By CHRIS ANYOKWU
Chris Anyokwu, PhD, a dramatist, poet, fiction writer, speaker, rights activist and public intellectual, is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Lagos, Nigeria and has joined Business a.m.’s growing list of informed editorial commentators to write on Politics & Society. He can be reached via email@example.com
The man of God, Pastor Humphrey Erumaka, had taken the microphone that beautiful Sunday morning during the worship service and the congregants, as usual, were looking forward with taut anticipation and great expectation to receiving a “Word From God”, on, say, prosperity, healing, salvation, or, total deliverance, a church favourite in the age of feel-good, easy believism. Nobody saw it coming and when he announced the topic of the day’s sermon as “Let There Be Light”, you could hear the church exhale a collective sigh of relief. Thank goodness, the message is familiar; at least, it’s likely to be about the Act of Creation at Genesis. But that’s where the man of God played a fast one on his congregants, again. As it had turned out, the message had absolutely nothing to do with the Hebraic myth of creation or the house-keeping fumblings of the Primal Pair, Adam and Eve. The Pastor’s mind, though always attuned to the Mind of God, was today on a more mundane and shop-soiled affair. He was fully prepped up to talk about ELECTRICITY! Yeah, you heard right: electricity or, simply LIGHT as Nigerians fondly call it in street parlance. The Pastor in his homily had taken the church on memory lane on the epileptic, run-and-stumble career of the corporation charged with the generation, transmission and distribution of electric power in Nigeria, right from independence to date. He had bemoaned and lamented the many lost opportunities by Nigerian factories, industries, government agencies and private individuals to kickstart an Industrial Revolution in the largely benighted country due mainly to the lack of adequate and uninterrupted supply of power. As he spoke, the congregants could barely hear him on account of the deafening sound of the diesel-powered giant generating set mounted nearby on which the church service itself was being powered.
What’s more, in the surrounding neighbourhood, you could overhear the continuous din of generators coming from virtually ALL the houses. The day’s sermon spoke home to the people; it had resonated most traumatically with each and every one of them; they were the living victims of government-sanctioned Reign of Darkness. This permanent siege of darkness visible, was one into which most had been born and in which all were liable to die.
Thus when the Pastor cried on the pulpit, that beautiful Sunday morning, it was as though he were haranguing and hectoring Abuja, saying: “LET THERE BE LIGHT !” The entire church had stood gingerly on the threshold of tears. That was some twenty years ago at WordBase Assembly, Okota-Isolo, Lagos. Fast-forward to the present, 2022, things have gone much worse: many industries have either closed down or relocated to neighbouring African countries where they enjoy relatively stable supply of electric power; factories, once purring and humming with productive life, have equally closed shop, their premises promptly converted into maga-arenas of miracles. So-called cottage industries are now non-existent and the artisan class – mechanics, vulcanizers, cobblers, fashion-designers, auto spare-part dealers and so forth – exists only in name. All are hoping against hope for the day there will be a conducive environment for them to ply their trades and make a profit. And you ask yourself: where is the government agency responsible for the generation, transmission and distribution of power?
A bit of context or backgrounding is necessary at this juncture. In the early 1960s, the Niger Dam Authorities (NDA) and Electricity Corporation had amalgamated to form the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN). Immediately after the end of the Nigeria-Biafra Civil War of 1967-70, the management of ECN had changed its name to the National Electric Power Authority or NEPA. As part of the evolution in the power industry in Nigeria, the federal government by Decree No. 24 of 1972 had created the NEPA. However, in 2005, as a result of the power sector reform process, NEPA was unbundled and renamed Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN). It was unbundled into 18 business units (BU), namely: 11 distribution companies, 6 generation companies and one transmission company. In spite of all this, Nigerians have never stopped paying for “darkness”. Reasons have been adduced for this unsavoury state of affairs, among which include government’s inconsistent and misguided power reform policies, inefficiency in power generation, transmission, distribution and consumption and the patently, almost stereotypically inept and incompetent work-force of the energy companies.
Time was when you visited a NEPA/PHCN office to transact some business; you would find a generator providing power there! We would be well-advised to simply skirt the endemic monumental institutional corruption in which the entire agency is mired. From metre readers all the way to the hardly-seen lotharios pulling the strings from the plush caverns of their offices. They all get by, by fleecing the impoverished people. But the fact remains, NEPA/PHCN officials hardly disturb the well-heeled entombed behind their gated ramparts, garrison fortresses fortified with Alsatian-dog culture. The appurtenances of class hauteur effectively drive fear and trepidation into the hearts of the grasping minions of darkness and they take their rabid rapaciousness to the down-and-out. This dictatorship of the poor against the poor usually plays out in street fights, homicidal rages, accidental electrocutions, disturbance of the peace and sundry forms of violence, sometimes resulting in loss of life and property.
