Under Saleh Mamman, Fixing Nigeria’s Power Sector Remains A Tall Order despite huge investments

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It was at the beginning of his second term that President Muhammadu Buhari perhaps realised the enormous challenge of power supply which had outlived all successive governments before him.

While billions have been squandered, there has not been any significant improvement in power supply in Nigeria for decades, with each government coming up with its own promises and plans resulting in no improvement.

President Buhari had in 2015 appointed former Lagos State governor, Babatunde Fashola, as not just minister of power but also put him in charge of two other ministries – works and housing – a responsibility many critics said was too daunting for one person to take on, and it proved to be so.

Although Mr Fashola promised improved power supply and came up with an incremental, stable and uninterrupted electricity roadmap, there was no remarkable shift from the usual epileptic power experience Nigerians are generally used to.

In 2019, Buhari realized that Nigeria’s power sector requires a hands-on supervisor, one who is available round-the-clock without any distractions like heading the ministries of works and housing.

The Ministry of Power was among the five new ministries created by the president last August, carving the ministry out from the two other ministries as it was before he came to power in 2015.

While Fashola still held on to the Ministry of Works and Housing, he lost the power ministry to Saleh Mamman, who holds a higher national diploma in electrical electronics from Kaduna Polytechnic.

Goddy Agba was appointed the minister of state for power.

Can Mamman generate power?

Will Mamman be able to solve the intractable power problem? This was the question on the lips and minds of many Nigeria who are longing to see a change.

A master’s degree holder in business administration from Bayero University, Kano, having served as a former assistant director, electricity, in the Ministry of Works before he retired in 2002, a lot was expected of Mamman, especially with the level of confidence reposed on him by the president to pilot the enormous task of revamping the power sector.

Since his assumption of office, Mr Mamman has tried his best to identify the challenges confronting the country’s power sector, pledging to stem the tide.

However, as it is common with many promises of the Buhari administration, evidence abounds to show that the pledge has not been matched with equal action as power supply has barely improved with recurring exorbitant tariffs.

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In the last one year that Mr Mamman has been in the saddle, his significant achievements have been limited to what some stakeholders describe as a cosmetic approach to addressing biting power challenges.

Rough start

While he pledged to focus on creating synergy within the sector between all government agencies under the ministry and also pull all stakeholders towards the same direction, his resumption was heralded with the 12th power grid failure of the year, which occurred after electricity workers downed tools, resulting in a nationwide blackout.

Internal scuffles continued with the ongoing probe of the embattled outgoing managing director of Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading company (NBET), Marilyn Amobi, for financial mismanagement, disrespect for due process, and contract fraud.

Marilyn Amobi. [PHOTO CREDIT: NBET on twitter]
Marilyn Amobi. [PHOTO CREDIT: NBET on twitter]

Also, there are squabbles within the management of the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) that are yet to be resolved.

Asides constant power outages, the new minister has not been able to find a solution to the plight of Nigerians who are irked by the “outrageous” estimated bills electricity companies serve them monthly.

A recent investigation by PREMIUM TIMES showed just how Nigeria’s electricity problem cripples small businesses across the country.

According to the 2020 Doing Business report, getting access to electricity ranks as one of the major constraints for the private sector in Nigeria.

While big companies operating on big budgets and debt financing can afford to seek alternative means of power through off-grid energy sources, small businesses operating on shoe-string budgets are left at the mercy of Nigerian electricity operators.

The epileptic nature of electricity, coupled with the high bills, have left many businesses with no other option than to rely fully on generators, which are mostly hazardous to health, the PREMIUM TIMES report showed.

Early this year before the COVID-19 outbreak, Mamman’s power ministry said it was focusing on ending estimated and arbitrary billing for electricity through a nationwide mass-metering programme.

The Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission directed the distribution companies (DisCos) to ensure that all electricity consumers are metered by April 30.

The order said all other customers on higher tariffs shall be metered by April 30, otherwise they shall remain connected to supply, but without further payment to the DISCos until a meter is installed for them.

The order directed that any customer whose current estimated bill was below the capped price shall remain so without upward review until the installation of a meter by the DISCos.

The deadline of April 30 has long elapsed, yet many households are still without prepaid meters and are still getting exorbitant bills.

