IDEAS: Electricity and IDEAS, Episode 49

IDEAS Radio 18 October 2019

Electricity and IDEAS

Ayo Obe:  … Rotimi, but before we deal with our mystery guest or introduce our mystery guest, I need to correct something that I was getting hot under the collar about last week.  Because you remember we discussed the Budget, and I was expressing my disappointment that only N30 billion had been allocated to the Social Investment projects which is SIP.  But it’s now … five days after the whole of Nigeria was tut tutting and shaking its head about this matter, the Social Investment Programmes came out and said that that it was “obvious” (which it obviously wasn’t), that it was obvious that what the President was talking about was N30 billion for capital projects, and that the recurrent expenditure remains the same under the Social Investment Policy.  So I mean I’m happy to know that people who were getting school meals, cash injection and so on, are not going to be suddenly deprived, but I would nonetheless think that when such misperceptions go around it shouldn’t take five days before the affected agency clarifies the situation.

Aghogho Oboh: Just to buttress what you’re saying, because the controversy going on with the sub … with the committees for the budget defence, saying the media will not be allowed to cover those sittings because they will be a distraction.  What they will do is that they will have all those sittings happen, the grillings happen and then report back to the journalists. Those sort of … 

AO: What is the secret?  This is public money.

Rotimi Sankore; Budget process in secret!

AO: Public money, and it should be done in public.  

AgO: It should be in the open.

AO: I mean, how do we deal with the issue of Accountability if we know that they went to defend their budget, and part of it was that the chief executive gets another new car … Oh, but then of course, the Senate is also getting new cars, so maybe that won’t be a big problem for them.  You know … let me move to my topic before sarcasm carries me away.

I want to introduce Adeolu Adekola, he is the Senior Programme Officer of the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism … and he’s here to talk to us about the investigation that has been carried out under the auspices of the Centre and others into the huge amount that’s been spent on Nigeria’s electricity over the past 59 years.  And for me, there are two aspects to it. One … because in IDEAS we deal with Integrity, Democracy, Ethics and Accountability. And really, Accountability is a matter which will expose whether people have dealt with matters in an Ethical manner or with Integrity. So to me, there are two aspects to it. Of course, the obvious one is the actual money.  We’ve spent a huge, huge amount, before privatisation, during privatisation and since privatisation. Huge amounts have been spent on Nigeria’s electricity. But the other aspect of it, is that for most communities in the world, it’s considered that the access to electricity, the right to electricity is actually a human right. It comes under the heading of social and economic rights, but it is a human right, and our governments seem to be taking a very lackadaisical approach, they don’t feel the need to account.  I mean, I can remember when we returned to civilian rule, and Chief Bola Ige was the Minister for electricity, he was promising that within a year, it would be 24/7 electricity. The situation got worse. In fact I was moving into a new house then, and I refused to join the communal idea of purchasing a generator, because, what would be the need? We were all going to have constant electricity.  

So I think that there’s the provision, and then there’s the money spent.  I’ve been to some rural corners, I remember driving around Ondo State and being surprised that they had electricity, and they said: Yes, under Ajasin’s government in the Second Republic (which was from 1979 to 1983) they had a Rural Electrification programme.  So if we could … if that was the situation more than 30 years ago, why are we in this situation now, considering the amounts that we’ve spent?

AA: Thank you very much, and thank you for having me.  Well, to answer the questions why, I sincerely don’t have the answers as well.  But part of what we set out to do under this activity – it’s under the Centre’s programme called the Regulatory Monitoring Programme, and the programme is sponsored, or with support from MacArthur Foundation, started in 2017, it’s a three year programme.  And the pilot phase of that programme was checking out the regulators, or the regulatory agencies under education and electricity, two basic sectors, education and electricity. And then this year we are wrapping up the project, the pilot phase, and it became imperative that we do series of stories.  So initially, we set out to just do a story, a big story about why Nigerians don’t have electricity.  And then, this is in collaboration with four media houses, Daily Trust, the Cable, Premium Times and ICIR …

AO: What is ICIR sorry?

AA: International Centre for Investigative Reporting.

RS: Centre or Consortium?

AA: Centre.  Yes, International Centre for Investigative Reporting.

AO: So only one print newspaper?

