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At heart of Nigeria’s power crisis is a dearth of leadership

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Picture: ANA file About two-thirds of Nigeria’s people have no access to electricity. Blackouts are common in Africa’s top petroleum producer, where dilapidated infrastructure often fails to distribute even insufficient electricity supplies. But extended collapses of the power grid over the last several weeks have combined with a global hike in diesel prices to create one of the country’s worst recent energy crises.

By Sizo Nkala

Nigeria’s electricity grid collapsed twice – on September 14 and 19 – which caused nationwide blackouts. Such collapses are not exactly rare occurrences in Nigeria. Last year, Africa’s biggest economy experienced a grid collapse no less than four times. These incidents have been attributed to gas shortages, poor infrastructure, and transmission failures.

Nigeria’s Energy Minister, Adebayo Adelabu, was linked to the first collapse involving the tripping of a major transmission line in the Niger state, which affected the whole system. Nigeria has long struggled with power supply. The country has about 37 billion barrels of crude oil reserves (about 2 percent of total world oil reserves) and is the largest oil producer in Africa, pumping out 1.5 million barrels per day.

Despite being endowed with significant reserves of gas and oil, which could be used to generate energy, less than 50 percent of the country’s 213 million people have access to a regular power supply. This is a classic resource curse. The rural areas (where 47 percent of the population reside) are the worst affected, as access to power supply stands at a measly 24 percent compared to 83 percent in urban areas. But the supply from the grid is erratic and highly unreliable. According to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), Nigerians have an average of six hours of electricity supply from the national grid a day. Blackouts lasting up to 12 hours are frequent.

To put things into perspective, electricity consumption per capita in the West African country is a low 144kWh. It compares poorly with countries like Egypt, with 1 343kWh and South Africa, which boasts over 4 000kWh. Nigeria’s power supply system struggles with challenges of capacity utilisation. The system currently generates only 4,500 megawatts despite having the capacity to generate 13,000MW. The 4,500MW being generated is a far cry from a huge demand of 20,000MW per day.

Africa’s most populous country would need an investment of $34.5 billion (R647bn) to provide universal access to electricity by 2030. The scant power supplies have forced millions of Nigerian households and businesses to resort to alternative energy sources such as firewood, solar, and petrol and diesel generators, which cost them over $3.7bn per year, which is almost 1 percent of the country’s GDP.

The energy crisis only exacerbates the socio-economic crisis that is already affecting the country. Power shortages in Nigeria are the Achilles’ heel of the economy, as they are reported to result in a loss of 11 percent of sales value for businesses. In the last eight years, Nigeria’s economic growth rate has been sluggish, hovering around 1.1 percent, which reflects the country’s over-reliance on oil and lack of diversification.

The resultant failure to create jobs has condemned about 56 percent of the working-age population to unemployment and underemployment (underpaying jobs). The surge in inflation (over 20 percent) has meant that the cost of living is beyond the reach of the majority, thus pushing the poverty rates even higher. The economic disaster has seen millions of Nigerians leaving the country to seek greener pastures in other countries near and far.

The economic crisis is also compounded by a political crisis. While the new President, Bola Tinubu, was declared the winner in the country’s national elections in March, the electoral process was marked by widespread voter apathy and widely condemned as marred by irregularities, which produced an outcome at odds with the will of the people.

As such, Tinubu’s administration faces a legitimacy deficit, which will only worsen the socio-economic crisis. Tinubu himself is a bona fide member of Nigeria’s notorious political elite, whose greed and plunder have kept Nigeria on its knees. Very few people expect (with good reason) Tinubu and his acolytes to turn things around for the better.

With the current trend of military takeovers in the Sahel region, what is happening in Nigeria, Africa’s largest electoral democracy is extremely worrying. The prevailing conditions in Nigeria, namely government incompetence and widespread economic despair, have provided the impetus for militaries in its neighbourhood to usurp power from civilian leaders. In Mali, Benin, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Niger, and Guinea, the military leaders invariably justified their takeovers on the governments’ failure to address the socio-economic crises affecting those countries.

Nigeria is not immune to a military putsch, as its history would demonstrate. Indeed, 33 years of Nigeria’s 63 years passed under a military government. The government’s lackadaisical response to the socio-economic crisis bedevilling the country is creating conditions for possible military intervention. The government will be happy to peddle the narrative that the recent grid collapse is a result of technical faults.

However, at the heart of it, the collapse reflects an acute dearth of leadership. A leadership vacuum sooner or later invites the military into politics.

Dr Sizo Nkala is a Research Fellow at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies