Imagine a doctor who walks into an emergency room of a medical clinic to conduct routine ward rounds; he approaches a particular patient who is critically down with chronic anaemia. The doctor instinctively brandishes his stethoscope, inserts the earpieces in his ear canals and places the head on the patient’s shrivelled chest. He then performs some “scientific abracadabra” and finally declares to the bewildered patient as follows: “if you want me to cure you of your deadly anaemia, you must first be ready to donate your blood to me.”
As bizarre as this story might sound, it has found concrete expression in the way the Nigerian government treats - and relates with - its citizens. Just on Thursday, 10th May, 2012, the National Economic Council (NEC) in what could be described as the most patent irrational resolution, announced plans to jack up electricity tariff in the country from the new month of June, 2012.
Governor Peter Obi of Anambra state had, after the meeting, informed that “the Council considered and approved the five-year tariff plan to enable investors in the power sector to recover their cost.” As if to insulate himself from the repercussions of the Council’s collective irrationality, he quickly added that “we as governors of the poor states cannot allow our people to go through more difficulties; the tariff that is coming up is at least 40 per cent lower than what you can pay, say in Ghana.” Uncertain about the efficacy of his watery alibi, he further assured that “the Federal Government has provided N50 billion in the 2012 budget to subsidize electricity supply to the urban and rural poor.” What a marvellous narrative!
When one considers the reasons adduced by the government to justify the latest round of hike in electricity tariff, it becomes safe to argue that the government is doing serious violence to commonsense and basic logic. Upon a closer examination, it will become clear that the underlying assumptions which inform the new tariff hike are replete with irreconcilable contradictions, wilful distortions, mind-boggling ambiguities and palpable confusion.
First, there is something revoltingly evil about the idea of increasing tariff for a service that is virtually non-existent or, at best, skeletal. It is unthinkable that the consuming public are currently paying dearly for electricity that they are not enjoying. More so, it amounts to a show of audacious insult for the government to contemplate asking the same public to bestir themselves for even higher tariff, unmindful of the fact that its citizens are already being short-changed, cheated and frustrated by the gross inefficiency of their government to provide stable power. By forcing people to pay for what they are not using, the government has fundamentally acquired notoriety in daylight robbery, pure and simple!
Second, there is the much-taunted fallacy which posits that “a higher tariff regime will invariably attract foreign investment in the power sector and ultimately lead to an improvement in the supply of electricity supply.” With the benefit of hindsight however, one can cogently argue that the proponents of this idea are merely being intelligent by half. It is patently wrong and misleading to suggest that foreign investment is dictated solely by higher prices. In reality, there are the more important questions of entrenched, systemic corruption, the legal and regulatory frameworks, the conduciveness and predictability of the operational environment, the state of security as well as the commitment of the government to issues of accountability, transparency and the rule of law.
Let me pause to remind Nigerians that it is the same wretched argument that was deployed by the Jonathan government to rationalize the increase in fuel price earlier in January this year. The contention was that once the price of fuel was increased and made to become more competitive, it will rake in profit-minded investors. As it stands today, we are yet to be told how many new refineries the last fuel hike has attracted to the oil industry. It is indeed doubtful if anything has changed ever since.
Third, there is a notorious penchant on the part of government officials to engage in comparisons that defy intelligibility and disregard the unique material conditions and realities of each country. It amounts to a demonstration of intellectual bankruptcy for Governor Peter Obi to insinuate that the new tariff “is at least 40 per cent lower than what you can pay, say in Ghana.” Does it make any sense to be comparing Nigerians with Ghanaians when, by the governor’s own calculation, Ghanaians pay 100 per cent to enjoy uninterrupted power supply while their Nigerian counterparts spend 60 per cent just to “monetize darkness.” Again, this sounds like the familiar cliché which holds that “because the citizens of Benin Republic buy fuel for the equivalent of N500 per litre, Nigerians should – and must – purchase fuel at a corresponding amount. Such easy comparisons, to put it mildly, are chronically bereft of empirical validity.
Fourth, there is neither the assurance nor the possibility of the government’s cultivating the needed political will to carry through the requisite reforms, beginning with the issue of tackling the endemic corruption which pervades every facet of the country’s national life – including the power sector. The Elumelu probe report on the power sector has, for all practical purposes, been interned in the cemetery of Nigeria’s history. The huge sums of money purportedly expended on phoney power projects have only yielded diminishing returns to the Nigerian populace. Yet, the incumbent political regime continues to make a caricature of fighting corruption and of pursuing a transformation agenda.
Despite the impression of enormous activism in the reform of the country’s power sector, why is it that the power situation in the country today has become terribly worse and painfully traumatic than when the incumbent president took over the reigns of power? Why is that all through the period of his electioneering campaigns for the office of the presidency, there was a marked improvement and relative stability in the supply of power in most parts of the country? What has suddenly gone wrong that today Nigerians are being reduced to the status of “nocturnal animals” with whole families waking up by 2 am in the night when the electric bulb suddenly blinks; husband and wife suspending their romance and quarrelling over who will first use the electric iron to press rumpled cloths; children exchanging some “hot blows” over who will first use the charger to revive dead and energy-starved phones, all in the knowledge that in the next 20 minutes, there will be no electricity until the next 3 days. Certainly, there is something about the power sector that Nigerians are yet to come to terms with.
Most significantly, why is it that President Jonathan’s biceps usually get unduly enlarged (and his masculinity becomes disproportionately assertive) whenever the issue has to do with passing the burden of the government’s inefficiency to the ordinary citizens and wrestling them to submission? Still, when similar situations and circumstances beckon on him to demonstrate same valour and toughness of character in fighting oppressive corruption and dealing with the notorious cabals both within and outside his regime, he disappointingly becomes as “frightened as Macbeth before the ghost of Banquo?” Why is it that when the issue at stake is the implementation of the various probe reports of the National Assembly, his Minister of Justice will begin to seek out a line of escapism by pleading the need for “more forensic investigations.”
The Nigerian government should, advisedly, refrain from the practice of acting like a white-witch doctor who takes sadistic delight in inflicting his patients with terrible pain while pretending to be interested in their healing and speedy recovery. The proposed hike in electricity tariff is an aberration and a terrible on at that.