To Yahaya Masani, living in darkness has a different meaning. Not for the hysterical noise: Up NEPA! –An age-long euphoria which often greets the restoration of public power supply in Nigeria; he wasn’t craving for much of the comfort that comes with appliances and gadgets his city counterparts manage to enjoy, notwithstanding the irregular power supply.
Rather, it was about his inability to get cold sachet water in rural Ungunwa Arewa, Northwest Nigeria.
“During heat period,” said Masani as he gazed towards the searing sun rays, “there’s no place to get cold water or a drink. Nobody has ever thought of buying a fridge or an electric fan. If you do, with what would one power them?”
Located some 10 kilometres from state capital Birnin Kebbi, Ungunwa Arewa is among scores of farming village clusters in the local district which social infrastructures had always eluded, including Thomas Edison’s inspired light.
“We always send people to Birnin Kebbi to buy ice block for us before we can get cold water,” Malami Sani re-echoed in Unguwabawa, a neighbouring village. In dry season, temperatures in Birnin Kebbi and environs can average 41°C during the day and 27°C at night, making locals letch for frigid air and water to hydrate what they have lost to the heat wave.
Majority of the local residents are millet and maize farmers, but the abandonment of the rural electrification projects started years back had ensured locals will continue to experience hunger, as they face daily hurdles grinding into powder paste, the same produce they toil daily to cultivate on farmlands. “We can’t conveniently grind what we harvest on the farm for household consumption.
“This has a lot of negative effects on our farming activities because it is difficult for us to grind our food and if we do not eat we cannot go to the farm,” Sani added, pointing out that a grinding machine he bought two years ago is not cranking up again for lack of electricity to power it since he bought it. “For us farmers, it’s more profitable to sell the ground produce, than selling them as raw grains.”
It took several years to get a borehole dug in Unguwa Arewa, albeit Masani said the absence of power to energize it meant the borehole hasn’t made a difference because locals can’t drink clean water from it. “As you can see we have a borehole but we can not pump water since there is no light,” pointing to the rusty borehole tank stand erected in some distance away. “All the things that could make life better for us are hanging on electricity.”
When The New Diplomat visited in early September, several fallen polls, damaged insulators, and unconnected electricity cables are what stare community members in the face and not the power they should transmit to homes. While residents appeared puzzled about who mobilized the project between the state government and Rural Electrification Agency ( REA), Senator Adamu Aliero, representing Kebbi Central Senatorial District confirmed to The New Diplomat that the project was initiated by the Kebbi State Rural Electrification Agency.
“The project you saw is not a constituency project, but a state project. Federal projects are yet to be implemented. We have two rural electrification projects in the 2018 budget (for Kebbi Central). They’re in Gwandu and Birnin Kebbi local governments. The assessment was done by the Rural Electrification Agency. I think they’re waiting for funds to be released before they award the contract,” said Aliero.
In his reaction, the Kebbi State Commissioner for Water Resources and Rural Development, Mr. Bala Kangiwa noted that the electrification of Unguwabawa was started nine years ago by the previous administration and that efforts were ongoing to re-award the project. “The Executive Governor (Atiku Bagudu) has directed me to identify all the abandoned projects. The ones you saw are included. The state had a problem with the contractor handling the project. We’re re-awarding the projects. By next month you will see that something is being done to continue with the job.”
Energy poverty in Unguwabawa and Ungun Arewa only typifies the miserable lifestyle endured daily by nearly 95 million Nigerians living in remote communities (United Nations’ estimates for 2018) where power still remains a luxury.
REA, a strategic agency to extinguishing the flames of candlelight in rural Nigeria, was a product of the robust ‘Electric Power Sector Reform Act 2005’. But 12 years after its first board members were inaugurated in 2006, not much has changed: shades of darkness keep casting shadow on rural communities.
While the agency’s plan to connect 90% of Nigerians by 2030 may sound ambitious– save to inspire some go-getter’s instincts–its promise to expand access to 75% of the populace by 2020 is now a race against time, gradually becoming a pipe dream.
Yet Nigerians watched year after year as billions of Naira were being earmarked in successive budgets to REA to deepen electricity access among locals, collaborating with private power developers and foreign donors.
According to budget and contract documents exclusively obtained by The New Diplomat from REA Headquarters, Abuja, the agency’s capital expenditures alone gulped N188.74 Billion of yearly approved budgets for the Nigerian power ministry between 2006 and 2018. In its running budget for 2018, N39.8Bn–highest since inception–was voted for the agency to embark on new rural electrification projects, as well as complete ongoing ones. In the meantime, figures remain sketchy as to how much of this budgeted sum was eventually released to REA in the last 12 years.
