Igboanugo: Power sector: Shall we return to Egypt?
ONE of the most memorable events recorded in the Holy Bible is the journey of the Israelites from Egypt to the Promised Land. The story, in the book of Genesis, is well known and captivating. Each verse captures the incontrovertible evidence of God’s power over creation and how it could be used to favour as well as destroy, depending on His preferences, while on the flipside also showcasing man’s frailty to recognising, acknowledging and situating the profundity of such capacity in his relationship with God.
How could the Israelites display such faithlessness after witnessing the wonders God performed in pulling them out of Egypt, including practically dividing the Red Sea to allow them passage and causing it to swallow the pursuing Egyptian soldiers, that they, in no time, began to doubt that the same God could see them through obviously far lighter problems? But that, many may argue, is why man is man and not God.
That is probably where the growing grumbling of many Nigerians grappling with the current challenging situation of electricity supply in the country becomes understandable.
Suffering is certainly not man’s best of friends. So, in recent times, like the Israelites began to grumble as soon as the journey through the wilderness became more upsetting and some of them wishing to have been left in Egypt to continue and die in endless suffering, even with the strong smell of the Promised Land wafting through the air, many Nigerians are also already similarly becoming weary of continuing the journey on the clearly defined road towards optimal electricity delivery.
Apart from individual complaints, writings from informed opinions, including media commentaries seem to have a combined effect of growing doubts over the recently concluded privatisation of the power sector in the Nigerian, notwithstanding that the same people actually joined in rolling out the drums to welcome that singular feat achieved not too long ago.
Is the present outage enough to make Nigerians lose faith so easily after the massive welcome party that accompanied the conclusion of the privatisation exercise? That may be akin to asking the Israelites why they made the golden calf and began to worship it when Moses failed to return early enough from the mountain where he had gone to get the commandments from God. Patience is a virtue which appears in short supply. Thus, this apparent despondency within these quarters has led to their questioning the competency of the operators in the sector. “Where did they prove their expertise that qualified them to take over? What is their capital base? How are they going to raise the money they require to increase capacity and turn the sector around?” And the only conclusion is the expected mantra – corruption. “They sold the companies to their cronies.”
But does it follow? Where have the expectations such Nigerians demand of the current process been met before? Surely, only few businesses are likely to mature and break even in three months time. Even in well established ones, how much positive changes can be expected with the change of management in so short a time without cutting corners?
Do we then expect less from the operators in the power sector? No matter the expertise with which they come, are they not expected to take stock and examine the ground before going full blast with their operations? Indeed, is it possible for them to do what the country could not do in decades in less than three months given the depth to which the sector has sunk during this period? These are the bigger issues.
Even the telecom sector that symbolises the most apt example of the expectation in the power sector did not come quite easily or happen in a jiffy. Have we forgotten that for many years, GSM phones remained the exclusive preserve of privileged Nigerians? Not only were the SIM cards costly, the process of obtaining them was cumbersome. Now, the same cards are sold in every street corner at give-away costs and sometimes even free.
Therefore, the plausible option open to Nigerians is to be faithful and trusting. Professor Chinedu Nebo, Minister of Power, presently driving the process, must have the trust which the Israelites denied Moses during the journey to the Promised Land, if only for his pedigree as the Vice Chancellor of University of Nigeria Nsukka, UNN and the Federal University, Oye Ekiti, at different times, but also the seamless conclusion of the privatisation exercise. That feat appeared intractable before his arrival; and was acknowledged as very transparent.
Even at that, industry followers would admit that domestic issues that fell on Nebo’s desk like signing the management contract for the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) and issuing of the Schedule of Delegated Authority (SODA); inaugurating the TCN Supervisory Board and revamping the transmission infrastructure; reactivating and funding the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) and resolving labour issues and paying entitlements of Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) among other things were not easy task, given the hiccups that dogged the entire process in the past.
Recently, President Goodluck Jonathan flagged off Operation Light-up Rural Nigeria, another initiative that appeared like the icing on the cake in widening the horizon of the minister’s mandate, as it is aimed at electrifying the remotest areas of the country without hope of being connected to the national grid in the foreseeable future. The combined effect of all these is that there is a focused leader, and the hope of success is very bright.
The minister was emphatic about this in his strong message to generator sellers: “Mr. President had announced and I have reiterated it that generator sellers should start thinking of another business, because we will give Nigerians power.” Nebo is never associated with weakness or frivolity. The picture he painted is already manifesting in some areas of the country; in Abuja, for instance.
As for problem areas, the minister promised accelerated action to deal with them. “We have problems in Lagos – technical problems. Power fluctuates so badly in Lagos; is much worse now. That problem will be resolved very soon. But in many parts of the country, you will begin to see gradual growth and very soon, with the repair of the Western gas pipeline – Warri-Escravos and so on – generation capacity will grow. And when that happens, there will be more power available for the distribution companies to give to Nigerians,” he added.
The only foreseeable hiccup here is vandalism; saboteurs diving into the high sea to burst pipelines supplying the power stations with gas to ensure that electricity is not generated, for either economic or political reasons. They are the ones Nigerians should turn their anger to and do the battle against. They are the ones capable of derailing the train that has already left the station.
Nobody who was at the Nigeria Power Sector Investors Conference, on Monday, February 10, would have been left in doubt about what is going on in the industry. Not after witnessing the quality of investors that were there scrambling to see how they would have a piece of the action.
For many Nigerians who seem disappointed that the transformation they expect after the transition in the power sector has not materialised, the privatisation exercise is not an end, but a means to an end. That axiomatic first step, the right step in the direction of a thousand miles has just begun. We will not return to Egypt.
• Igboanugo wrote from Abuja.