I have not had electricity in a while. This trivial point had escaped my notice because—like some Nigerians—I have created the illusion of uninterrupted power through the combination of a generator, an inverter and the occasional beeps of DISCO light. The current fuel situation has forced reality on me. I now face the sobering challenge of managing a Lagos heat wave under what Chris Ogunlowo has infamously termed “a Buhari economy.”
Public electricity was first introduced to Nigeria—via a Lagos power station—in 1896. This was some fifteen years after its introduction in England. Loosely speaking, this means Nigeria has had about as much time as England to develop a working energy sector. Today, the reality is tragicomic. Some 120 years afterwards, Nigeria is struggling to maintain a measly 5,000 megawatts.
Consider the Syrian situation. Syria is currently ripped by war, insurgency and terrorism. Yet, last week, a nationwide power outage was newsworthy enough to generate a flurry of official concern. I have now run out of excuses for the Federal Government of Nigeria in continuum.
But there’s good news for some people. Mr Babatunde Fashola is sympathetic to middle class problems. When he was governor of Lagos, he showed a remarkable talent for reducing social issues into naira and kobo solutions capable of being retailed to citizens with a mid-range income. I daresay he was a good governor for most Lagosians.
As Minister of Power, Mr Fashola is importing this skill into the sector. From a technical perspective this makes sense. Middle class Nigerians spend expensively to power their homes and businesses. It is reasonable that they should pay tariffs that, even if high, are comparatively cheaper. This solution seems so evident that Mr. Fashola has criticised the previous administration for not implementing it. (It is, also, more sensible than the “body language” reform theory initially pushed by Mr Femi Adesina.)
However, in governance, there is a point at which technical arguments have to give way to—or accommodate—sociological arguments. But it seems Mr Fashola’s sociology is weak. He seems unaware that some 70 per cent of Nigerians are poor. These Nigerians cannot afford expensive utilities from the government or anyone. These people do not run generators all day. They are resigned, instead, to reliance on external generators, rechargeable lamps, candles, and an assortment of kerosene-powered torches and lanterns. For these Nigerians, power has to be cheap if they are to access it.
Even without this social issue, the technical argument is a tad disingenuous. It ignores the Nigerian government’s longstanding mandate to control or participate in the production, distribution and exchange of goods and services in the country. In the last 50 years, the Nigerian government has meddled in almost every productive sector based on this principle. I find it difficult to accept an argument that the government can transfer the cost of production to the citizens while retaining ultimate control of the production process.
And so, the technical argument proposes to govern a country of lower-class majorities using socio-economic principles tailored for countries with middle-class majorities. Mr Fashola can give examples of countries where the people pay taxes, tolls and rates, but he ought to note that the governments of those countries own little or no economic resources. The Nigerian government owns, or controls, almost all economic resources. By its own socialist standards, the Nigerian government has no good reason to rely on fees, tolls and taxes from citizens. Cue: similar oil-producing countries in the Middle East.
Middle class Nigerians are less concerned about socioeconomic theory and more concerned about their creature comforts. We have no agreed definitions for public utilities. We do not delineate between government costs and investments. It seems okay to us that a minister should ride in a convoy, but it seems strange that poor citizens should have cheap electricity. We think of utilities as privileges for private consumption. We do not consider them as necessary inputs for economic development. It is no wonder that Nigeria’s minority middle class is a major obstacle to universal progress for Nigerians. We are wrapped in our classthink bubble.
But how can an administrator accommodate sociological concerns when the technical expenses are high? Interestingly, Mr Fashola hinted the solution in a speech he gave over a year ago. “If the National Assembly wakes up tomorrow and said states should generate electricity”, he assured, “Lagos will do it comfortably”.
In other words, we need to reform our system of government.
Nobody can run this Nigeria “properly.” This is not a Fashola or a Buhari issue. The Nigerian state is just too large and unwieldy a structure to be managed centrally. Worse, it is physically and emotionally difficult for Aso Rock to connect with the realities of an Agatu village or an Isale-Eko street. Our irrational insistence on an Abuja messiah to resolve social problems in Kafanchan or Aba is a residue of our deference to egoistic colonial administrations. But, that is another topic.
For now, what Abuja “progressives” do is to channel classthink into policymaking. Classthink enables an administrator to sweep a policy across the country without being precise on background social conditions. Unfortunately, classthink in Nigeria tends to promote policies favourable to minority economic classes. In this way, a workable principle in the Global North becomes a bad idea in Nigeria. The provision of public utilities, for example, is translated into a matter of money—and this is an unfair way to govern a country with a majority of poor people.
We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Some 112 million Nigerians are poor, and we cannot pretend they don’t exist. Mr Fashola should worry less about naira and kobo values and more about jurisprudential reforms. There is a lot to think through: how can states—or rather, individual local governments—generate power or buy from their neighbours? Mr Fashola’s fine brain would be better served fashioning our pseudo-federalism into a nation of self-funding units that can manage the electricity affairs of their own communities.
While contemplating these, I also recommend that Mr Fashola watch the Georgian documentary movie, Power Trip. It may give him some perspectives on how not to be a classthink minister.
Originally published here in my weekly column for Sunday Punch.
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