Fashola, power and realistic expectations
Though appropriate, the word “novel” arguably understates the import of President Muhammadu Buhari’s decision to saddle Babatunde Fashola with three highly demanding portfolios in his cabinet, namely Power, Works and Housing. I am making this observation after reading the interesting piece by Uche Aneke entitled “Power sector: Great Expectations from Fashola,” published in The Guardian of December 9, 2015, in which Aneke – the General Manager, Public Affairs, of the Nigerian Electricity Management Services Agency (NEMSA) – makes reference to the “novel way in which portfolios were assigned” by President Buhari, as shown by the three portfolios assigned to Fashola.
Beyond its novelty, President Buhari’s decision can be compared to hitching three harnesses to one horse, whereas the normal thing is to attach just one harness to one horse. The expectation is that it would have to be a wonder horse – with supernatural strength – to be able to perform efficiently while drawing the three harnesses simultaneously. And some may wonder why link three harnesses to one horse in a country where there is a surplus of horses to which the other two harnesses could have been tied, creating more employment for horses.
So the critics of the decision may portray it as liable to cause inherent inefficiency across the three portfolios which, incidentally, has not been the case with the power sector. And I speak for the power sector out of close familiarity, having been engaged in the sector in various capacities for over 30 years, and considering its state before Fashola’s appointment as Minister of Power.
But then, supporters of the decision may justify it by citing the saying that the reward for success is more work, and base the justification on what Aneke called “the miracle of Lagos transformation” – a reference to Fashola’s impressive record as a former governor of Lagos State, arguably the most populous, complex, advanced and infrastructurally developed state in the country.
They would argue that if Fashola could transform Lagos State into what it was at the end of his two terms as governor, then transforming the power sector should be a lesser task to him. Also, that running Lagos State should be more challenging than running three federal ministries.
And so that President Buhari did not err in assigning three ministries to him considering his record of achievement, even though the critics of the decision may still counter it with the African saying that you should not heap rocks on the head of a child because you believe he is strong.
For me the enthusiasm of this defence stems from a lack of understanding that managing the Nigerian power sector alone is more demanding than managing Lagos State. And it shouldn’t take a long exposition to explain why even to a layman. For instance, the geographical area covered by the power sector, and which comes under the supervision of a Minister of Power, encompasses the whole thirty-six states, including Lagos, whereas the geographical area covered by Lagos State is just itself.
And with the way the power system is networked – especially the transmission network- a problem at one location, say the National Control Centre (NCC) at Oshogbo, can have nationwide impact like system failure which would throw the entire country into blackout, and may require the minister’s intervention on something like a national scale to be resolved. But problems in Lagos State are more likely to be confined within its borders than have such nationwide impact.
The same for generation: even when a problem originates from a remote location or a single or few states like the recent vandalisation of power and gas infrastructure, the impact of a drastic decline in power generation sends shocks through the grid and nationwide, with the attendant distress to the citizenry.
In this sense, Lagos State is a microcosm of the power sector. And a Minister of Power in trying to solve problems in the power sector usually deals with a national headache compared to the far less severe state headaches that state governors have to contend with, including Lagos State.
In effect, if Fashola succeeds as Minister of Power, which I believe he will, if given the necessary support, it should be considered a far greater achievement than his success as governor of Lagos State. And if he does this while successfully managing the two additional ministries, then it would qualify to be considered a phenomenal achievement.
However, considering the enormity of the issues in the power sector, he would need to set realistic goals while Nigerians must equally have realistic expectations in order for his success in the sector to be recognisable. These issues spread beyond the entire gamut of its generation, transmission of distribution subsectors to include such rather ancillary issues like inadequate metering, poor compliance of generation and distribution companies with the terms of the agreements they signed with the Nigerian government as part of the privatisation programme under the power sector reform, etc.
In his said piece, Aneke makes a rather exhaustive list of such issues and recommends them for the minister’s attention. While this is understandable, judging by the equally understandable impatience of the average Nigerian to have steady and reliable power supply, it exposes the minister to the risk of trying to tackle too many problems at once and ending up not solving any decisively.
So it would be a better and more strategic approach for the minister to concentrate on a few major issues and solving them so irreversibly that the impact would be felt across the entire value chain of the Nigerian Electricity Supply Industry (NESI) and especially by Nigerian electricity customers.
In doing this, however, some fundamentals would have to be recognised for purposes of prioritising. For instance, that all other developments in the sector revolve around the availability of generated power. Unless you generate power you would have no such commodity to transmit, distribute meter or sale.
And I believe Fashola’s success as Minister of Power would be most recognisable if he gives priority attention to growing the country’s power generation commensurately with its transmission and distribution capacities so as to increase and stabilise the quantum of power available to Nigerians. Even if he achieves this only by ensuring the delivery of all the 4,775 megawatts expected from the NIPP plants which would increase the country’s power generation currently around 4,000 megawatts to above 8,000 megawatts, it would be an historic achievement.
The expectation that he can solve all the problems is unrealistic. But I believe he can make considerable and lasting impact by focusing on a few of the major problems, and leave room for others to focus on other problems after he might have done his best and completed his tenure as Minister of Power.