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On Reserve


Letters from Nigeria

              by Ehi




unday 2006-02-26

Dear Wendy:

Quite some time. How are you doing? We finally got started off with getting my book around. Working on the process took time as one had to chase work whenever there was electricity. I could not even find time to check my mails for some time. I have not been able to work at home for a long time because of the electricity supply situation. That boxes you into a situation where you have to wait for free moments in the office to do everything. It all coincided with football’s African Cup of Nations, so I did not get to see any of the matches.

Our electricity problems have defied all remedies. In 1999 when the present crowd moved into state house in Abuja, the cabinet minister responsible for power, a remarkable fellow who had earned his respect as a highly successful lawyer and later as a respected governor and then as a civil rights crusader, vowed that within six months, power failure would be banished. The government then pumped billions of naira into NEPA, the state-owned electricity monopoly. Today, seven years later, we are back in the Dark Ages – literally. In the theatre of the absurd that is government the president is sometimes heard lamenting the fact that there is nothing to show for the billions pumped in. If these moneys have been misappropriated, it is by the same people he appointed, but here he is throwing his hands in air helplessly like the rest of us!

Sometime last year, as a part of its energy sector reform, the federal government renamed NEPA (National Electric Power Authority) PHCN (Power Holding Company of Nigeria) and broke it into 18 business units as a step towards its privatisation. The parts, we were told, would handle various stages of generation, transmission and distribution. But this name change, like anything else thrown NEPA-PHCN’s way, has borne no fruits – with the far-reaching consequences that has on the national economy and human development. Whatever the size of business you are planning to set up around here, you dedicate a large chunk of your start up capital to alternative power supply before you even do anything else. When you complete your apprenticeship for hairdresser, barber or welder, you purchase a generator immediately – if you are serious about starting your own, that is. This is deepening poverty in our land. NEPA-PHCN is a major purveyor of poverty in our land. I don’t know if someone has calculated what percentage of our GDP that goes towards the importation of generators, candles and other lighting devices, with the consequences these have on the safety of lives and property – news reports of houses set alight by these emergency lighting devices are common. Many of the generators are imported cheaply from God-knows-where, and they generate horrible noise and spew devilish fumes. Last year a family perished in Ibadan from carbon monoxide exposure.

Apart from poor – where existent – power supply, a major problem we have with the NEPA-PHCN is its billing system. You could lock up your flat travel overseas for a month and at the end of that month get your heftiest bill from NEPA-PHCN. Recently, the company came up with the idea of pre-paid billing. But people have been waiting for that forever. Some watchers say there are people in NEPA who do not wish it to see the light of day because the present system feed them fat. Those who have seen the new meters allege outrageous charges to replace the existing metres which they paid for in the first instance.

Efforts to break NEPA-PHCN’s monopoly have seen no light. Back in 2000 or thereabouts, the Lagos State government came up with an “independent power project” initiative. When the American company handling the project, Enron, got into trouble, I overheard the governor saying the project would not die.

 But die it did. It has probably got a decent burial because I have not heard anything said about it for a long time.

Nigerians have since coined acronyms for NEPA, one of which is Never Expect Power Always. PHCN must have broken all dubious records with the speed with which it assumed the sobriquet, Please Hold your Candles Nigerians. Among the Esan people of midwestern Nigeria, there is a proverb about em’okhan. Ema (pounded yam) must be taken with omhon (soup). Em’okhan is pounded without soup. Pounded yam – of which I am a veteran eater – is not chewed but swallowed and soup is what makes it pass through your gullet. Now the dilemma of em’okhan is that you can neither eat it nor throw it away. You cannot eat it just because of that – you cannot eat it. You cannot throw it away because it is food – you never know if omhon might show up, and you are not sure that you do not want to explore the possibility of eating it without soup since you are famished. That is what NEPA-PHCN has become to Nigerians – em’okhan. And that is the story of NEPA-PHCN, Nigeria’s electricity monopoly, a government department run aground by men who have no qualms pulling the strands from the scaffolding, a behemoth incapable of managing itself, an eloquent example of what is wrong with governance in this country, a brilliant metaphor for a dysfunctional system.

Back in 2001 when the armed forces of the United States led a coalition of other armies to attack the Taliban regime of Afghanistan, there were reverberations in Nigeria. A cartoonist captured it well in The Punch, one of Nigeria’s leading dailies. In the cartoons that did not have written words, just images, an aeroplane is seen dropping something on Afghanistan. An Afghan looks up and sees “bomb” clearly written on the something. He runs as fast as his feet can carry him and hides. And he is unhurt. Then he sees another plane dropping something. But this time the something is labelled “food”. He emerges from his safe hiding place at a run and stretches out his hands to catch the stuff. But “food” falls squarely on his head and he slumps and dies. In the next cartoon, a bomb is dropped, but it falls on something hard, ricochets and then lands in Kano, Nigeria. Kano explodes in a riot and people die.

