Power, Uninterrupted

No, I didn’t mean to tease you, dear reader. I didn’t want to leave the impression that Nigeria has magically realized its dream for regular, uninterrupted (electric) power. That aspiration remains unfulfilled, futile even. If anything, the country’s electric power woes continue to worsen.

In fact, I spoke a few days ago with a US-based friend of mine who travels quite frequently, and often to African countries. In the last two months, he said, he’d made trips to Nigeria (where he spent a week and a half at a friend’s home in Lagos) and South Africa (where he stayed a week, also at somebody’s home). He didn’t experience one second of power outage in South Africa, he said. Nigeria was a different story; at best, his host had two days’ worth of electric power in more than a week. My friend actually shared an anecdote that’s at once funny and saddening.

His son, who is five years old and visiting Nigeria for the first time, awoke in the middle of the night. Disoriented by the pitch darkness, the kid called out to his father. “Daddy, I can’t see, I’m blind!” the child shouted, alarmed. His father tried to assure him that he hadn’t gone suddenly blind, but the child would not budge. His tone became more plaintive, ever more agitated. In the end, his father had to wake up their hosts and plead with them to turn on their generator. Then, and only then, could the harried child be convinced that he wasn’t blind after all!

So, no, the title of this column has nothing to do with electric power. It refers, instead, to raw, rampant political power. There’s a surfeit of that other kind of power in Nigeria.

Every day, Nigerians are treated to the rude display of political power. We saw a grave example of it recently when a band of hawkish police officers traveled from Abia State to Lagos and swooped down on the residence of Ebere Wabara, one of the editors of the Sun newspaper. The police were clearly on an illicit mission. They abducted Mr. Wabara from his home, in the presence of his wife and traumatized young children. Then, defying the pleas of a senior police officer in Lagos, they sped away with their quarry back to Abia State where the editor was arraigned on a preposterous 10-count sedition charge. The sum of the charges was that Mr. Wabara had written some “seditious” articles about Governor Theodore Orji of Abia State. The speculation is that the governor had set the police officers to travel all the way to Lagos, crossing several states, to ferret out the editor and bring him to the governor’s lair for a dose of harsh lessons.

It’s only in a country run by knaves, clowns and charlatans that this kind of patent illegality can transpire with ease. In any other nation, where the law is respected and those who breach it must face consequences, most police officers would resist orders to go on what amounts to a criminal mission. And the deployment of sedition charges against Mr. Wabara is a clear case of abuse of political power. The best of Nigeria’s judiciary, including a subsisting appellate decision, have ruled that the so-called sedition statute is inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the country’s constitution.

But don’t expect that stipulation to chasten the Theodore Orjis of the Nigerian political space, or the police officers who are ever so willing to serve as peons of every illicit edict of puny men blinded by transient power.

The abuse of Mr. Wabara’s rights mirrors what happens to millions of voiceless Nigerians every day. That his case has elicited outrage, in Nigeria and beyond, owes entirely to his professional position. The Nigerian space is a depraved one where the powerful define the rules by which they wish to play, and get away with their terrible conduct even when they offend every tenet of human decency.

Call it Nigeria’s power industry. It’s the kind of power favored by Nigerian public officials, appointed as well as elected. They wield this power for ill, usually to serve themselves, to exploit others, and to bring an unrelenting harvest of grief to the hapless occupants of the space called Nigeria.

It is—this power—exercised with vulgar pride. It is the power to act with impunity, without suffering any consequence. It’s the license to violate the rights of others, especially the poor, and yet answer to nobody or institution. It entails the ability to break the law at will, to maim and kill others, to injure or seize others’ property—and yet receive neither sanction nor face a restraining hand. It is the power to use might in a singular way, permitting no ethical or moral or legal question to come to bear.

I have written for years about Nigeria’s peculiar power malady—in other words, about the temptation on the part of those who hold political power to abuse it. But it was in 2009 that I became educated about the putative link between Nigeria’s misfortunes in the energy sector and the country’s excesses in the area of political power. That education came courtesy of Wole Soyinka.

In May, 2009, the Nobel laureate was the main speaker at a symposium at the London Metropolitan University. The focus was Nigeria’s democratic and developmental crises. When it came my turn to speak, I dwelt on former President Olusegun Obasanjo’s famous promise to take on and finally solve his country’s legendary and embarrassing electric power challenge. Mr. Obasanjo had charged a technical committee with finding the answer. He’d then vowed, on his honor, that Nigerians would start enjoying “regular, uninterrupted power supply” beginning December 31, 2001.

The day arrived, alas, and everything remained the same. Or, as many across Nigeria testified, power outages seemed even more widespread on the date when the former president had staked his honor on their banishment. It was as if Mr. Obasanjo had played a callous, expensive prank on Nigerians.

I reminded the audience in London that, under Mr. Obasanjo’s supervision, Nigeria had squandered tens of billions of dollars in the electric power sector, but had nothing to show for it. An investigation by a panel of the House of Representatives uncovered numerous sordid scams, including local and foreign firms that picked up huge payments for doing—nothing!

Rising to speak, Mr. Soyinka stunned the audience by asserting that President Obasanjo had fulfilled his guarantee of “regular, uninterrupted power supply.” According to the bard, the former president must have meant “political power.” And Mr. Obasanjo and his cohorts had engineered a formula to stay in uninterrupted power in Nigeria for at least sixty years!

There’s an ostensible conference in Abuja to chart a new direction for Nigeria. But a country cannot pretend to exist when there are no citizens. And citizens cannot exist in a climate where there’s no respect for laws. And there can be no respect for laws when a few members of a society are deemed to be above the law, and most of the populace is bereft of any form of legal protection. The ritual called national confab is an empty one as long as a governor can commission police officers to embark on the criminal enterprise of hounding a critic—and they obey!

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