Meanwhile, to those still lighting their houses with candles, the figures meant nothing. Rightly or wrongly, decades of neglect has made them indifferent to government’s promises and efforts on electrification. Across thousands of Nigeria’s forgotten communities, the resultant effects of energy poverty are the same. And they manifest as social challenges such as–lack of access to food, potable water, lighting, healthcare, education, information, adequate security and other basic needs.
Tales Of Monumental
In communities where projects were abandoned, the shoddy implementation of projects did not only leave locals in darkness, it oftentimes resulted in wastages of materials. In some instances, tracking the contractors was an herculean task.
Irogun, a rural community in Ogun comprises of 18 villages which has never enjoyed power supply. Located in the swampy rain forest of Yewa to the South, majority of its dwellers aren’t asking for too much. “We just want to illuminate our rooms with electric bulbs, charge our phones and get the fan to blow us at night after daily routines on farmlands.” said Village Head of Irogun Akere, Tajudeen Oke.
“WE JUST WANTED ELECTRICITY”
The intervention of the Federal Government was a beacon of hope to locals when contractors moved in to carry out survey of the villages to be connected in the year 2000. The project came on stream through the Nigerian Rural Electrification Programme (NREP) of yore established in 1981 before it was rechristened Rural Electrification Agency (REA) in 2005.
“We welcomed the government delegation and staff of the project contractor’s team with funfair when they visited for the flag off exercise after months of preliminary assessment,” said Oke. “You may not understand what this means to us. Our fathers who had passed on did their best to make government see to our plights. But we’ve always been ignored.” He said, adding that the difficulties in accessing the swampy villages had repeatedly become an excuse for officials to keep villagers in darkness.
Members of the community were at the beck and call of site workers when work eventually began. From laying planks on the marshy roads for easy access by trucks conveying materials and heavy equipment, to keeping vigil throughout the night to watch over installations, scaring away bandits–even bush clearing. Community members did them all. “We just wanted electricity.”
One day, he observed workers failed to show up for weeks in early 2005. “Community members thought it was for some official reasons and that they would soon return.” 13 years after they are still waiting. “We couldn’t even trace them. But then, we have been to Lagos and Osogbo, where the Southwest anex office of REA is located. Till date, several efforts to get authorities and representatives’ help to complete the project has failed.”
Oke’s younger brother, Sikiru accused federal lawmakers representing the area since the return to democracy in 1999 of turning a blind eye to the project’s abandonment. He said community members had struggled in vain to make them enlist the project as part of constituency projects to be re-awarded to a new contractor by the REA.
“An indigene of this community, Hon. Abiodun Akinlade represented Yewa South/Ipokia federal constituency for 12 years, yet he failed his kinsmen.” He disclosed that between 2003 and 2015 when he was active, all hues and cries over the project never bothered him. “We thought his emergence would be our saving grace, but we were all wrong. Same with Senator (Iyabo) Anisulowo.” Mrs Anisulowo represented Ogun West between 2003 and 2007.
Even under incumbent Senator Gbolahan Dada, the sheer neglect that has characterised the project lingers on. There are no signs of breakthrough yet, for the residents in the dark. This was as a legislative aide to Senator Dada, Mr. Kamorudeen Aina who spoke to The New Diplomat at the instance of his boss confirmed that “the project was never part of the list of projects proposed for the senatorial district,” in the last three successive appropriations under the President Muhammadu Buhari-led Federal Government.
The abandonment of the project has made fragmented poles and sagged cables to constitute a nuisance along the marshy paths locals manage to ply to farmlands and marketplace.
Inside a store house donated to keep the project’s materials, it was noticed that weeds had covered up the materials, while some were buried beneath the muddy soil.
As villagers recount their experiences, the wastages invoked deep gripe among locals, wondering how national resources had been squandered, rather than bringing the expected light. Transformers, insulators, electric cables all littered the place. “If not for effort by members of the community, all of these materials would have been stolen by bandits who parade regularly,” said Sikiru.
A case of Ghost Community
Since many Nigerians have become desperados in search of greener pastures abroad, locals are equally fascinated about moving out of the community in search of electricity.
According to the World Bank data, in 1960, 85% of Nigerians lived in rural areas. Today, only 49% of the population do. The low access to power in rural Nigeria, a basic utility which attracts other amenities-cum-opportunities to communities explains why that number will keep dropping in the coming years. In 2016, access to power for households in rural Nigeria stands at a dismissal 41% as against 86% in urban areas. And due to economic gains, that’s not about to change as the narrative of rural areas does not easily feature in the national discourse which at times can be overwhelmingly capitalist.
