Monday, 24 May 2010

Power to the People

There’s a new white person in town. We’ve seen him in his white HiLux a couple of times on the drive into work. We’ve never met him however we do have a clue to who he works for: his HiLux has a PHCN logo on the side.

PHCN stands for Power Holding Company of Nigeria, or the company formerly known as NEPA (Nigerian Electrical Power Authority). NEPA was familiarly known as ‘Never Expect Power Again’. Re-branding has not managed to throw off the reputation. PHCN stands for ‘the Problem Has Changed its Name’.

After more than 18 months in Nigeria, most of it spent in the dark in Kagoro, I don’t know what it was that suddenly inspired me to write about NEPA as I was trying not to notice what was going on in the road in front of me as the public taxi hurtled us towards Abuja on my way to a meeting there?

Whether it was that morning seeing the elusive white PHCN man for once out of (but leaning against) his HiLux in the new PHCN building site next to the Strategic Grain Reserve on the Flour Mills Road. PHCN is building a new transformer, allegedly to ‘transform’ our experience of electricity. Huh. I have more faith in... well in England winning the forthcoming football World Cup.

Maybe it was the election fever I managed not to catch from the UK and, with Nigerian Presidential elections due next year, have been advised by VSO to avoid discussing in public. Bear with me:

You may (or may not) be aware that Nigeria’s President recently ‘died’ after about 8 months completely out of the public eye. This meant that our Acting President, the wonderfully named Goodluck Jonathan, was finally inaugurated as President Proper, this within spitting distance of an election year. All around posters are going up advertising the local senate candidates; disused and unearthed petrol station storage tanks have election slogans painted across them. The local headquarters of political parties are receiving a fresh coat of paint and solar street lamps and road repairs are suddenly appearing as incumbents jostle to justify their re-election.

Politicians in Nigeria are not elected on the basis of manifestos: they are elected on the basis of ‘agendas’. Yar Adua (RIP) had a Seven Point Agenda . Kaduna State(former) Governor Namadi Sambo (he’s now national Vice President alongside Goodluck) has an Eleven Point Agenda , Dr Emmanuel Eweta Uduaghan Governor of Delta State has a Three Point Agenda, Nasarawa State Governor Aliyu Akwe Doma has a Thirteen Point Agenda (no hyperlink there: I don't really think you're hurrying to check these agendas out are you?)..

High up on most politician’s agendas is power: the electric variety. However few states, if any, have made any progress. Certainly not Kaduna State despite the promise “to spend over two hundred and forty-nine million naira for the development of Major Dams to generate Hydro Electricity in the State”.

I have been urging anyone that I can speak to (without incurring VSO’s displeasure), to encourage candidates standing for President next year to stand on a One Point Agenda: Power. Forget about everything else. I think about this every time I see some election activity.

Or perhaps my my mind wandered to electricity in jovial memory of the PHCN man coming to our door on Friday morning demanding that the Pink House’s NEPA bill is paid: all N6,000 (£30) of it else we get cut off. Cut off? Well as you can imagine we laughed.

There has not been enough electricity to the Pink House in the last two weeks to charge my electric toothbrush. This is not an exaggeration. I think we have seen the lights on for a total of about 45 minutes – usually during broad daylight when frankly it’s not very useful to us.

However whilst having no electricity at night is an irritation rather than a real nuisance for us VSOs, the power supply situation is crippling Nigeria:

All secondary school students take ‘Computer Science’ classes and, despite the government supplying computers to most schools, very few students will leave school having used one. Computers need electricity and most schools simply can’t afford the cost of running generators.

I had a friend who was a paediatrician and surgeon at the local, large-ish general hospital. When I asked him about the power position at the hospital he told me that if he has to do a caesarean section, the generator is turned on for 15 minutes.

Any local business that relies on power (and you just think of a business at home that doesn’t) either has to spend the majority of its day idle or spend large sums of money on generators and the fuel to run them. Generating power at a few kilowatts at a time is incredibly inefficient. How can the businesses hope to compete?

If you go to a business services centre to print documents there will be two prices: one for when there’s power and one, usually about double, for when they have to run a generator.

I recently learnt that the reason that mobile phone networks are unreliable – even in cities – and service is simply cut off for hours (or in rural areas, days) is because someone either didn’t fill the standby generator that powers the radio transmitters or stole the fuel or money for the fuel to fill it.

No point in most businesses harnessing computers to run their accounts, keep customer records, or do all of those things that modern businesses rely on in the ‘West’. You simply can’t rely on the computer being available when you need it. Consequently the accounts departments of most Nigerian businesses are drowning in ledgers (and accounts clerks) that wouldn’t look out of place in a Dickins’ novel. Trying to work out facts and figures about your business can take weeks, processing thousands of manual records.

One Friday before a bank holiday our cashier spent five hours at a bank trying to withdraw the cash to make a disbursement to a group of rural clients. The systems were down and whilst the banks do run generators, I’d lay a bet on the power supply being behind that glitch.
The list goes on and on..

How can progress be made under those conditions?

I’m in Abuja right now, writing this from the Crystal Palace, a reasonably priced middle of the range hotel. The lights have gone off and on twice in the last 4 hours. The hotel runs a generator pretty much constantly which I can hear buzzing away in the background over the music in my headphones. Whilst the power situation in big cities is considerably better than places like Kafanchan, it’s still by no means constant. The density of buildings combined with the wealth to maintain generators means that nights in residential areas are polluted by the hum of generators (Kagoro is blissfully silent, and poor).

There’s a vicious rumour going around that Nigeria exports electricity, and reliably, to Niger, Cameroon and Benin. I have no evidence for this but it is so commonly reported it could be true.

Please Presidential Candidates: a One Point Agenda.

Electricity like this country deserves. Then Nigeria has a chance. And a bloody good one at that.



Belindka said...

Cicely forget the oil what about solar panels? That way electricity could just be generated by self sufficient individuals and sold like chickens in the market....I know they probably seem a bit expensive by Nigerian standards but buying them in bulk I'm sure they can get a cut would break PHCN's monopoly? Or isn't life as simple as that...or at least if schools could get solar panels that would be something...I'm sure you could get a British Education Charity interested in raising money for Nigerian schools to have Solar panels...I am wondering how I can convince Goodrich to get photovoltaic panels (which I heard don't need as much sunlight).....

Anonymous said...

You hammered the nail on the right spot.I think there should be an amendment of the constitution, so we can have who ever is interested irrespective of their nationality contest for positions in Nigeria.You already have my vote with your 'ONE point Agenda'. That's all Nigerian's need for a start.
Even when solar panels are installed,I can confidently tell you it will not be maintained by the government.The will power is lacking.Cee, nice one.

Anonymous said...

Hi Cecil,
Good luck with power to and for the people!
I have a different faith however just now.....England are going to win the world cup!
Much love from sunny Eng-a-land, Eng-a-land....Eng-a-land!!
Jared xx

Sarah McL said...

Hi Cicely!

I am going to print this off and show it to my kids next time they moan that the internet connection is 'hopeless'...!

Good luck with Goodluck!

Sarah McL

Cicely Nigeria said...

Stop the press!

As Teleri and I were driving in this morning we noticed there were TWO white men standing by the HiLux in the PHCN compound. We stared at them and they stared at us. It took all my self control to stop shouting "eh! Baturi!".