16th February, 2011
Former President Olusegun Obasanjo may not be a man of style or finesse. He may even be crude, sorry, in his methods or even rash in his utterances, but there is something he has in abundance â€“ guts. He has plenty of it. I recall that soon after taking office in May 1999, he realised, it seemed, that Nigeria needed more telephones for its people than was available. He may have been advised that the Nigerian Telecommunications Limited, NITEL, was not the appropriate vehicle with which to realise this project. His administration decided quickly to privatise the telecommunications sector, and mark you, succeeded, over time, to demystify telephony as a possession meant only for the rich. Obasanjo assembled able hands. led by Dr. Ernest Ndukwe, the necessary legal and administrative support, and gave them the order to get the work done. The team went to work, aware that it enjoyed the backing of its principal.
Today, the poor, mark you again, are proud owners of telephones. In fact, they choose from any of the many networks. The other day, my auto-electrician could not be reached on telephone, but when I eventually got to his workshop, all he told me, as an excuse for â€˜switching offâ€™ was: â€œI don tire for that network, and I just go to that shop (pointing) to buy new sim-card of another network.â€ The Obasanjo administration was able to get us talking to one another and choose from many networks â€“ all this in spite of the noise that came from labour unions in the telecom sector. He knew he was carrying Nigerians along.
President Goodluck Jonathan may carry more Nigerians along if, today, he decides to ignore the noise coming from labour unions in the electricity sector and gives Prof. Barth Nnaji all the legal and administrative support he and his team need to end the persisting darkness in Nigeria â€“ before we are deafened by the deafening sounds of generating sets. Mr Joe Ajaero, the warring General Secretary of the electricity workers, knows that majority of Nigerians are tired of what the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, PHCN, is giving them as services, and would, indeed, be glad if the Jonathan administration can make good its promise to let 18 companies emerge from the obviously dying PHCN. For now, Mr. President is treating the unions with kid gloves, allowing them dictate the pace and direction. Prof. Nnaji needs the kind of support that Obasanjo so robustly gave to Dr. Ndukwe. The latter succeeded largely because he knew that he was working in partnership with an administration that disallowed and fenced off any type of distraction from labour in the telecom sector.
The Jonathan administration should by now know exactly why someone like Chief Bola Ige failed at the Ministry of Power, despite his efforts and initial optimism. Ige had promised Nigerians that electricity supply would improve within six months of his stay at the ministry. Why did he fail to deliver? Who frustrated this man of honour and integrity? The answers are many, but the most obvious was Igeâ€™s underestimation of the power and menace of a determined mafia that held PHCN, known then as NEPA, hostage for decades. That mafia is still within the system, entrenched and even more powerful now than ever before. Its menace is now reinforced by external forces represented by generator importers and their Chinese collaborators. Could that be why successive Nigerian governments have not been able to give us uninterrupted electricity, in spite of the huge resources that have been spent in the sector? For Prof. Nnaji and his team to succeed, Jonathan has to dislodge this mafia that has kept the electricity company under its stranglehold for decades, and get the labour unions in the sector to appreciate that all the efforts and measures are for the general good of the country.
This is what Jonathan owes Nigerians, especially his supporters and admirers across the country. If he fails to improve on power supply, and considerably reduce the existing darkness in Nigeria, his challengers would point at it as a deficit for his administration. A random sampling reveals that Nigerians are, indeed, tired of excuses and explanations. Only recently, the government came up with the story that large deposits of coal available in four states would now be used to generate more power. The popular thinking is that whether it is hydro, coal or gas application that would help us out of this national darkness, so be it, and let it be fast! Nigerians are getting impatient over this matter.
The ball is surely and squarely in Jonathanâ€™s court, and he has started well in this direction. What he needs to do now is give Prof. Nnaji the support he needs, and get these irritants called labour unions off the manâ€™s back, so that he can have fewer distractions. That was the tactic the Emperor used when labour, in the telecom sector, wanted to slow down Dr. Ndukwe and prevent progress from being made. In my neighbourhood, generator sets of different sizes and noise levels have become a nuisance and create havoc, especially when PHCN decides to put our area in darkness for days, usually without explanation or apology. Whoever is telling Mr. President that power supply has generally improved must be reporting on a different country. In some areas that we have regularly monitored and have friends and colleagues, the situation has remained basically the same â€“ Ojodu Berger in Lagos and Ogun states, Bariga and Agege in Lagos, Old GRA, Port Harcourt; Imo Housing (Umuguma) Estate in Owerri. There are so many other dark points across the country, but these are samples of areas that are constantly in darkness for days and weeks without anyone in PHCN having the courtesy or the decency of offering excuses, however flimsy. In Owerri, for instance, PHCN is reported to have installed the so-called pay-as-you-go electricity meters that cannot load credits nor allow supply to get beyond it into houses, and all complaints that the machines are not working and should be changed have largely been ignored. Our electricity company is that discourteous and uncaring.
â€¢Mr Esinulo wrote this article for TheNEWS magazine