Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Electric power, a key to political power

An irony of Nigerian life and politics is that the largest producer of petroleum in Africa suffers from fuel shortages. And, the largest economy in Africa manages without reliable electricity.

Electricity in Nigeria: Powerless
OUT in the farthest reaches of Lagos, a bumpy boat ride across the city’s dividing lagoon, Egbin power plant is trying to light up one of the world’s darkest nations. Six turbines growl in its huge belly, watched over by mechanics in a futuristic control room. They say the place is barely recognisable since privatisation in 2013. Output has rocketed…
Egbin power plant
Of Nigeria’s many daily headaches, power is perhaps the worst. After years in which state-owned power plants decayed, the government changed course by selling power stations and the distribution grids that carry power to homes and businesses. This bold stroke was meant to turn the lights on, and indeed it has encouraged investors to put millions of dollars into upgrading the battered system. Yet the supply of power has failed to respond as hoped in the two years since privatisation. At the moment the country’s big stations produce a pitiful 2,800MW, which is about as much as is used by Edinburgh [a city of about 500,000 people]. Only just over half of Nigerians have access to electricity, and it is still harder for businesses to hook up to the grid than almost anywhere else.

One reason why privatisation has failed to improve Nigeria’s power supply… was that many could not get the gas they needed to power their plants. Government meddling held down gas prices, which meant that many producers would simply flare it off (while extracting oil) instead of bothering to sell it at a deep loss…

The privatisation process was also incomplete and left the transmission grid (which carries electricity from power stations to the local distribution grids) in the hands of the state. It has not invested much, so huge amounts of power fizzle out on its dilapidated lines…

Still, there are glimmers of hope. In recent years the government has raised the price of gas, and supplies are growing more reliable. Distribution companies are installing new meters, which are harder to fiddle. Unpaid public electricity bills are being chased up. Most crucially, tariffs were increased in February by as much as 45%. It did not go down at all well with locals. But if Nigerians can be convinced to pay their bills, it ought to get some cash flowing through the system. That would be a start.

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