AA: Just one print, yes, Daily Trust.  So, but in the middle of understanding the reason why there is no 24 hour, or power is not stable in Nigeria, it became imperative that the stories had to be staggered.  So we are doing eight stories in all. We’ve … two have been published now, and what has just been exposed again, is that huge sums of money running into trillions of naira, has been spent from 1999 (that’s when we came back to civilian rule) but still – I mean – the report that was published just on Monday, showed that there were communities in Ogun State that they are not even on the grid at all.  I mean, there was a four year old girl who said, whose parents said she has never seen electricity since she was born, and then … I mean it just brings to the fore – and like you said – I think it’s very important we start to see these things as a matter of human rights. Human rights in the sense that it’s … the access to electricity or not, is a channel to block some other benefits, economic so to say.  But what came out strongly and going through Integrity and Accountability, which is very important, is that during the course of this story, one very critical part of the story was that there was a lot of lack of transparency in … 

AO: About public money.

AA: … in the electricity sector.  Lack of transparency. Even though I’m not an expert  in electricity and it’s quite technical, during the unbundling of the power sector, that’s when it became PHCN from NEPA, then after it became NEPA it was now privatised.  We were focused on the privatisation, but when we spoke with some consultants and some experts, we were advised to look at the entire unbundling, not just the privatisation.  The privatisation was when it was split into distribution companies, generation companies, [nbeds, which is the … 

AO: And the Transmission Companies.

AA: And the Transmission company.  So, one thing we set out to get was the power service agreement each of these sectors … 

AO: Different sectors?

AA: … Yes, signed with the Nigerian Government.  We wrote Freedom of Information requests to virtually all the agencies we knew were involved, the Ministry of Finance, the Power Ministry, the regulatory body, which is NERC, …

AO: Price Control or Price Monitoring, were they involved?

AA:  Yes, and then BPE, Bureau of Public Enterprises.  So we wrote first to the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Finance said the BPE, the Bureau of Public Service, sorry, Bureau of Public Enterprises and the regulatory body, Nigeria Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC) were the agencies of government that coordinated the entire process.

AO: Yes, but, I mean it’s one thing to say they coordinated it, is the Ministry now saying … 

AA: They don’t have the it.  They don’t have the documents.

AO: … because they were coordinating, they didn’t have any oversight, they didn’t know what was happening?

AA: They basically just replied that they didn’t have the documents.

AO: So are we saying that the Ministry of Finance did not spend any public money on the privatisation exercise?

AA: Oh well, we were asking for the agreements that were signed, and they said they don’t have it.

AO: The reason why I mention … why I asked that question is because, if the Ministry did not spend any money then they might have an excuse for saying: Oh well, it’s nothing to do with us, we didn’t … “” But if you’re being asked to bring out public money through the Ministry of Finance, one way or the other, then one would expect them to say “And what’s it for?  Can we have the documentation?”  

AA: Obviously!

AO: Otherwise, we find ourselves in the same kind of situation P and D … or whatever it is …

AA: P and ID

AO: … P and ID, that we, that you know, where people who should get full documentation don’t.  So please carry on.

AA: Very very important, because we believe that all these … it was like … it was a committee that was set up and there were members from each of these  ministries departments and agencies. We wrote to the NERC as well, what the NERC gave us was a sample of the agreement, a sample template.

AO: But no actual agreements

AA: No actual agreements  and they also referred us to the BPE.  Long and short of the whole story, we wrote to the BPE as well, and they said they couldn’t release the document because some sections of the agreement are under investigation by the EFCC.  And then we asked the EFCC, are sections, I mean even though so, now …… 

AO: They could have redacted those sections I suppose?

AA: This is a developing story that we’re going to contest and we’re putting it out there, we’re collaborating with SERAP and some other people.  I mean, for the fact that sections of the agreement are being investigated doesn’t … I mean the FOI Act is very clear, that when a request is made to an agency of government, you’re supposed to reply in seven days.  But this is just a picture of what … 

AO: Basically you’ve been being given the run around,

AA: Very clear

AO: …  and when the buck finally stopped at a particular agency, they now took cover under an alleged investigation by another agency.  So effectively, when they say Problem Has Changed Name, they’re kind of … the problem is just shifting around from one place to another.

So as I said, still breaking it down, we’ve got on one hand the fact that there’s money, huge amounts, and on the other hand, the fact Nigerians don’t have electricity as they should.  So your report so far has gone into why they don’t have electricity?