That same situation was repeated this past week. Back in November a newspaper called Jyllands Posten in Copenhagen, Denmark, ran a series of cartoons satirising Mohammed, the prophet of Islam. A few weeks ago some people discussed the cartoons in an Arab satellite television station. People took up the issue and publicised it, through text messages and other means. People then began to organise successful boycotts of Danish goods in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. But that was not all, as riots soon followed, especially after newspapers in France, Germany and Spain reprinted the cartoons. The riots finally got to Northern Nigeria last weekend. Over twenty churches were reportedly burnt in Maiduguri and between 30 and 50 may have been killed, including a catholic priest who was burnt in his church. The organisers of what they called a “peaceful protest” blame the police. They say once the “peaceful” protests gathered momentum, the policemen escorting them panicked and threw teargas. The crowd dispersed into various streets. The protests were then hijacked by “hoodlums” who unleashed death and arson on Christians and Christian interests. It so happens that whenever these riots occur, people of the Igbo ethnic group are the worst hit. The Igbo people of south eastern Nigeria are predominantly Christian. Highly enterprising traders, they are easy targets during northern riots because they live in fairly large colonies and usually have their shops concentrated in designated places. Of course the authorities could easily have anticipated these riots and taken steps to prevent them. But this time the ricochet went further.

Last Tuesday, once mutilated bodies of victims of the northern riots were being brought out of a bus in the market town of Onitsha in Anambra State, people bayed for blood and brought out machetes, rods, petrol, and went after Hausa-Fulanis and Moslem interests. About 80 people are believed to have died in two days of bloodletting in Onitsha. The disturbances threatened to spread to other towns in the southeast such as Aba, Asaba, Awka, and Nnewi, where one person was reportedly killed. Reports of these killings remind you of clips from Hotel Rwanda – the only difference being that what we have here are not directed by soldiers and policeman. Police chiefs have asked people to “go about their normal businesses” as they “have put in place measures to assure security of lives and property”. Politicians have been mouthing the usual platitudes. They are “calling for calm” and reminding everyone that “Islam and Christianity are religions of peace”. Every time there is a riot, that is what you hear from these politicians, these people whose penchant to pull the strands from the scaffolding create the conditions that make people so desperately poor and easy recruits for the entrepreneurs of conflict. The riots have now subsided but “the situation remains tense”. The situation, of course, will soon stop being tense. And then everyone will forget about the riot and “go about their normal businesses” – until the next riot.

The problem in the Niger Delta have been another major news item here for some weeks. A few weeks ago armed young men calling themselves the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND), kidnapped a Briton, an American, a Bulgarian and a Honduran. Their demands ranged from reparations being paid to victims of oil exploration to release of their leaders being held for various crimes. Several days of negotiation secured the release of the hostages and the federal government began to talk tough, calling the boys criminals and boasting that the military was on top of the situation. But not long after, nine foreigners working for an oil company were taken hostage. They are still being held and the MEND is saying we should not expect them to treat these guys as nicely as the first group. They say they are holding them because of recent military air strikes which they claim hit villages and killed members of the Ijaw ethnic group. The army insists it did not strike villages but oil smugglers.

The Niger Delta refers to the vast area covered by the network of rivers and brooks formed where the River Niger flows into the Atlantic Ocean. All the oil of Nigeria is located in the Niger Delta and Nigeria is the largest producer of oil in Africa, the seventh or eighth largest exporter in the world, and the fifth largest supplier to the United States. Its oil is light crude, which is considered the best quality type and is most preferred because it is least expensive to transport and to refine. Oil produces more than 80%, or so, of Nigeria’s foreign earnings. Oil is responsible for the beautiful houses that house the government in Abuja and the fat bank accounts held in UK, Switzerland, USA, and other places, by the shameless men who have ruled this country since independence. The Niger Delta, the proverbial goose that lays the golden egg, is a deprived place, a poverty-stricken part of the earth where life, to use Hobbesian dialect, is nasty, brutish, and short. The primary source of the problem of the inhabitants of the Niger Delta is that their main occupations of fishing and farming have been greatly disturbed by the effects of oil exploration. The present government has done a lot – compared to previous governments, that is – since it came to power, but observers say it is not nearly enough and the problem of thieving politicians remain. Majority of the common people in the Niger Delta say they deplore hostage taking, but that they understand the grievances that drive it. It appears to me that the negligence of the Nigerian state over the years on the Niger Delta issue has now produced a band of brigands whose real aims and sponsors are unknown. A rebellion that, if allowed to fester, may snowball into a big purveyor of grief for all of us even if the problems are eventually seen to be addressed.

Two days ago (Friday) I did something I have never done. I drank coconut water. As I took the cup to my face, I felt like someone about to be disvirgined – you have been hearing a lot about it, they say it is sweet, they say it is painful, they say it is wonderful, you have been wondering, you want to do it, you don’t want to do it. I was quite disappointed. So unspectacular was its taste. It is incomparable to milk or honey or palmwine or anything like those. Why I have never tasted coconut milk? Because Mother barred us from doing so. When we were kids, she asserted that schoolchildren do not drink coconut water because it made their brains dull. I am not sure whether I ever believed this to be so or not, but even when some of my sisters surreptitiously drank it, I never did because, well, I was always scared of my brain being dull. I don’t know if a scientist has ever carried out studies to ascertain the effect of coconut water on children – I don’t know if coconuts are routinely consumed in the West where all those clever scientists are, though. Another thing I am unsure of is if my mother would have approved of what I did. You see, I have not finished my schooling, but then I am not a “schoolchild” by any standards.

How is your health now? How did it turn out at the doctor’s? I am told the mail containing the book has been sent. Do please inform me as soon as you get it. Meanwhile, I am still expecting the second pack from Nipost. I am in the process of changing jobs. Talk about that next time. Till then, have a great week.

Your friend


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