(by Dayo Olopade. Dayo holds degrees in Literature and African Studies from Yale University, and is the Washington reporter for The Root.)

LAGOS, NIGERIA–As Lagosians returned to work last week after the holidays, the headlines singing on newsstands across Nigeria was, like most things in this country, shocking, yet pedestrian: “FG, AGENCIES, BUDGET $2bn FOR GENERATORS.” Federal agencies from finance to foreign affairs, from commerce to local police have budgeted a total of $2 billion for the privilege of constant electricity in this next year of the 21st century. Lest this seem exorbitant, recall that similar budgetary requests have been made for the last several years. It’s not just that the dread Nigerian Electrical and Power Authority (NEPA) will continue to “take light” repeatedly and at random in 2009–nor that countless children will again be burned in kerosene lamp accidents, or smothered by monoxide fumes from faulty generators–this reporting plainly reveals the extent to which NEPA’s inefficiencies severely retard Nigerian development.

An estimated $6-16 billion has been dumped into the Nigerian energy sector in the last decade, with the goal of increasing the peak power output from 3,000 megawatts (MW) in 1999 to 10,000 MW by…now. Yet at the start of 2009, Nigeria’s peak output is only 3,400 MW–14 percent of the 25,000 MW it’s projected to need, and hardly an efficient return on the multibillion-dollar investment.

One recent study found an incredibly strong correlation between GDP growth and the availability of power. Which makes sense–Nigerians spend about N16.408 trillion ($117 bn) annually on fuelling generators in the country, which could certainly be put to better use. And without electricity, the cost of commerce is astronomical (prices for printing a form, or placing a call will often be printed twice–once for “NEPA” and once for “Gen” power). Prohibitive diesel prices are crushing small businesses right and left–not to mention turning off foreign direct investment.

So why can’t Nigeria provide constant electricity? This isn’t Baghdad. The real problem, rather typically, is not capacity but corruption. The makers and distributors of generators would rather not see state provided power get off its knees. And so–despite former president Olesegun Obasanjo’s efforts (including the 2005 Electric Power Sector Reform Act), and those of Umar Yar’Adua, the year-old head of state–it has not. Nor have the benefits of recent privatization (as with the once unruly telecommunications sector) been realized. Electric capacity expansion projects have been pillaged in plain sight–leading to groaners like this report: The Independent Corrupt Practices and Other Related Offences Commission (ICPC), an agency devoted to rooting out graft, will spend N35 million ($250,000) running and maintaining its generators this year.

The author of the GDP study sums up the dilemma: “the more the efforts are that have been made in the power sector, the more troubled things seem to become. The more money is spent on the sector, the more epileptic and unreliable the performance of the sector appears to be.” In a society that is often quite clannish–wherein family concerns trump collective civic action–it’s remarkable that someone hasn’t found a way to make real energy independence (not simply from “Gen” living) attractive. Legislation or other private encouragements for renewable electricity sources, especially solar power generation, seems the only way to unlock the spiral of theft and economic repression that NEPA represents.

(image of Lagos neighborhood from flickr user Raffaele Bello under a Creative Commons license)

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