Opinion  :: Columns  :: Letter from Lagos


Averting the past
Rose Umoren
Published: 03-MAY-06

That Nigeria faces an unconstitutional break-up no longer needs expert forecast. While international attention focuses on the oil-bearing Niger-Delta, nationwide, old crises are regaining steam even as new ones break out. Pogroms that heralded the 1967-70 civil war in which some 2 million died almost resumed February in the north and east.

Biafra republic, which declaration in 1966 formally started the civil war, has resurged, with its currency now freely exchanged in some eastern states, home of the Igbo, the third largest tribe. The long festering Niger-Delta itself has become a fullscale war zone with rebels increasingly wrongfooting Federal troops.

As February ended, seven foreign oil workers including United States nationals and Britons were in rebel captivity while Anglo-Dutch Shell forcedly cut production by 500�000bpd, sending global prices skyrocketing.

The causes may seem disparate: muslim militants venting their anger against a Dutch newspaper�s anti-prophet Mohammed cartoon on Christians and southerners in the north, and hotheads retaliating by attacking muslims and northerners in the east; Niger-Delta youths angered by worsening economic privation as oil operations continue to destroy their lands and waters; some Niger-Delta citizens feeling that Abuja is unduly hounding their leaders through the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission to render them rudderless at the instance of big western oil companies.

It is increasingly evident, however, that these have one root: the unmitigated greed of privileged internal and external interests. While the ills of oil operations and revenues mismanagement have long been clear, newer actions of the government�s agents are radicalising yet more Nigerians.

Epitomising this is the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), until mid-2005 National Electric Power Authority (NEPA).

Not only have this monopoly�s services further deteriorated, in the last six months tariffs have been raised thrice. This is besides the raise in January 2005 before the name change. All these have been by stealth. If you pick up a bill of four or five years ago, the per unit charge remains the same, N4 for residences and N8 for businesses. What PHCN-NEPA has done is, effective third quarter 2004, it simply stopped reading meters. It unilaterally tripled and in some instances quintupled consumption per customer. In January 2005, it added more units across board, which again netted it more revenues, even as electricity generation and, therefore, supply to consumers dwindled. Mid-2005, it repeated the gimmick and charges went up as `consumption� doubled. Late 2005, it repeated the act, and `consumption� went up by a third. February 2005, it again raised each customer�s `consumption� by a quarter. Someone who, for instance, paid N400 monthly in mid-2004, based on actual consumption, last February got a bill of N2�000 � four times more. Yet, even in areas, which hitherto enjoyed predictable supplies, total electricity availability in a month is now about a week�s equivalent.

Businesses and individuals are thus haemorrhaging to the state for electricity they have not consumed.

Still, when the state of the economy is published, it�s PHCN�s compilation of its unfounded bills will be reported as national electricity consumption.

This, of course, will give the international community a picture of a sound economy and a performing utility.

The questions arise: who is benefiting from this cook-up? Where is all the money � revenues plus some $1bn budgetary allocation in 2005 � going?

Whatever the answers, the outcome is such deepening anger as people will cotton onto anything to vent: anti-Mohammed cartoons, constitution review 12 months to across-board elections, even rumours of ethnic attacks anywhere. There is a growing sense that the government deems its image abroad as a performer more important than Nigerians� wellbeing. An increasing number are also tying the image drive and leakages through such institutions as PHCN with President Olusegun Obasanjo�s alleged programme to prolong his rule through the ongoing constitution review. Obasanjo previously denied such ambition.

What is undeniable is that there is deep widespread disaffection, such that Nigeria is uncomfortably volatile on the eve of very major elections.

Unhelpfully, there is no evidence of a succession plan by the ruling People�s Democratic party, which people can evaluate and perhaps expect positive change. Going by Nigeria�s turbulent electoral history, and having steered it towards an unprecedented third round of elections, Obasanjo owes his country two things. One is to categorically stop moves to extend his rule. The other is to use the remaining constitutional 14 months to deal with such issues as electricity. PHCN�s break-up and privatisation have been delayed for too long, causing tremendous pain.

This column was first published in Business in Africa Magazine, April 2006. To subscribe click here

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