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At 60, we should not grope in the dark

When a person adds a new year, the celebration will often be met with felicitations, special wishes, prayers and in many cases, birthday presents. The excitement will be palpable as the celebrant unboxes their presents, and the grin that is plastered on their face from ear to ear would reflect the sheer joy at the love that those presents signify.

Nigeria turns 60 on October 1, and indeed there has been a lot of fanfare about this celebration, including President Muhammadu Buhari setting up a steering committee to transition the agenda 20:2020 to an Agenda 2050, with the core objective of lifting Nigerians out of poverty. Yet we cannot honestly speak about lifting the country out of poverty without a significant commitment to fixing power supply and ensuring access to affordable, modern, clean and reliable energy for all. Nigerians- and indeed Nigeria- has groped in the dark for the most part of its sixty years. For about three decades, what used to be known as the Nigerian Electric Power Authority (NEPA) traumatised Nigerians with poor and unreliable power supply, decrepit electricity infrastructure and poor customer service.

For the average Nigerian, power supply was a luxury to be distributed at the behest of the Federal Government through NEPA when and how it pleased. In 2013, Nigeria completed the privatization of its power sector, a move which many expected would be the silver bullet for the nation’s electricity problems, yet seven years down the line, many of the power supply challenges that existed in 1972 when NEPA came on board, still exist. The USAID Power Africa Fact sheet reveals that 55 percent of Nigerians do not have access to power supply. For those who have access, the quality of access teeters somewhere between unreliable and epileptic. At 60, we should not grope in the dark. Not for a country that first generated electricity in 1896.

With power supply in the country oscillating between 3, 000 to 4, 00 MW despite the 40, 000 target of vision 20:2020, research by the Renewable Energy Association of Nigerian (REAN) in 2017 has revealed that Nigeria is the highest net importer of generators in Africa. In 2018 alone, 145 billion naira was spent on importing generators into the country, a National Bureau of Statistics report says. Apart from the noise effect of these generators, the pollution generated by them is inimical to health and the environment and contributes heavily to climate change. This repeated failure to fix power supply has resulted in too many Nigerians having lost faith in public utility, believing that in no utopic imagination of Nigeria can we ever achieve a fully powered country. Yet, I do not hold this view. Achieving a fully powered Nigeria is not a myth- it only requires the right policies, proper commercial conditions and dogged political will.

As it stands, there are a swathe of challenges facing the electricity sector. From gas pricing, grid unreliability and decrepit power supply infrastructure to illiquidity, unmetered customers, electricity theft and until recently, lack of cost-reflective tariffs. Sadly though, some of these challenges are high-sounding for many rural dwellers who have never been connected to the grid and know nothing about tariffs, infrastructure or metering- Their reality is either darkness or when they can afford the constant hum of generators. It is almost impossible to lift people out of poverty where they do not have access to electricity.

Oddly, the solutions to these problems stare us in the face, and would be the best sexagenarian present the government of the day can give to the country. One of these solutions is intensive commercial, regulatory, policy and political support for renewable energy (RE). While it is crucial that the current grid infrastructure is upgraded- and indeed Nigerians wait with bated breath for the actualisation of the Siemens power deal in this regard- power supply is not the preserve of urban dwellers. At 60, we should leave no one behind, and leaving no one behind means ensuring that power supply for lighting, cooking, powering equipment and industry gets to the grassroot who are not grid-connected.

Renewable energy which is both easy to harvest and easily decentralized presents itself as a reliable, clean, efficient and a quick solution to powering unconnected communities and even connected ones as a reliable collaborator or backup source. While the work of the Rural Electrification Agency is noteworthy, the development of RE forms is snail-paced and needs to move quickly if we are going to catch up with the 400 million population predicted for Nigeria by 2050. Further, the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) and its sister agencies should be given the full support of the Federal government, governments at all levels should mandate payment of legacy debts by its Ministries Departments and Agencies to the Distribution Companies and significant investment should be made in the transmission infrastructure.

Adebayo is an energy and environment lawyer at Templars and team lead at Earthplus, an environmental nonprofit. He writes from Lagos.

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