By Okey Ndibe
A few days ago, a friend of mine called to share some woeful experience. The guy, a US-based pharmacist, recently spent three weeks in Aba, the most populous city in Abia State, where some members of his family live and he owns a business.
According to my pal, the whole of Aba metropolis was, for ten straight days, without electric power during his visit. I had never known my friend to be given to embellishment or hyperbole. Even so, I voiced some doubt. In a pained, raised voice, he sought to disabuse me. “I’m not telling you that somebody told me. I was there. For close to ten days, the residents of Aba didn’t have one flickering second of light.”
He was able to manage, he said, because his home in Aba is equipped with a generator. Still, it cost him a grand bundle of cash to buy fuel for the generator. Again, he was part of the lucky minority. For some of his relatives and acquaintances, it was pure, unadulterated suffering. Tons of refrigerated food, cooked and raw, went bad. At night, residents turned and tossed in restless sleep in hot, airless rooms.
And this was only a partial glimpse of the domestic facet of residents’ unrelenting experience of powerless hell.
Now consider this: Aba is one of the most densely populated cities in Nigeria. In addition, it is one of Africa’s most dynamic industrial hubs. It is the location of some of the country’s privately owned medium- and low-level manufacturing industries.
For a city of this scale and importance, the implications of a long-lasting power outage are profound. Imagine the strain, for example, on hospitals where doctors must carry out routine and specialised surgeries. Even where hospitals own massive generators, they stand to incur huge costs if they run the generators round-the-clock for several days. Ultimately, the increased costs are passed on to patients or their relatives who often pay out of pocket.
For manufacturers and other businesses, the outlook is just as forbidding, if not even grimmer. Ten days without power translates into incalculable disaster. Electricity powers manufacturing. In the absence of electric power, many businesses are forced to grind to a halt. When productive activities cease, the ripple effects are dire. Proprietors lose revenue and, in critical conditions, may face closure. Consumers are deprived of much-desired or needed goods and services. Employees often go unpaid, furloughed or are laid off outright. The dysfunctions also have broader macro-economic impact. When businesses and people are distressed on account of a collapse of electric power, governments stand to collect much less internally generated revenues.
Let’s not forget the grave security implications of thrusting a major city into darkness. Most Nigerian cities, Aba among them, are beset by high crime rates. Criminals thrive under the cover of darkness. It follows that the ten or so days when Aba’s residents went without power were an unwitting boon to the worst of criminals. In a country where many violent crimes go unreported or unsolved, we may never get a full reckoning of the ways in which emboldened criminals lay siege to Aba’s hapless residents.
After getting off the phone with my friend, I decided to dig around for information that would explain the plague of darkness that befell Aba and surrounding communities – a total of nine local government areas. To my chagrin, but hardly shock, I discovered that – like many a disaster in Nigeria – it was all man-made.
Since September last year, a corporate entity called Aba Power has been responsible for supplying electric power to the sprawling commercial nerve centre. By many accounts, the company has been doing a commendable job. However, the company has faced two teething problems.
The first has to do with a perennial habit of many Nigerian consumers of utilities: the reluctance to pay bills. Even though Aba Power has greatly improved power supply within its jurisdiction, a significant percentage of commercial and residential consumers do not pay their tariffs. Some rogue consumers even go as far as tapping power illicitly. More hardened criminals frequently prey on the company’s equipment, thus compromising the reliability of power supply.
Hampered by a lagging collection on its bills, Aba Power had a second problem. It happened to owe N896 million to Federal Government agencies in the power sector. On 19th April, the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) sent a letter to Aba Power demanding payment within thirty days of the nearly N900 million debt. The thirty-day notice was in line with best practices. Corporate and individual debtors are usually given a window of time within which to meet their obligations.
In this instance, TCN’s seemingly gracious gesture was immediately subverted by a bizarre, even malicious, manoeuvre. That same day, the TCN’s executive director for market operations, Edmund Eje, ordered the market operator to totally remove Aba Power from the national grid. Thus, with nary a moment’s warning, all of Aba Power’s 29 feeders were shut out. Millions of the company’s customers in Aba and surrounding local government areas, many of them commercial enterprises, were thrust into a powerless dungeon.
Eje’s action was baffling. It also smacked of bad faith. It’s hard to defend his inordinate haste to punish Aba Power and, by extension, its millions of customers. After all, TCN had that day served Aba Power a thirty-day notice to settle its debt. As if to underscore a malicious intent, Eje treated the far more indebted Kaduna Electricity Distribution Company with kid gloves. Even though the Kaduna Company owed TCN a whooping N33 billion, only three of the firm’s feeders were taken off the national grid – for just four days!
Why did Eje order all of Aba Power’s feeders removed from the national grid for ten days, while the Kaduna Company, which owes TCN thirty-two times more money, was given an exceedingly lenient treatment?
Nigeria is a trying environment for private businesses, as well as citizens. When overzealous federal bureaucrats play foul with electric power, they exacerbate harsh conditions. In effect, they further hinder the operations of private businesses and inflict gratuitous hardship on Nigerians who are already much abused.