OPINION.. One Fell Blow, By Sam Omatseye

It was a sort of tempest in a dark place. Bellwether minister was angry, and he went out of his mould of quiet cunning, and came down on his target with the unsubtle severity of a cat. Babatunde Raji Fashola (SAN) would not let a certain Sunday Oduntan get away with it.

Fashola’s source of fury was a spokesman of a body the minister would not deal with because it had no place in law. It was The Association of Electricity Distribution of Nigeria. This was over a month ago, and it was a measure of the friction between the minister and the DISCOs, who distribute power to all of us in offices and homes.

With his hair famously waving farewell to its dark sheen, he now looks more hoary than his age. It is a marker of his jobs, as three-in-one minister. But power is the most demanding, and the most public of his worries.

Just as his job is a trinity, so the power sector. Yet of the generation, transmission and distribution, the area with the most challenge has been distribution. Ordinarily, we would expect it to be generation. But we generate more than we enjoy. So power is both tangible and in tangible. That is one of the drawbacks and most suffocating of the challenges.

The problems go back to the Jonathan era when the investors of the power sector, especially the DISCOs rushed into investment. They did it with enthusiasm. They took loans. They set up companies. They joyed over a goldmine. With about N11 trillion in debt, they now see theirs is more of a landmine. Some of them have lost arm and legs. They have threatened to part with the investment. With arms and legs gone, how do you run even if you should? To paraphrase American novelist Ernest Hemmingway, they cannot be strong in broken places.

It has been said over and over that the due diligence was not one of the jewels of the process of taking over the distribution arm by the DISCO owners. They have denied it and said they did it based on what was available. They physically and metaphorically leapt in the dark. The result is debts and their inability to pay.

Yet one of the fundamental problems is that power is expensive, and DISCOs have seen that their ends cannot meet. Government agencies are owing  a whole lot, while the DISCOs are owing the NBET, or National Bulk Electricity Trading Company.

They cannot win if fight is their option with the minister. The minister also knows that fight is  maliase when what is at stake is a big, lumbering fight against the prevalence of darkness. That means a nation at the nether of development. That means more unemployment, more frustration among youth and families, more militancy, more failure of state.

One of the major  frustrations is the inability of the DISCOs to make ends meet. The federal agencies are owing a lot of money. Yet the DISCOs are owing the body that channels power to the 11 DISCOs, the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading Company (NBET).  Every day, every hour debts mount. Payment cannot catch up with the payload. They put that debt profile at N800 billion, but the minister says they are playing clever with the math. Yet the sum is staggering.

Yet the more difficult part has been the question that has worried both minister and DISCOs, and that is how do we pay for power? Do the tariffs reflect the investment. The DISCOs and some analysts say, for every N80 invested, the consumer pays about N30. The shortfall is a burden on the DISCOs.

This has been addressed by the proposals in the minister’s power sector recovery programme, or PSRP, that the federal executive council has approved but needs to implement with greater vigour. This sets out ways to help the power sector with metres, and also with cushioning the debt burdens of the DISCOs and pare the insolvency of the sector. But the Buhari Administration has to do more, and help the minister at the level of the federal executive council to implement the PSRP. The World Bank, IFC and even the African Development Bank have promised to furnish the sector with close to $ 5 billion dollars. They are waiting.

Also at bottom is the chicken and egg conundrum. Are we ready to pay for power in Nigeria? Power is not cheap. Our people avidly buy so much data a day on frivolous calls on our cell phones. It costs as much to pay for power. It is also said that if the federal government puts the required funding in place and power is suppled regularly, will the poor pay? It is an uncharted territory. But the federal government and National Assembly have to help the minister.

The DISCOs have not helped matters when they cherry pick who to supply power, leading to eruptions of protests of late. What is needed now is a robust dialogue that allows the bellwether minister enough leeway to make the foreign funding come in.

The bellwether minister must be smacking his lips these days. He must also be besides himself with fury. These antipodal emotions are not altogether out of place, if you consider the fortunes of the power sector since he mounted the saddle of darkness.

First, he met the power situation in a whirligig. DISCOS were dancing into a tailspin with complaints. Consumers wanted many things and seemed to get nothing. They wanted meters, and they had excuses. They cried out against excuses, and they had more excuses.

Yet the minister has recorded success. Power sparked from a measly 3000 megawatts to an unprecedented 7000. It was not always there but it was mostly in that neighbourhood. This good news meant more supply.

The NBET is owed too much. The DISCOs are owing too much just like the federal agencies. It shows that quite a lot of money is needed. The DISCOs have made their mistake. History of mistakes should be a source of rumination, not ruination. The minister’s heart is in the right place, but he needs a president that must take the matter as such. If we have a federal government that says power is the only thing it wants to do, it will solve education, infrastructure, jobs, et al with one fell blow.

No government till date has showed more enthusiasm and methodical approach to power as the Buhari administration. Yet a lot has to happen and it involves creating  a meeting of minds.