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Oil-rich but candlelit Nigeria seeks power upgrade

LAGOS, Nigeria — When the sun sets in Nigeria, candle flames dance against the darkness, flashlights bob down empty streets and thousands of diesel generators cough to life.

This nation has more than enough oil and natural gas to satisfy its energy needs, but its power grid is a wreck, reaching less than half the population even on a good day. To frustrated Nigerians, the initials of the state-run electricity provider, the Power Holding Company of Nigeria — stand more aptly for "Please Have Candles Nearby."

Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan vowed Thursday to set things right by expanding, repairing and privatizing the system — a hugely important issue for the nation of 150 million, with presidential elections scheduled for early next year. He made the announcement in a luxury Lagos hotel powered around the clock by diesel generators.

The effort will require enormous investment. In a report released Thursday, Nigerian officials suggested that $100 billion "would represent a conservative estimate" to build new power plants and transmission lines over the next decade.

There haven't been improvements in Nigeria's electrical grid since the 1970s, and its population has almost tripled since then. Former President Olusegun Obasanjo, who governed from 1999-2007 and is a mentor to Jonathan, purportedly spent as much as $16 billion to revamp the power grid — to no visible effect.


Nigerians' cynicism about the situation is as dark as the streets are at night. A survey of businesses conducted by the nation's anti-graft agency found executives rated the national power company less trustworthy than even Nigeria's trigger-happy and bribe-prone federal police. Many of thos surveyed said they feel obliged to bribe workers to repair power lines or provide electricity.

Employees of the state-run power company went on strike Wednesday over their salaries but returned to work Thursday. But even when workers man their stations, most of the country remains without power.

Some Nigerians steal what little electricity there is. Power poles look like tangled black yarn with illegally spliced lines running in every direction. Workers cut electricity during hard rain, over fears of transformers blowing or poles falling to the ground, their live wires killing passers-by. One such incident left at least 20 dead in February.

Many in Africa's most populous country remain skeptical of ever seeing steady electricity.

"Every day I pray to God ... to give us light," said Cecilia Akpan, a 55-year-old widow who sells cassava at night by candlelight in the capital.

Those who can afford it get by with diesel generators. Those powering office buildings can be the size of boxcars. In humble market stalls and homes, small generators provide enough electricity for a few light bulbs and a fan during humid nights.

In Lagos, a city of 14 million, the growling engines create a monotonous soundtrack, their diesel fumes a noxious perfume. The central bank estimates Nigerians spend $13 billion a year to fuel generators, which together provide more than twice as much electricity as the national power company.

Jonathan's plan calls for privatizing the 11 electrical distribution companies that fall under the power company. Private investment would build new, natural-gas power plants that would rely on Nigeria's ample gas reserves. The government would create a new power grid to carry the additional electricity while contracting a private firm to manage it.


"We need a revolution in the power sector," Jonathan said.

At Lagos' Oshodi Market, a maze of concrete store stalls specializing in electronics, salesmen scamper to their rooftops to pour more oil mixed with fuel into their small generators, which provide just enough power for lights. Only one stall — the generator store — had enough juice to run a flat-screen television, which blared music videos.

Fueling a small generator costs about $10 a day in country where most earn less than $1 in the same time, noted Anthony Okeke, the market's vice chairman.

"We use the profit to buy the fuel," Okeke said.

Those at the market have relative comfort compared to most Nigerians. In rural pasturelands, fires light the night in homes, just like in ancient times. In the city, street hawkers like Akpan sell their wares by candlelight, their faces illuminated only by passing headlights.

Less than a mile away from the market, meanwhile, generators at compounds owned by the country's political and business elite chug into the night, powering security lights on empty parking lots.

"Poor people, we are suffering in Nigeria," Akpan said. "It is only the rich people who are enjoying Nigeria."




Nigeria power reform: http://www.nigeriapowerreform.org

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