Backlash: Fashola and official sophistry
Last week on this page, I drew attention to the GMD of the NNPC and Minister of State for Petroleum Resources, Dr. Ibe Kachikwu, whose semantics is creating more confusion in the administration of the petroleum downstream than it is leading to a clear path. The focus today is on another high public officer that has also taken sophistry to the level of statecraft. He is Raji Babatunde Fashola, immediate past governor of Lagos State and the super minister of power, housing and works.
It is no use engaging Fashola on all three ministries. Even if he works wonders in the area of housing, which is actually an urban problem because nobody in my village looks for where to sleep or sleeps in the open, in the end, what will add to Fashola’s credentials as an astute public administrator is what he does or fails to do in the power sector especially, and the number of roads and bridges he is able to bring on stream.
Even at that, Nigerians can afford to wait a little longer for the big roads and bridges to come but not public electricity. Everything, including life itself and the recovery of the anaemic economy depends on power availability. Fashola has said any serious government such as the APC-led Federal Government of which he is part, can deliver public electricity in a couple of years. He is not saying anything new. Before he met death on December 23, 2001, Chief Bola Ige, the first minister of power (and steel) in Nigeria’s Fourth Republic, had handed down a deadline for 24/7 supply of electricity. He failed woefully.
Almost all the power ministers that came after Bola Ige between 2001 and May 29, 2015, also promised big. One actually boasted to take generation output from a perennially unimpressive 3,000 megawatts to 10,000 megawatts by December 2014. Now, after close to two decades of big talks and big spending, amounting to about $20billion in alleged investment in power infrastructure, the much the incumbent power minister inherited and could declare was a suspicious 4,800 megawatts of public electricity.
Suspicious, because, if same is evacuated and delivered in homes and offices, the current wailing in the land occasioned by persistent darkness will not be as intense and widespread. In other words, Fashola, like his colleague in the petroleum ministry, is not telling the whole truth about the challenges in the power sector. The emphasis on generation is making it look as if the problems plaguing the sector will end once the country is able to generate enough megawatts of public electricity.
This is not true. Sufficiency in generation does not translate to adequacy in transmission and distribution, which are the other two legs of the three-legged sustainable power architecture. Public electricity as a social service is delivered only when it gets to the final consumer and not when it is held back in generation stations or within a nebulous grid system. The carrying capacity of the transmission infrastructure made up of 330 and 132 KVA lines has remained the same since the advent of public electricity in Nigeria.
We should by now be talking of a complete upgrade of the grid system from its present level to a 750 KVA transmission network. I hear however that is ongoing. In the main, even if the much mouthed 10,000 megawatts output is attained, evacuating same on the heavily tasked transmission lines is near impossible. The distribution facilities have also not been expanded. The only thing the DISCOs (Distribution Companies) have done since coming on board three years ago is a steady upward review of tariffs to fraudulently earn without corresponding investment. None of the 11 or so DISCOs nationwide has added a new power transformer or replace aging aluminum conductors in its area of coverage.
Which is saying that if by some miracle the huge output of, say 10,000 megawatts, is evacuated to distribution substations, darkness is not going to disappear from homes and offices because the infrastructures to ensure onward distribution of what is generated to the electricity end users are not just available. The DISCOs by their manifestations do not see investment as part of their business objective. They are a cartel of profiteers that cornered the Federal Government power privatization to make more profit.
These companies have enforced the fraudulent narrative that investment in the downstream sector of the power mix is only possible when tariffs keep rocketing or remain at so-called competitive levels without first defining the levels at which electricity tariffs will be competitive in the Nigerian market. Each time there is a hike, the DISCOs cite the same reason of making the sector investment attractive. And they have hiked tariffs close to half a dozen times since their advent in 2013; the latest being the 45 per cent hike that got organized Labour and the National Assembly reacting and ordering reversal, which they (the DISCOs) have disregarded as they continue to charge consumers the new rates.
Still, there is an aspect of the power mix that is completely outside the three-legged template of generation, transmission and distribution. This is the gas infrastructure under the control of the Nigeria Gas Company (NGC), which supplies the gas that fires all the thermal power stations in the country. And of the about 30 power stations, 26 are thermal, accounting for 80 per cent of the total national power output. At full capacity, the four hydro stations in Kainji, Jebba, Shiroro and Zamfara can only deliver 2,000 megawatts of the projected15,000 megawatts when all the thermal and hydro stations come on stream. It is only the Mambilla Hydro Power Station in Taraba State scheduled for completion in 2018 that can deliver appreciable volume with its projected capacity of 3,050 megawatts.
With this background, the connection between gas and public electricity in Nigeria is like the connection between oxygen and life. That is why the successful completion of all the thermal stations may not mean improved output. Gas is needed to finish the job, to put it simply. So much is wrong with the current gas architecture vis-a-vis the grand purpose of keeping the thermal stations running non-stop. One of the problems is the perpetual tension in the Niger Delta where all the gas is domiciled. When the region sneezes, which it does quite often, all the thermal stations catch cold and darkness envelopes the country.
What Fashola can do is not to support the DISCOs against the people of Nigeria on tariff hike or indulge in the fantasy of nuclear power stations in Nigeria by 2035. He should push the DISCOs to invest to fix the distribution end of the electricity equation. He is talking excitedly of Nigeria building nuclear power stations when we have not come on top of the challenges of managing thermal, hydro and coal power stations. Does he know what would happen if one lunatic GENCO worker, itching to switch off supply, touches the wrong button?
Maybe Fashola should apply to spend his next vacation in Chernobyl in Ukraine or Fukushima in Japan to learn a thing or two about nuclear technology and the corresponding capacity to contain meltdowns when they occur. It is not just enough to sound like other more organised countries that wish to join the nuclear club. Besides, we are seeking to plunge into an energy option that much more advanced countries like Germany are struggling to exit. Acquiring nuclear capabilities for whatever purpose is not Nigeria’s priority today, everything taken together.
What is on ground, or in the works, in terms of power generation across all channels – thermal, hydro and coal – can deliver about 20,000 megawatts. Let’s face and finish these before we itch like Iran and North Korea for nuclear power. Acquisition of a nuclear status goes with a responsibility, and a big on at that.
Instead of dreaming or threatening to go nuclear by 2035, Fashola should work out the conditions for a holistic operation of the present power mix. He should ensure steady gas supply to the thermal stations and evacuation of whatever that is generated for onward distribution to the end users. And he can do this without talking big!