Concerned over how members of the adjoining communities keep emptying themselves into neighbouring towns and cities to flee darkness, Mr. Olayode Williams, a resident of Ologiri–one of the 54 communities still in the dark in Yewa North/Ketu LCDA–narrated the situation this way: “Our community has become a ghost community because you see at least two new people moving out to other towns daily just to access power and live a comfortable life. Whatever you do as a welder or carpenter and even as a student, truth is you can’t thrive under darkness.”
When workers moved to site to break the ground for this project, artisans who had hitherto set-up their workshop elsewhere were happy, prompting them to seek lease approval for choice land along the road to construct workshops. They had hoped to turn the community to a one stop-shop of some sorts for varying degrees of auto-mechanic and welding engineering works. After nine years, their shared optimism had gone cold; hopes dashed as the project has long been forgotten with materials in abject decay.
The decrepit project spanning 54 communities fits the profile of sundry interventions facilitated by foreign donors, that have remained abandoned. Solely funded by the World Bank, the project was aimed at connecting the communities to the national grid. The Project Management Unit (PMU) of the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) started the implementation of the project under the World Bank-Assisted Rural Electrification of three states: Cross River, Enugu and Ogun. The PMU–having collected huge sums in dollars from the World Bank for the project to be executed–has the mandate of ensuring works were completed with connections duly energized. That has not been the case.
“Our community has become a ghost community because you see at least two new people moving out to other towns daily just to access power and live a comfortable liFe. Whatever you do as a welder or carpenter and even as a student, truth is you can’t thrive under darkness.”
In August, when The New Diplomat visited the area, only 48 of the 54 communities have been wired, though not connected to the grid since work began in 2012. The project, it was gathered, has traversed three different contractors in the last six years, yet breakthrough remained far-fetched. This was as communities were not energized; poles had fallen off and materials left in perpetual ruins.
“109 transformers were supplied for the project, but these 26 have been lying in waste,” said a resident as he points in the direction of the distribution transformers which are fretting away; cores of armoured cable, dozens of utility poles and several insulators covered by the outgrown weeds.
According to a member of a pressure group pressing for the successful completion of the project who only agreed to speak in confidence, Ibadan Electricity Distribution Company (IBEDC) has become wary of connecting the communities to the national grid “largely because they’re rural communities. We have written to the IBEDC, appealing to them, but they have not done anything to that.” To connect the communities he said, “they will need to install a feeder at nearby Ilaro to step-down voltage for the communities which is completely out of the World Bank proposal for the project. They (World Bank) have given us light, should we still be begging our government again to connect us to the national grid?”
As in this instance, one thing is to install power cables across communities, another is the complexities in getting power distribution companies–in this case IBEDC–to energize the installation, having viewed investment in rural power as less profitable to more business-like urban locations and industrial hubs. However, former Regional Technical Manager, Ogun State IBEDC, Mr. Abiodun Akindele, now in Osun said it is wrong for any Disco to frustrate government’s effort in bringing power to rural communities on the ground that they are poor. “That doesn’t mean Discos shouldn’t electrify rural locations, they have to electrify them.” He continued, “if they’re not getting the money, they can then go ahead to disconnect them.”
Giving clarification on the state of the project’s abandonment, Akindele noted that PMU had written to his distribution company to energize the project but the disappearance of the contractor handling the project had stalled the move. “We have conducted some tests on the project and we saw some anomalies. So who should correct the anomalies? It’s supposed to be the contractor who never showed up.”
‘They Come Promising Light’
In several locales toured for this investigation, residents become hostile at the slightest notice that one is enquiring into the state of power there, thinking another political office seeker might be gathering information to be used as a gimmick to worm himself/herself to their hearts. The whole thing smells of failed promises!
“When politicians show up, we often tell them that transformer is our problem and after listening to all our demands, they’ll promise to supply us with a transformer if elected. But after taking our votes, the next they do is to disappear until another four years when they come asking for votes again,” Muftau Ayinde summed up locals’ skepticism following decades of hope-giving promises which often turn to despair.
Despite the huge amount appropriated and approved under constituency project for the supply of transformers in Ogun West in past budgets–N37m in 2016, Ayinde said no single transformer has been installed in rural Olute where power infrastructures had broken down. He said efforts to get the authorities to supply another transformer 13 years after one exploded had defied all solutions. “We have written several letters to our local government authority and federal representatives but nothing has been heard from them and since then we have remained in darkness.”
