Banning generators amidst national darkness – Punch

Accustomed to engaging in banal legislative endeavours, the Senate is at it again, with its recent bill that seeks to criminalise the import and use of generators when the country is almost in utter darkness. The legislature erroneously believes that the action will curb environmental pollution and ramp up the provision of electricity. But objective conditions scoff at the logic behind this naïve proposition. It is a joke taken too far.

If the bill is passed, a culprit, upon conviction, will be liable to 10 years’ imprisonment. The end users will not be spared either. But the ban “shall not include generators used for essential services, which include medical purposes, airports, railway stations/services, elevators, escalators, research institutions and facilities that require 24 hours (of) electric power supply.” And approval for exclusion will only be obtained from the Minister of Power.

A vacuous bill of this kind, having passed through the First Reading, should not be allowed to go beyond that level to avoid wasting public funds and time that should have been devoted to serious legislative matters. Elsewhere, painstaking research and intellectual rigour mesh into the conception and consideration of bills that serve public interest, as seen in the United States Congress or the parliament of the United Kingdom. This bill, which bears no such nugget, is sponsored by Enagi Bima from Niger State, whose state houses three hydro power stations that are not utilised optimally.

Without doubt, this display by the senators, who collect N13.5 million each monthly as operational cost, dramatises their alienation from the Nigerian reality. The country has an estimated population of over 200 million people and is ranked as the 27th largest economy globally, according to the United Nations, but abysmally suffers low electricity supply. Despite billions of dollars appropriated for the power sector by the government since 1999, what is perennially available vacillates between 2,000 megawatts and 4,000MW. As a result, most homes are in darkness at night or use generators. The manufacturing sector also depends on this source of power. The African Development Bank says Nigerians and businesses spend a staggering $14 billion or N5.07 trillion per annum on petrol and diesel imports. This escalates the cost of doing business. Consequently, many firms have been ruined or forced to leave the country.

To arrest this drift, the Federal Government privatised the power sector in 2013. This process gave birth to 11 distribution and six generation companies, but the Transmission Company of Nigeria is still under government’s control. Out of the three segments, the DisCos remain the weakest link in the chain as the privatisation was corrupted. Instead of international investors stepping in, suspect Nigerian investors without the financial capacity or technical expertise took ownership of the firms. This has worsened the power sector crisis.

How the country got into this quagmire ought to have been a subject of a parliamentary inquest. Why the government has injected N1.7 trillion into the power sector after its privatisation with its 49 per cent equity stake, while the DisCos, the majority share holders have invested very little, should be an issue the lawmakers should be interested in.

It is laughable that the Senate’s move to outlaw the use of generators came in the wake of the DisCos’ rejection of a total of 17,657.19MW the TCN allocated to them between February 3 and February 23. Yet, it was a period some electricity consumers in Lagos received estimated bills as high as N18,000 per month for services they never enjoyed.

Mired in debt, incompetence and lack of capacity, the DisCos cannot discharge their responsibilities. Babatunde Fashola, after he left office as the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, had said last year that the DisCos’ indebtedness to the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Company stood at N500 billion. As the designated revenue collector on behalf of other operators in the system, the DisCos fail to remit money collected and are adamantly against opening their books to the CBN and the ministry to clarify issues for sustained fiscal intervention or debt allegedly owed them by government agencies. The TCN said N270 billion is being owed it by the DisCos.

On the Senate’s watch, Nigeria has remained a major crude oil producer that imports petroleum products. This gulped N7.9 trillion in four years, according to the National Bureau of Statistics’ first quarter report of 2019. Just recently, gas shortage hit 16 power generating plants, causing power generation to drop to 3,675MW. Yet, the day the ownership of the power sector changed hands on November 1, 2013, Nigeria’s power output was 3,712.4 megawatts, a scenario that markedly indicates retrogression instead of progress, in spite of its installed generation capacity of 12,910.40MW.

Evidently, the country will continue to be the loser with this mess. The rigging of the power privatisation process; the building of gas power plants in areas without gas pipelines; the billions of dollars invested in power without result (much of it looted); and bringing those involved to account, have not been the concern of the senators.

Tragically, Nigeria is yet to have a parliament that understands its responsibilities under the 1999 Constitution, a legislature that holds government agencies to account through efficient oversight by its standing committees. With the African Continental Free Trade Agreement, which Nigeria signed last year, encouraging economic competition among countries, Nigeria is a non-starter, considering that South Africa’s total domestic electricity generation capacity is 51,309MW from all sources. Egypt is also ahead with over 25,000MW.

The senators need to re-examine their mission in Abuja, against the backdrop of the country’s systemic dysfunction, which they should find a solution to, rather than being part of the problem with their obscene emoluments in an unproductive economy.

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