every Dream Has A Price, Riverside Park, Blood Covenant, Gloomy Shadows, Passing wishes, Prime Suspect, and others.

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