24 May 2012

Nigeria: The 'Rejectionist Front'


On Tuesday May 8, it was the turn of the Minister of Power, Prof Bath Nnaji, to take the rostrum at the Ministerial Platform, the Federal Government forum piloted by the Federal Ministry of Information to enable ministers to give account of what they have been doing in the past one year.

I sought a ringside seat to hear what vision and plan the administration of President Goodluck Jonathan has to solve the power problem in Nigeria. This is because, like many Nigerians, I believe the power sector is one of the most critical to our national development efforts. Many are agreed that once we get electricity right, our journey to rapid national development would have been half made.

I listened with rapt attention to Nnaji to see if any serious thinking is going on in the quest of solving what is without doubt the country's number one problem. At the end of Nnaji's presentation, it struck me that Jonathan may not deliver electricity to Nigerians "now, now" or with immediate effect as we would love it happens, but this government's policy plan on the sector is the most honest and realistic in the circumstance. And the plan is to privatise the power sector to make ours become a market of willing seller and buyer of electricity. I think this will bring a permanent solution to the problem in the long run.

I will spare us all the megawatts of details of what Nnaji said the Jonathan administration has done and is still doing to position the power sector to play its role in the socio-economic development of Nigeria because all what Nigerians want right now is light in their homes and in their industries. But suffice it to say that I was impressed by Nnaji's frankness about the less than impressive state of electricity in the country and his refusal to engage in the blame game or give excuses which have become a part of our national character. Such approach hardly solves any problem.

What is the merit in the plan to privatise electricity supply? As it happened in some other deregulated sectors of the economy, private generation of electricity will serve the Nigerian electricity consumer better. I am aware of the fact that there are some Nigerians who are vehemently opposed to privatisation for ideological reason. But I believe that in our circumstance, the only way we can get out of epileptic power supply is to transfer power generation, transmission and distribution to the private sector by opening it up to both foreign and domestic business people.

I agree that unfortunately, under such a deregulated regime electricity will cost more. But I think it is better to have electricity even if it will cost two or three times more than it now does than have a electricity in a fitful manner or none at all as is the case is many places in our country at the present.

I know that privatisation of the power sector has been on the cards of successive administration for a while now but what I find revolutionary is the courage by this administration to finally pursue it vigorously in spite of the huge political cost such a nationalist move would invite.

It is in line with that commitment to forge ahead with the plan of power generation by private concerns that Jonathan said two weeks ago that his government will not go back on plan to effect an increase in electricity tariff effective June 1.

This is courage because there is nowhere in the world where people like increases in the price of anything even if such increase is marginal. It is the nature of human beings to want to have something if possible for free or at very little cost as possible. But from the explanation given by government, which not many people are willing to hear, no investor would like to come and put his money in providing electricity at the price we pay for it now. This is why some of us think that it is better for us to pay more if that is what will ensure that we have steady supply of electric power.

And this is why I consider it as extremely unfortunate, even irresponsible, certain posture adopted by some of those who ought to know better and who ought to lead public opinion in the direction which government is going. I am referring here to recent newspaper headlines to the effect that the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria president Peter Esele has rejected the planned increase. Similarly, the House of Representatives is said to have summoned the Power Minister to appear before it over the planned tariff hike.

I concede that in a democracy, individuals and groups have a right to express their opinion on any public issue. But I believe that certain well placed individuals have a responsibility to take reasoned position on issues rather than act impulsively like student union leaders whose motivation is always to appear popular.

The tendency among some of our labour people, civil society organisations and opposition political leaders to always say "no" to every plan of government even before they have had time to critically examine such plan, is very unhelpful in our drive towards national development.

I expect that before any one, especially labour leaders and representatives of the people in the various legislative chambers say anything publicly on any initiative from the Executive Branch, there is need for a thorough digestion of such idea before they take a public stance on it.

Always acting like the "rejectionist front" on every issue may make them look good as defenders of the masses, but it hardly advances the national cause.

As a country, we are in some troubled waters. This is therefore not the time for any public actor to seek to play to the gallery in order to win some dubious accolade as fighter for the down-trodden.

If some of our activists spare some time and reflect on the many things they say nay to, they may discover that they actually hurt the masses more than the government which they think is evil.

Rather than seek to build public resentment again the government plan as the TUC leader and the legislators are doing, I think that those leaders should seek to engage government with a view to arriving at what will be a reasonable increase in electricity tariff.

Or in the alternative, let these people articulate their own position on how Nigeria can get electricity from either government or the private sector at the current rate.

All of us will want to get cheap electricity. But government has said that electricity can only be provided if we have to pay more.

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