19 November 2012

Nigeria: The Sokoto/PHCN Faceoff

Now that the back-and-forth between the Sokoto State government and officials of the North-West zone of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) has been, hopefully conclusively, resolved, it is time to step back and examine the embarrassing episode, if only to guard against its recurrence.

The entire Sokoto State was plunged into a prolonged blackout recently following alleged high-handedness by Governor Aliyu Magatakarda Wamakko of Sokoto in an interaction with some PHCN officials. The workers alleged that the governor brutalized three of their colleagues over non-supply of power to parts of Sokoto State. Government officials denied the charge. News accounts related how the governor apparently was furious when some community officials reported sustained power outages in areas that the governor said the government had paid PHCN money to provide supply. PHCN officials were then summoned to the governor's office in Sokoto to explain. Not satisfied with the response, the accounts alleged that the governor slapped the PHCN team leader, who then fell ill and had to be hospitalised. Meanwhile, the governor's aides who were present joined in the fray by assaulting the other PHCN staff who had tried to intervene, the accounts said. What actually took place at this time is now subject of divergent assertions by both sides.

The PHCN workers demanded a public apology from the governor as well as payment of compensation to their colleagues that were allegedly assaulted. The government refused. The PHCN responded by cutting off electricity supply to the state, including the Government House, excepting the airport. The Nigerian Labour Congress (NLC), in solidarity with PHCN, threatened to go on strike over the matter. Wamakko's office issued a statement denying any mistreatment of the PHCN staff; instead, it accused them of blackmail and extortion. The government claimed that the PHCN staff persistently demanded money, amounting to 17 million naira in the past for electricity projects that it said were never executed.

Restoring power to the state was made possible through a court order directing the PHCN to do so. Nevertheless, both sides must now sit down and resolve the issue amicably. This is important, not only in the interest of businesses and social activities but for the general wellbeing of people in the state.

The PHCN staff action in subjecting the entire consumers of Sokoto State to the two-week blackout amounted to collective punishment for the conduct of a handful of state officials, their high positions notwithstanding. That action crippled businesses and other services that rely on power, sustaining huge losses. Moreover, there were alternative and appropriate ways to seek redress for any perceived wrong, one of which is the court. Apart from the inconvenience caused by the general blackout, the situation must have compounded the plight of the sick and infirm that had gone to seek treatment in hospitals, particularly in rural areas where health facilities can hardly afford to run their own power sources.

Many Nigerians would agree that PHCN staff extort money to maintain supply that had already been paid for. The tango with the Sokoto state government does little to improve that public perception of the PHCN.

As for officials of the Sokoto State government involved in what may (or may not) have happened on the day in question, they need to explain whether it was right in the first place to be paying money to officials of a federal agency for such a long period without demanding some accounting if services for which the payments were made had not been rendered. The case for them would be stronger if they produced evidence of such payments and the services they were meant for.

If there is any iota of truth suggesting that the PHCN workers were maltreated, that would amount to abuse of privilege on the part of the Sokoto state government officials. The NLC and others interested in the matter should be agents for its resolution, not escalation.

The lesson of this unfortunate episode is that no matter the level of provocation, public officers, whether in political office or in the service sector, should exercise restraint in the course of their official duties.

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