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Attention of Nigerians will, once more, be riveted to the National Assembly, or precisely on the House of Representatives, this week. The lower chamber (or is it equal chamber) of the National Assembly is set to commence debate on the controversial report of its Committee on Power and Steel that strove to unravel the expenditure in the power sector in the eight years of Olusegun Obasanjo presidency.
The probe itself was full of drama. It was supposed to be. The amount involved is colossal, ranging from $3 billion to $6 billion to $13 billion (depending on who you want to believe - Obasanjo, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Dimeji Bankole, etc). Even if we take the least amount as the actual total expenditure on the power sector within the period under review, the fact remains that it is still massive. But that is not the only reason why the probe generated a lot of interest.
The major reason for the uproar is because the massive investment, ironically, resulted in colossal failure, at least to the extent that Nigerians are still made to hug darkness.
And the questions are legion. Why, after such huge investment has there been no seeming commensurate improvement in the power situation? How long more do the long-suffering masses of this country have to wait to enjoy what people from most other countries, including some of the poorest African countries, are taking for granted?
Nigerians are disconcerted because they quite appreciate that regular power supply is central to any effort aimed at achieving the country's developmental goals. And yet, they watch helplessly as their leaders grope in the dark, obviously flustered by the problem. To appreciate the precariousness of the situation it bears restating that experts say that Nigeria, a country of 140 million people, needs at least 60,000 mw of electricity. Today, our generating capacity hovers between 1,300 and 2,000mw, with an ominous promise to deteriorate further if nothing urgent and drastic is done.
So when the report comes up for debate, tempers are bound to flare up again as they did during the public hearing. Many Nigerians who are beginning to believe that their country is, indeed, jinxed will become more despondent. Their frustration may be further worsened by the fact that, like most things in the country, nothing will come out of all the noise; it will be yet another circus.
But it is only logical that having come this far, the debate must go. It is only hoped that at the end of the day, the lawmakers will muster the political will not only to recommend sanctions against those found wanting but also the grace to commend those that did their jobs well.
Otherwise, Nigerians will be left with no option than to finally conclude that all the noises being made by the lawmakers are no more than ploys to extort money from those at the helm of affairs in the various ministries, government departments and agencies.
The lawmakers owe this generation of Nigerians and indeed generations yet unborn the patriotic duty of ensuring that all funds which the country must have lost through any shady deal in the past are recovered.
But the outcome of the probe in itself is not a solution to the debilitating power problem, not even if all those found guilty are sent to jail. To be fair, the power problem did not start today. It didn't even start with the Obasanjo administration in 1999. What we are suffering today is the consequence of the almost four decades neglect of the power sector resulting in monumental decay of infrastructure. Matters came to a head when in March 2000, the entire country was thrown into an unprecedented six-day darkness.
So, the probe in itself will not give Nigerians light.
What is required is a deliberate and concerted effort by the government to find out what went wrong and remedy the situation quickly.
Unfortunately, the administration of President Umaru Yar'Adua is not one known for making haste while the axiomatic sun shines. For a government that "threatened" to declare emergency in the power sector from the outset, it is regrettable that almost two years down the road, the battle to salvage the power sector, seems practically lost. The promise to generate 6,000 mw by December remains forlorn.
While it is good to plan in order not to make the very mistakes that brought us to this sorry pass again, the fact of the matter, all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, is that we are actually planning to fail. As things stand now, the National Integrated Power Project (NIPP) that is supposed to be at the heart of all efforts to salvage the power sector is endangered as the Yar'Adua government romances with the policy somersaults which continue to remain the cause of the country's underdevelopment.
The 2005 Power Sector Reforms Act which provided for the creation of the Nigerian Energy Regulatory Commission (NERC), charged with the responsibility of developing the regulatory framework necessary for the creation of an environment conducive to private sector participation in the industry and the unbundling of the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) did not envisage the appointment of Executive Vice Chairman of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN).
The idea of unbundling NEPA into 18 autonomous business units is to have organisations that are commercially sensitive and alive and to attract private capital in a sector where the government seems to have failed woefully. By appointing Alhaji Suleiman Ibrahim as the helmsman of the PHCN, in violation of the Reforms Act, the unbundling programme seems to be systematically dismantled. If this is done, it will tantamount to turning the hand of the clock back and can only confirm the widely held view that some interest groups in the country are ill at ease at any attempt to straighten out sectors such as power which they perceive as their honey pot. If this tendency is not checked, private capital in the sector can only beat a retreat and Nigerians will be worse off, power wise.
What is needed in the power sector now is to build on whatever is on ground. What the government ought to have done in the last two years which it claims to have used in planning is to ascertain how much funds have been committed to the power projects so far, who was paid what and for which job; how much work was done and what is left to be done and by who?
If it is true that all the 21 gas turbines needed for NIPP phase 1 have not only been procured but are indeed in the country, where are they? Is it true that most of the equipment are decaying at the Nigerian Ports? What is stopping their being delivered to where they are needed? Can the country afford to terminate any of the projects at this stage? If we do, is there a guarantee for refund? If the answer is no, shouldn't we then insist on completing all the NIPP projects, even as we ensure that those found guilty of any misdemeanor will be adequately punished?
In any case, has this government any choice? Even if it is found out Obasanjo or any other person actually defrauded the country in the course of executing the power projects, has this government the political will to bring them to trial? If the answer is no, as it obviously is, then why don't we take the bull by the horn by ensuring that in next year's budget, the presidency and MDAs do not vote another N2 billion for generators?
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