Improving access to electricity

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APART from South Africa, Egypt, Morocco and, perhaps, neighbouring Ghana, most   African countries are far from meeting their power needs. A new World Bank survey on the subject has confirmed that Nigeria is second only to India on the global index of countries with deficit access to electricity, with 75 million of its citizens lacking access to power, compared with India’s 263 million. But, when the numbers are measured against the total populations of the two countries, Nigeria’s case is worse than that of India.  About 45 per cent of Nigerians lack the vital resource, compared with India’s 22 per cent.

It is not a surprise to find other African countries such as Ethiopia ranked as having 65 million of its people lacking access to power, while Congo Democratic Republic has 55 million suffering the same fate. The importance of electricity to the socio-economic development of countries cannot be over-emphasised.  There is a direct correlation between lack of access to electricity and the underdevelopment of countries. The latest figures should, therefore, serve as another wake-up call to the countries concerned.
Stable electricity supply is critical to rapid development, especially rural development. It is sad that even where there is public power supply in most of the continent, it is still largely epileptic and inadequate to meet the needs of the people. This is not to talk of the high numbers that are yet to have access to power, especially in the rural areas where the real economic activities should be taking place.
The absence of electricity in these rural areas tells very negatively on their development statistics. Whether we are talking about gainful employment, access to effective communication, education, healthcare, agriculture or rapid rural development, adequate access to electricity plays a very important part. The tragedy is that Nigeria, sometime in the past, got its priority right in this regard.
In the post-colonial period and leading up to the First Republic, rapid rural development featured prominently on the agenda of most of the regional governments. The rural electrification boards were properly empowered and functional. That is a template that Nigeria and the other African countries that were poorly rated in this World Bank report should return to.
It is obvious that over time, we have misplaced our priorities and allowed corruption to creep into our body politic. Power is a very expensive infrastructure, and governments must strive to prioritise it. The sad experience in Nigeria since the return of democracy in 1999 is that billions of dollars have been sunk into power projects with very little to show for it. In the last ten or more years of military rule, no new investments were made in power. From the inherited power generation capacity of between 2,000 to 3,000 megawatts (MW), it has only marginally improved to 5,000 MW and thereabouts, with frequent disruptions in the system.
The country was for a long period left with an ineffective power behemoth built on an unsustainable federal superstructure, which did not serve the people well. The laws that concentrated critical aspects of the power value chain in the federal authorities are only now being reviewed, many years after they were left to damage the system. With the benefit of hindsight, it has become clear that power is too vital an infrastructure to be left in the hands of a central government alone. In fact, all levels of government, as well as private and foreign investors, have to be encouraged to participate in the efforts to bring power supply in the country to optimal levels.  It has been well reported that for Nigeria to achieve optimal levels of power generation put at 40,000MW, about 20 billion US dollars of new annual investments have to be made for the next ten years. How can one level government source and commit such a huge amount of money to power alone, considering the nation’s current economic realities?
Yet, this is the challenge currently staring Nigeria and many other African countries on the power deficit list in the face. But, there is no place to hide. Nigeria, as leader in Africa, must muster the courage and resources to move out of this league of power deficit countries. The nation is too endowed with a diversity of power generating sources to be where it is currently on electricity supply. Successive governments in our recent history have tended to turn the nation’s quest for power infrastructure to a veritable conduit pipe for corruption, to advance their selfish political ambitions and deepen their pockets.
This unfortunate situation has been at the expense of the overwhelming majority of our people, especially the rural dwellers, who have been impoverished by the debilitating power deficit.  However, the people also have a role to play, if this depressing power situation is to change. They must demand more from their governments, and vote them out when they fail to deliver on their many promises of improving electricity supply in the country.