Sadly, the old NEPA (now PHCN) ended up earning itself the moniker: NEVER EXPECT POWER ALWAYS! This sardonically ingenious sobriquet has become the permanent raison de’tre of NEPA itself as it tends to relish playing hide-and-seek with consumers. For instance, during a football match being televised live, NEPA/PHCN delights in causing power outages as a devious, wickedly entertaining side-show as people skitter and flit to and from sitting-room to generator kept far away from the living quarters. Whilst this back-and-forth lasts, you would have missed the highlights of the match. And you are left asking: “What happened; who scored?…”
Again, the puzzle remains: What’s the point in the name-change, from NEPA to PHCN? You can as well whitewash sepulchre and rechristen it as an estate. It’s been business-as-usual in the power sector. All we have seen is a bit of unbundling of the organisational make-up of the corporation and you hear people mouth DiSco, DiSco all over the place and it ends there. These distribution companies (DiScos) need to slough off the retrogressive habit of the old NEPA and convince Nigerians that they mean well. Nigerians still regard them with suspicion. For when the cobra gives birth, its child still inherits its venom. Issues of prepaid metering versus Estimated Billing still linger to date. And we all know the Estimated Billing system is a shorthand for abominable racketeering involving the Big Ogas ensconced in A/C offices and their foot-soldiers (metre readers) draped in overalls, veritable avenging angels of darkness. Many years after the introduction of prepaid metering, people are still weeping and wailing over PHCN high-handedness, avariciousness and mean-heartedness. Several police cases and court litigations have been instituted owing to the unwholesome practices of PHCN officials. Social media is awash with lots of memes showing this ugly development. Which brings to the fore a most pertinent question: What happened to the Nigeria-Siemens power deal brokered under the current regime? Sun reported that the $2.3 billion Siemens contract was in danger over local content disagreement (Sun 18th April, 2022). It’s said that Nigerians would have to tarry a while longer to enjoy better power supply as the Presidential Power Initiative (PPI) appeared headed for a brick-wall over lack of transparency and disagreement on the use of local content. The Siemens group constituted nearly 100 per-cent of the workforce, including the artisanal hands, leaving out Nigerian experts. The Nigerian authorities are just like a monitoring team, looking on. Consequently, the boosting of the Nigerian grid has remained in the doldrums due to the incidence of Nigerian greed. Thus the decentralisation of power only amounts to mere papering over the cracks, at best.
Furthermore, beyond the late Abba Kyari-led PPI, the federal government under President Olusegun Obasanjo, also threw spanners in the works regarding the Lagos Independent Power Project initiative mooted under Governor Bola Tinubu. Had OBJ allowed Tinubu to have his way, Lagos would have been Dubailised. In fact, in exasperation, one is forced to wonder aloud: Is there anything inherently wrong or untoward with the Nigeria environment, which makes it impossible to have constant power supply? Is it the climate, or its adverse weather conditions? Or is it its soil quality or the quality of the air? What exactly is the source of our tragedy regarding light? Why is Nigeria always in darkness? It is heart-wrenchingly evident that there is a cabal (defined by Wole Soyinka as “a tiny but power” vested interest); a syndicate or power cartel comprising irredeemably avaricious and kleptomaniacal personalities intent upon wrecking and ruining their fellow citizens till doomsday via the denial of light. Who are these enemy nationals? They are in and outside the orbits of power; they are super-billionaires involved in the importation of meretricious generating sets from the Asian Tigers. The fear, really, is: you give the people light, the generator honey-pot disappears poof! The power piranhas are brought down to earth and made to look ordinary like you and I. Thus, the generator business is a highly complex food chain (or supply chain) involving manufacturers (overseas), wholesalers/retailers, oil and gas sector players, filling-station owners, generator repairers and the I-better-pass-my-neighbour householder. Crucially, therefore, the power problem goes right to the very heart of the Nigeria postcolonial rudderlessness. The Giant of Africa is held down by the greed and graft of few whilst the rest of Africa streaks ahead to the blazing future. Nigeria, the real Heart of Darkness. Joseph Conrad was wrong; or – he spoke too soon. Whilst Nigerians are denied power, they nevertheless battle the side-effects of generator operation, viz: air and environmental pollution, incessant deafening noise, disorientation, air-borne diseases, siege mentality, garrison architecture, carceral existence and low productivity as well as poverty and ennui. These are always topics for the annual COP summit. Oh, the Sigh of our Planet!
Now, the question is: Who will bell the cat? Who will break the curse of darkness over Nigeria? Will Nigeria ever enjoy, like most nations do, an uninterrupted and constant power supply? 2023 beckons and the presidential candidates must take a stand on this power issue. On whose side are you? The cartel’s or the people’s side? Will it be business-as-usual or will you give Nigerians light? The 2023 presidential election must turn on this.
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