“It’s only during elections that we see them,” Malami Sani replied when asked what the impact of representatives had been in connecting his community.
According to Sani, a cleric in Unguwabawa community, Hon. Abdullahi Musiliu who currently represents Kargu/Bunza/Birnin Kebbi at the House of Representatives was regular in his community, months before the 2015 general elections, promising to facilitate the completion of the abandoned project.
“He promised he was going to complete the project and build a mosque for us. We voted for him, he won but to my surprise, he only sent me this prayer cloth I’m wearing.” Efforts to speak with House Member, Musiliu proved abortive as he neither picked his calls nor responded to several enquiry messages sent to his phone for close to a month.
More Echoes From The Dark
Marked NREAG57117359 in the 2017 budget’s line items, the “supply and installation of transformers for Low Cost GRA, old Post Office, Gidan Arewa/Tugar Alkasim in Argungu town, Argungu LGA, kebbi State” as quoted was approved for N25 million and contracted to Ibironke Technologies Limited by the REA, findings showed.
The completion of the project is crucial to load distribution to community clusters that have been connected, but not energized in Argungu–a tourist destination located between two state capitals: Sokoto and Birnin Kebbi–popular for its international fishing festival, until the trepidation caused by terrorists’ group, Boko Haram.
While a transformer had been installed at Tugar Alkasim by the contractor, the project as of early October, had not been executed in other adjoining communities as residents disclosed that no new transformers had been noticed.
Whereas, the installed 300KVA transformer was yet to be connected to existing cable installations, young Abdullahi Muhammed, a resident of Tugar Alkasim is eager to see the project completed with his community electrified. “I can’t wait for when this community will finally see light.” He continued: “We spend a lot of money going to Argungu daily to charge our phones. I love to see my friends on Facebook, but since I returned after finishing my secondary school, I have lost track of them because my phone is always off most of the times–there’s nothing to charge with. It’s also impossible to read at night.”
To get further clarification on the project completion among other litany of enquiries from independent findings, The New Diplomat for weeks, reached out to REA Headquarters, Abuja, but the agency was not forthcoming with any response. Mails sent to REA MD/CEO, Mrs. Damilola Ogunbiyi and her Special Adviser, Mr. Femi Akinyelure were not replied. And when Akinyelure promised many times on phone to react to certain findings, he fell short of his many promises before our time-bound publication. Director of Promotions, Mr. Ayang Ogbe ignored calls and text messages sent to his phone for days, while the agency’s legal adviser, Mr. Francis Ben simply declined comments saying: “I’m not going to give you any further reaction. I have given you the documents… the ones we have.”
As in states with seemingly scarce resources, local residents in states with astronomical resources cannot be said to be better off. They also grapple with the challenges of rural darkness and sheer neglect of public power infrastructures.
On the global map, Lagos prides itself as a burgeoning smart city with the fifth largest economy in Africa. But behind the electrifying atmosphere of its city centres and massive infrastructural upgrade, many will find it inscrutable believing hundreds of communities on its fringes have not been electrified, hence, becoming enveloped by a climate of darkness.
The state government claimed, it has over the years collaborated with private developers to bring about critical investment to light up many of its rural areas. It’s not done and dusted yet. There exists communities which has never benefited from the utility–electricity since 1896 when the first electric bulb was lit in colonial Nigeria.
In Eredo Local Council Development Authority, created out of the Epe Local Government in 2003, on-the-ground findings revealed 14 densely populated communities where kids have no idea what an electric pole looks like, let alone relate with what it conveys–electric current. Meanwhile, in several communities–including Igbonla where six students of the Lagos State Model College were abducted and later released in 2017–abandoned power infrastructures were evident. They have not been energized in the last 12 years as installations have gone kaput and taken over by sprawling plants.
“Until the abduction experience, students of the Model College were used to staying in darkness. I recall they were abducted before dawn that day, around 6am. There was no light to even trace the abductors,” said Muraina Muftau. He claimed, “the absence of illumination played a part in the manner at which militants broke into the school premise unnoticed,” before snatching away the students into the waiting boat by the Osun riverbank behind, disappearing through the waters, all in wild darkness.
“Now at night, community members depend on the reflection from light bulbs around the school provided by the (Lagos) government after the incident to illuminate their front yards.”
For Nigeria’s rural communities, the lingering question remains unresolved: when will there be light?
Read Part 2 of the Investigation: