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The unspoken horror of electricity shortage in Nigeria

Anthony Aduaka is a Jesuit from Nigeria and has been fascinated in recent weeks by the talk of load-shedding and the discussion around electricity and the South African national energy provider, Eskom. He shares his experience of electricity from his home in Nigeria. It seems that we are not alone in bemoaning the supply and the cost of electricity in South Africa.

At 195 million, Nigeria is the most populated nation in Africa, even though a local census claimed that the population was only 161 million. Statistically, a child is born in Nigeria every 4 seconds. More than half of the population are under 30 years old. Nigeria, the largest country in West Africa, an estimated 910,768 km2 ,  holds vast natural and mineral resources. One such example is the estimated 192 trillion cubic feet of natural gas producing 2.8 million barrels of crude oil per day.

In 2014 and 2015 the International Monetary Fund (IMF) rated Nigeria as the third fastest growing economy in the world after China. In contrast, The Spectator Index, in 2017 ranked her the second worst nation in the world for electricity supply. This means that over 20 million households are still without electricity in Nigeria. At present, there are 29 power-generating plants in Nigeria with 12,522MW of installed capacity, of which two of these power-generating plants are not operational. How horrific it is to learn that the maximum power that Nigeria has ever generated, since the beginnings of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria in 1950, is 5,074MW in July 2016.   In August 2015, a mere 4,811MW was generated, and this year even less when February 2018 measurements came in at 4,277MW.

Comparatively, Saudi Arabia with a population of 33 million people, generated 70,000MW of electricity in 2013 and plan to double their capacity by 2040. South Africa with a population of 67 million, generates 48,000MW of electricity when the country’s actual need is 39,000MW. Ghana with a population of 28 million, recorded 100% electricity generation, reaching 36,550.5MW. What then is wrong in Nigeria that a country blessed with many human and natural resources can only boast 5,000MW of electricity for a population of 195 million?

Many take for granted that once we flip a switch it is our fundamental right that a light bulb should light up. If it doesn't we say that the government of the day has failed us. This makes for the frightening but true realisation that a child is growing up in Nigeria today without any practical knowledge of electricity whatsoever. Where did Nigeria as a nation go wrong that she seems not to be able to provide some of the basic amenities for her citizens? Do the rights of Nigerians extend to these basic necessities of life or do we need policy reforms – perhaps even a change of government?

Babatude Fashola who is the current minister of power, works and housing in Nigeria, acknowledged in an interview that the challenges facing the power sector are not technical but man-made. This explains why the government is unperturbed by the huge market which has arisen as a result of these challenges. Nigeria is now the highest importer of generators in Africa.

As long as Nigeria is in darkness hundreds of millions of containers filled with different types and sizes of generators will continue to find their way to helpless and often frustrated Nigerians. I think that it would not be far from the truth to estimate that the number of generators in Nigeria exceeds the population of most African countries.

Experience has shown that capitalist companies and other private investors – who dominate the generator business – will continue to ensure that the demand for electricity always exceeds the supply, in order to justify the advantages taken in an already inhuman situation. This means that these corporations are the major part of the man-made problem that the minister alluded too.

For instance, there are over 50,000 telecommunication masts scattered around the country that require electricity. Each of these masts requires at least two 150KVA generators that run interchangeably around the clock. Consequently, they require servicing and replacing to ensure efficient operation. Imagine what will happen to such long-term contracts if the electricity challenges in Nigeria were eradicated? This kind of fear only contributes to the man-made problems of electricity generation and distribution in Nigeria.

Based on this, industries, companies, schools, churches, government parastatals and other service-providing organisations, even small-scale industries, are compelled to rely on generators as their main source of electricity. Most public places, such as airports, prefer these generators because they can guarantee a steady power supply since the country's official power provider interrupts electricity supply without notice. This leads to the further problem of noise pollution.

Dr Bolagoko Olusanya identified noise-pollution from generators as one of the main causes of hearing-loss in Nigeria. Recently, a joke went viral on social media showing an electricity company that caught alight and called the fire department. The response to their call: “Unfortunately we cannot come to your rescue because we do not have electricity to pump water.”  This is one of the many ways by which Nigerians cope with the daily struggle of electricity shortages.

As long as these man-made challenges persist,  “power generation and distribution would remain a mirage” said Sunday Oduntan, the executive director of the association of electricity distribution of Nigeria. In my opinion, this is the truth as far as electricity generation is concerned in Nigeria.

Many households in rural areas only have electricity for an average of 2 hours a month. Yet by month-end, these households are expected to pay an estimated bill or risk disconnection. In June 2016, some residents of the FESTAC area of Lagos state attacked electricity officials over their electricity bill. They claimed that they had not consumed anywhere near what was being charged. The residents refused to pay the estimate and requested that they would be provided with prepaid meters. These residents have still not received the prepaid meters that they requested since it benefits the government to continue with the estimated billing system. The government continuously offers excuses as to why the prepaid meters are not available.

What will it take for the government to determine the average power consumption per capita in Nigeria?

It is disheartening and disturbing to hear that only 78 out of a possible 140 turbines are functional in the nation's 26 power plants. Also,  Nigeria cannot provide sufficient gas to operate 23 of these power plants because they are running on simple cycle gas turbines. The government categorically states that Nigeria will not have adequate electricity for years to come, citing reasons that include the inadequate supply of gas and a lack o funding.  This is a shame for a country that continues to pride herself as the “big brother” of Africa. But, the Nigerian government has, unashamedly, relegated this huge responsibility to the private sector.

As the famous Nigerian afro-beat singer Sonny Okosun in his 1983 hit song asks: Which way Nigeria?

Image: Nguyen Hieu/Flickr

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.