IN the same way that the challenge of durable physical infrastructure in Nigeria tends to be reduced to the issue of power supply, that of power supply itself tends to be boiled down to poor funding. Inject adequate cash into the power sector, and epileptic supply of power in the country will be a thing of the past- or so the thinking goes.
Given the popularity of this mindset among Nigerians, a mindset, truth be told, that is not without its merits, last week’s disclosure by the James Momoh-led Nigerian Electricity Regulation Commission (NERC) that Togo, Niger and Benin are indebted to Nigeria to the tune of N30bn could not have been more baffling. As part of its quarterly report ending March 2020, the commission disclosed that Niger’s power firm, the Societe Nigerienne d’electricite, had failed to honour its invoice for N10.8 billion, being the amount of electricity it owed for three quarters in 2019. For the same period, Togo and Benin, joint owners of Communaute Electrique du Benin, were billed N9.74bn, N7.16bn and N2.22bn respectively. That bill remains outstanding.
That these three neighbouring countries could be owing NERC such a staggering amount (thus violating the terms of their electricity supply agreement), and yet continue to receive regular power supply from the commission simply boggles the mind. Nigerians are well within their rights to ask why this is allowed to happen, given that power supply in Nigeria remains sclerotic, and power distribution companies (Discos) cut the average customer no slack whenever the latter is in default.
Perhaps expecting that the revelation would not go down well with the Nigerian public, the NERC report was quick to add that “The Nigerian government has continued to engage the governments of neighbouring countries benefiting from the export supply to ensure timely payments for the electricity purchased from Nigeria.” That is very well, but the truth of the matter is that, for members of the public, no assurances of “continued engagement,” no matter how well-meaning, can be enough. If the commission can continue to engage with these debtor countries while continuing to provide them with electricity, why does it not do the same for the average Nigerian consumer? Where is the wisdom in guaranteeing electricity to citizens of other countries (and in this case countries whose accounts are in the red) when your own citizens cannot count on the same and continue to rely on generators?
None of this is to say that recouping the money owed by these countries will suffice to solve the problems of power generation and distribution in the country. Those problems run deep, and include lingering discord between the NERC and the 11 electricity distribution companies. But collecting on the outstanding balance (and insisting that future invoices are paid as and when due) would be a great start, sending the message that these countries cannot continue to receive something for nothing. In this particular case, for the NERC, charity must begin abroad.