Agents of Darkness

by Uche Ohia

When President Umar Yar’Adua made an allusion last January to the colossal sum of $10b sunk between 1999 and 2007 in the power sector by the Olusegun Obasanjo administration which was yet to produce expected results, the news was received with bewilderment across the country. Many thought that, perhaps, the President was mistaken, misinformed or that he made a hasty pronouncement. Conflicting figures below the $10b began to tumble into the grapevine from sympathizers of the former president. Even after the President subsequently sacked his Senior Special Assistant on Power Sector Reform and Coordinator of the National Integrated Power Project (NIPP), Foluseke Somolu, allegedly for disputing the figure of $10b, many were still reluctant to believe that the president was sure of his facts. The haze began to clear when Speaker Oladimeji Bankole told the nation that $16b was actually spent on the power sector – that in addition to the $10b, an additional extra budgetary spending of $6b was made by the Obasanjo administration! Public outrage compelled the House to order an investigation.

Actually, no one can put a handle on what was actually spent as revelations during the probe showed that the extra $6 billion was appropriated but never released. Even key actors in the power sector, such as Liyel Imoke added another twist to the figures when he disclosed $6 billion was spent between 1999 and 2007. There are pointers to the fact that the amount was much lower than the $10 billion and $16 billion being bandied around by the presidency and House of Representatives, respectively. A top official in the presidency, it would seem, was instrumental in misinforming President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua about the actual amount expended, but the presidency is too far caught up in the web of misrepresentation to swallow its pronouncements on the power sector.

Many years ago, a friend gave me a copy of Campbell Armstrong’s novel titled Agents of Darkness. I never got round to reading the book but right now, the morbid title seems quite appropriate to describe some of the persons – human and corporate – that have been named in the on-going investigation of the power sector by the Ndudi Elumelu led House of Representatives Committee on Power and Steel. What other name can be given to those who have chosen to profit from a grievous national malady?

What the investigation by Elumelu’s committee has revealed is that the power sector in Nigeria is bandit territory – an industry where rules and laws are ignored or flouted with impunity. Contracts were awarded at fantastic costs without due process or awarded to persons unqualified ab initio and to companies with dubious records; payments were made without commensurate work being done; appropriations and extra budgetary expenditures were made without statutory backing; contracts were even awarded to phantom companies. The expositions are making everyone wonder how the Obasanjo administration that prided itself as one that placed a very high premium on due process and zero tolerance for corruption could be the same purveyor of these illegalities.

The story of the power sector in Nigeria is a sad one. With an average load demand in excess of 6000 megawatts (MW), the installed capacity for power generation is said to be about 5000MW but actual generation totters between 2,000MW and 3,200MW down from 4,000MW per annum attained from rehabilitation of old power plants in 2003. In the circumstance, power outages are inevitable. To worsen the situation, every effort to revamp the power sector has ended up as one step forward, two steps backward. And power industry staffers have never helped matters. From the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN) to the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) to NEP PLC, to the present Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), staffers are notorious for diversion of payments, alteration of meter readings, collection of gratifications, and making of illegal connections. They are even routinely fingered in the stealing of power distribution equipment. Such corruption, ineptitude, fraud and outright sabotage coupled with the untold damage unleashed in the locust infested years of military rule has transformed Nigeria into a generator – powered economy.

Everyone depends on generators even if it is only the lithe type derisively called “I pass my neighbour”. In business places and residences, generators rumble round the clock – for those who can afford the noise, the fumes and the cost. For the rest of the population that is compelled to live in the dark, each day is an agony and each night a nightmare. Nothing has hampered the economic development of Nigeria more than this outrageous irony in a country that is blessed with incalculable gas reserves rated as the sixth highest in the world.

Ordinarily, there is enough justification for the president to set up a high powered commission of inquiry. Power is vital to the economy. The absence of power supply is a major cause of poverty and unemployment because it renders artisans and cottage industrialists redundant. Many manufacturers are relocating to other countries with more stable power supply. As more industries are shut down, prices of manufactured goods skyrocket and unemployment rises. But official and unofficial advisers of the president will prefer that darkness takes over the land than for the president to be seen to be ‘witch-hunting’ his predecessor (read benefactor). The National Energy Council set up by Yar’Adua in September 2007 ought to be concluding its report. The President has every reason to declare a state of emergency in the power sector as he promised in his inaugural address. Only by so doing can he meet his target of doubling power generation by 2009 and making outages a thing of the past by 2011. And only by so doing can he ensure that his 7-point Agenda does not remain a mirage.

All said, the federal government has failed woefully in the provision of electricity as it did in telecom services. To realize his goals, therefore, Yar’Adua will do well through the impending reshufflement to bring in as ministers and special advisers responsible for energy and power, persons with a track record and who are knowledgeable about the sector, and not persons appointed out of some political exigency. In any case, the best thing for the government to do is still to pass on the responsibility for power generation, transmission and distribution to the private sector. Only then can we expect to witness a revolution of the type that occurred in the telecom sector. Until then, we – all of us – shall remain victims of agents of darkness.

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