For the wrong reasons

While he has been unable to get a handle on Nigeria’s electricity woes, Mr Mamman has been on the news for the wrong reasons.

A statement by the ministry had described disconcerting views over the minister’s stance on the appointment and removal of controversial heads of two key agencies in the ministry – the REA and NBET – as that of “wailers”, to the chagrin of many Nigerians.

This newspaper reported that the ministry, in a statement early January posted on its Twitter page, described reports and criticism of the minister’s decisions as “myopic and illogical arguments questioning its discretionary judgement.”

“A section of the media supported as usual by the so-called ‘wailers’ have gone to town with the sickening and boring allegations of ethnic, regional or religious discrimination without examining the substance of the changes,” the statement said.

The ministry also accused what it called a “cabal” using some “faceless groups” in Lagos of attempts to undermine the efforts of the new minister.

“The minister should not be distracted by the detestable and nauseating appeal to sentiment at the expense of the need for genuine change in the power sector in line with the next level agenda of President Muhammadu Buhari,” the statement added.

But many Nigerians in their reaction to the press statement attacked the ministry for its “vulgar and abusive” language. Others noted that the reaction calls to question the suitability to office of those charged with the responsibility of serving the Nigerian people.

In a later statement, the minister debunked insinuations that the invectives from the ministry were directed at Mr Fashola, his predecessor.

Pockets of achievement

Mr Mamman has however recorded a few pockets of achievement in his one year in charge of the power sector.

Under his watch, Nigeria participated actively in strengthening the ECOWAS regional electricity market.

The Ministry of Power and the Transmission Company of Nigeria partnered with the West African Power Pool, a specialised agency of ECOWAS, the World Bank, AfDB, and other development partners on a number of regional integration projects under his leadership.

Key among which is the North-Core (Nigeria-Niger-Benin/Togo-Burkina Faso) Regional Inter-connector project, which is aimed at actualising an efficient, unified regional electricity market, as part of the ECOWAS Master Plan for the Development of Regional Power Generation and Transmission Infrastructure.

This master plan will ensure that citizens of ECOWAS member states are provided with stable and reliable power supply at competitive costs.

Siemens solution?

Meanwhile, salvaging Nigeria’s power challenges is now largely hinged on a deal the government struck with German firm, Siemens.

Even before appointing new ministers last August, Mr Buhari had already set his sights on reforming the power sector with the arrangement.

In July last year, the president brightened the mood of Nigerians after he announced a new plan with German tech giant Siemens AG to reverse the hex that is electricity supply in the country, where about half of the population lacks grid access, and the rest long-accustomed to blackouts.

The plan, designed by the German company, has three phases, and ultimately targets 25,000 megawatts (MW) of operational capacity long term, from 7,000 MW and 11,000 MW that are to be achieved by 2021 and 2023, respectively, through the first two phases. The ultimate target is roughly at par with the country’s current peak demand of nearly 26,000 MW.

“Removing severe bottlenecks within the transmission and distribution grid is necessary to allow free flow of electricity,” noted Siemens in its proposal obtained by PREMIUM TIMES.

“This includes rehabilitating defective connections of key substations to the existing control center in order to improve the operation of transmission network and to unlock its potential.”

In May, President Buhari kicked off the second phase of a deal with Siemens, to upgrade the nation’s dilapidated power infrastructure. The expectation is that the partnership will propel Nigeria’s economy to prosperity and put an end to its long, bumpy journey into darkness.

At the moment though, Nigeria’s installed electricity generation capacity, according to the system operator, is 12,910 MW, less than 8,000 MW of that is available and less than 4,000 MW reaches the final consumers on average, about one-third of what Singapore delivers to its 5.6 million people.

However, our findings, based on interviews with sector operators, including government officials and private investors, suggest that the Siemens plan, as it is, may count for nothing after all.

There are no estimated prices for the phase 2 projects except the Abuja power project put at $770-$815 per kilowatt.

In all the discussions, details about financing the projects were not discussed with the private sector, PREMIUM TIMES’ investigation showed.

Concerns also remain about incurring debts to fund development in an industry that suffers from a heavy liquidity crisis.



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