AA: Why they don’t have electricity based on the fact that there have been lots of releases …

AO: Releases of …

AA: Funds, funds

AO: Money!  Money!

AA: Money, funds. and these  figures that was given by the office of the Accountant General of the Federation, so it’s not, it wasn’t cooked up anywhere.

RS: 1.1 trillion

AA: Yes, to be conservative, yes.

AO: Yes, because you see, it’s confusing because we would expect that after doling out or giving out or privatising a huge money making industry like electricity generation, that we would then expect that those companies would either pay for the privilege of having access to this kind of monopoly, because effectively that’s what it was, or that they would be paying in gradually, but if we can’t see the agreements, 

AA: We cannot!  That’s the starting point!  Exactly!

AO: … we actually don’t know what the government is supposed to get back for what it’s sold to these various entities.

AA: And there’s also the other school of thought, that after the privatisation and the unbundling I mean, it was … it’s as if you tell your child to go, but you still have  a bit of control, so the Federal Government …

AO: That’s what the regulatory …

AA: … so the Federal Government is still 100% in control of the generation, still 100% control for the transmission and has 40% stake in the distribution.

AO: And that’s where all … a lot of these huge amounts of money are …

AA: … money are being sunk.  I mean, so you hear that we have XYZ generating capacity, I mean, that came … that also comes out a lot that we have generating capacity, but the infrastructure of the whole system cannot even transmit, and even … I mean we hear of the distribution companies returning load because … 

RS: This is like saying you have capacity to eat a bowl of rice,

AA: But you don’t have the tummy to …

RS: But you have one spoon. 

AO: No, you have one chopstick!

AA: Fantastic analogy.  So, I mean of what … I mean, some of the money released, and this goes into projects funded by the World Bank, I mean as revealed by the investigative report, African Development Bank too, giving money, and then you build all these base stations, they are there, but they can’t function optimally and then, it’s more or less like the money has been wasted.  So … 

AO: And even when things are bought, I mean, I can’t remember the number of times that we’ve heard about transformers discovered at the Nigerian Ports, rusting away … all this sort of thing.

AA: Yes, there was an analogy of about … I’m not sure, about 200 containers that … just of equipment during the Oladimeji Bankole tenure …

AO: I mean, is that because we don’t have joined up government?  I mean, you know what they say; that you should always avoid ascribing to malice or even corruption, what can be ascribed to just sheer incompetence.  And part of me feels that if we’ve gone to the trouble of actually getting the equipment here, it’s either that the equipment is the wrong or somebody just dropped the ball.  Now we know that when President Yar’Adua took over, he too was raising his eyebrows at the huge amount that had been spent, and he kind of said “Stop everything while I investigate”.  And … was that why all those things are rusting away, and until Jonathan came in and started trying to pick up the ball, really, whatever Obasanjo had been planning to do at five minutes to midnight in his own presidency, now had to be … had to start again from scratch.

AA: I think the point just is that we all need to, everyone, citizens … everybody just needs to pay a lot of attention, everybody has to ask questions, and … I mean, I personally am a bit passionate about the issue of electricity, because I find it very … The first report that was done, more or less detailed, and it was published on Independence Day, just details the journey as a country and our missed timelines … 

AO: And also comparing us to others.  I mean, some may say that we shouldn’t look at, that we should just focus on … but actually that comparison to other countries, it allows us to see what ought to be the situation, even for developing poor countries like Nigeria, that there are certain standards that other countries have been able to achieve …

AA: Yes, so there basic milestones.

AO: And for far less, with a far smaller spend.

AA: So, it’s just to pay a lot of attention so that we are able to get value for all these monies that have been spent.

AO: Well, I want to thank you Adeolu. I’m … I have my hopes and aspirations about electricity.  In some ways, the girl who never saw electricity may be better off than the ones who had it and then they don’t really have it.  But what I do know is that if we don’t get our electricity act together, not only will we not meet our Climate Change obligations, but we will certainly not be able to grow our economy to meet up with the demands of our rising population.

So thank you very much for joining me in the IDEAS segment.  I know that there’s still so much more for you to say and I hand you back to Rotimi and Aghogho so that they can put you on the hot sp – Oh no, there isn’t any hot spot because there’s no electricity

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