Nigeria's rhythms paced by (low) voltage

Restoring electricity is a test for the country's new democratic leadership. So far, blackouts continue.

More than the rising and setting of the sun or the movement of the clock's hands, what determines the pace and schedule of life here is the strength of the electrical current in the cables leading to this central Nigerian town.

When there is no electricity, and that is most days, Victor Anthony, the butcher, loads three deep freezers of meat into a truck and races to a cold storage unit he rents in Nigeria's capital 40 minutes away. Hairdresser Jane Nkogbu pulls her two hair-drying stations together to form a bed and goes to sleep. And Grace Michael might as well close up shop; no one buys electronics during a blackout.

This a cautionary tale about Nigeria's collapsed electrical power system, the government's efforts at repairing it, and how people here continue to function despite it all.

The restoration of electricity in Kubwa, and in all of Nigeria, has emerged as a crucial test of the effectiveness of this country's first democratically elected leaders in 15 years. So far, despite good intentions and great resources, Nigeria's government has struggled for the past two years to correct the problem - with little tangible success.

Nigerians in big cities and small towns like Kubwa once took electricity for granted. Then, about three years ago, decades of neglect, corruption and mismanagement began to take their toll. Turbines broke down, transformers blew and this nation's ability to produce electricity slid by more than 60 percent. Now Nigeria produces slightly more power than war-torn Angola (which has a tenth of Nigeria's population). Officials here estimate that only 1 in 3 Nigerians hooked up to the nation's power grid has electricity at any one time.

The new democratic government, which took office almost two years ago just as the blackouts became a regular feature of life here, has made fixing this problem a priority. Officials reason that bringing back light is the most direct way to show Nigerians that the new administration is different from the previous military dictatorships: It will address citizen's needs.

So far, Nigerians remain in the dark.

After two nationwide blackouts last March, President Olusegun Obasanjo sacked the power agency's entire board, which he had appointed only eight months earlier. He ordered the new board to increase output by 50 percent by December of last year. They missed that goal. He then ordered them to double output by this December. Few believe they will meet that challenge.

Ordinary Nigerians have begun to question the government's sincerity and the efficacy of democracy.

"He's a civilian, so he can't push anyone around," says Mathew Ikpe Ajeyi, who works at a photo shop in the capital. "He can't get anything done.... The electricity was better during the military dictatorship."

So frustrated and hopeless is Mr. Ajeyi that he recently sold his television and stereo. "I realized I'm always dusting these things and I never use them," says Ajeyi, who estimates that he has power about two days a week. "I don't see this getting better soon."

Neither do the experts.

"The government's job is extremely difficult," says Wendy Hughes, an energy specialist with the World Bank. "It is a shocking state that they're in now. The time required to get a big system that is so dilapidated up and running is significant.... The government is making a huge effort."

It is pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into repairing the system and has wooed support from the World Bank and multinational electricity suppliers.

A recent visit to the headquarters of NEPA, the National Electrical Power Authority, (called by many Nigerians the "never-electrical-power-anywhere") illustrates the challenges facing this government.

At 11 a.m., some of the authority's 38,000 employees are still arriving at work. Others are gathered around a television in a lobby. Posters encouraging NEPA workers not to steal from the authority stare down from the walls.

Sitting behind a broken desk in a windowless and dirty office, Tunde Solarin, a senior official with NEPA, explains that vandalism costs the company about 700 million naira (US$7 million) each year. Much of this can be attributed to employee theft, he says. Employees have reportedly stolen transformers and other equipment, then sold them back to NEPA.

Ordinary Nigerians use the company's transmission towers as a source of scrap metal to make spoons and cooking pots. So many support beams on the Eiffel-like towers have been stolen that 12 collapsed in the past year alone - a fine example of why Nigeria was voted the world's most corrupt country by Transparency International.

"We know we have a problem," says Mr. Solarin. "We know there is chaos."

Not one of the authority's 10 power plants has ever received its full scheduled maintenance. Two are not working at all. The others are operating at less than half their capacity.

Even if all the plants worked properly, much of Nigeria would still be in the dark. Because of faulty or old electrical lines, about 30 percent of the electricity produced is lost in transmission.

While many African countries function with little electricity, Nigeria is unusual in that its cities and towns were built to operate with electricity, then lost it quickly and recently.

Blank traffic lights here cause gridlock. Office workers and apartment dwellers trudge up the stairs of high-rise buildings, fearful that an elevator ride will leave them stuck between floors. Businesses that can afford it try to buffer themselves from the crisis with gas-powered generators.

Those that can't, like Mr. Anthony's butcher shop, find that their fortunes rise and fall along with the electrical current. "We have a lot of customers when there is light, but when there is no light, you can't find any," says Anthony.

"Without electricity, we are just trying to survive. At night, I just go home and sleep and keep praying to God for daybreak."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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