By Toyin Akinosho
Rilwanu Lukman, Nigeria’s newest minister for petroleum, is the public face of the group, within the government of President Umaru Yar’Adua, that re-instated the Power Holding Company of Nigeria, as the country’s monopoly power generation and distribution entity.
Rilwan Lanre Babalola, the newly appointed minister for power, was the Team Leader for Power Sector Reform at the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE), driving the privatization of the entire utility, during the last government headed by Olusegun Obasanjo.
The two personalities have diametrically opposite perspectives on improvement of the power sector in Nigeria. So, what are they doing together in the same cabinet?
Was the idea to bring Babalola in to join Lukman, in what used to be Ministry of Energy, to create a team of rivals? If so, to what end?
Lukman’s idea of the continuation of power sector reform is to have the PHCN run as government funded entity until 2011.
That is a sharp reversal of the policy that Babalola and others championed through the BPE, a framework which provided the grounding for the country’s power sector reform act that was signed into law in March 2005. That act supercedes any law on electricity generation, transmission and distribution in the country.
Babalola cut the image of the spokesperson for privatization of the power sector between 2002 and 2005, during which the power reform bill crawled its way through the bureaucracies of the state house and the national assembly. His statements vilified the running of the PHCN and he was quoted as saying that tariffs could not have been higher than the loss Nigerians suffered from the inefficiency of the PHCN, which he said was understaffed in the technical and marketing departments and over staffed in administration. At a public forum in 2004, Babalola disclosed that he had been asked, in private, even by people in the legislature, why he was so passionate about selling off
As of May 2007, the BPE had put up for sale three of the seven electricity generation companies (power stations) and all the 11 distribution companies carved out of the PHCN. As the Obasanjo government wound up, private investors had submitted a total of 102 expressions of interest (EOI) for the three generating companies on offer and 302 EOIS for the distribution companies.
Yar’adua’s arrival at the state house put all that effort on the back burner.
Lukman’s committee declared that much of the implementation of the reform programme, midwifed by the BPE under Obasanjo, was hasty and that the targets set out in the programme were not met. It noted the pending issues of staff pension, the failure to define the workings of the Rural Electrification Fund and the establishment of the Consumer Protection Fund, among other regulatory shortcomings. To Mr Lukman, it didn’t matter that these issues he listed did not grapple with the argument that the nature of graft, in Nigeria, guaranteed that a government owned power utility could not work. South Africa and Egypt, the biggest economies on the continent, are powered by utilities that are owned by government. But these countries are not Nigeria, simple.
A small digression here. The national consensus in Nigeria, as of May 29, 1999, when civil rule was ushered in after 15 years of military dispensation, was that the electricity utility and the telecommunications monopoly should be disposed off. Nigerian intellectual, commercial and political elite couldn’t guarantee that, like France’s EdF, or South Africa’s Eskom, electricity could be sustainably supplied by a state run entity in Nigeria. The rot in government parastatals, especially those of the commercial variety, was and is still so deep that even officials do not trust their own instincts.
Yet in July 2008, Lukman’s committee called for a halt to the sale of PHCN. Against the run of play, and a subsisting law which provides guidance for the end of the monopoly, the committee decreed “a strengthening of the utility through the establishment of a coordinating body at its headquarters to provide leadership.” That leadership mandate was to run for three years. That was how PHCN returned to run things.
The question, then, is, if PHCN would not be privatised until 2011, the terminal date of the Yar’adua administration, why hire a minister who is ideologically opposed to a PHCN monopoly?
Some have called on Babalola to return the country swiftly to the Obasanjo era reform agenda and finalise the process. They ask him to quickly complete the National Integrated Power Projects, involving the construction of 11 generating stations and an overhaul of old radial transmission and distribution system, with state money and then hand over their operations to those private companies who win in a competitive, transparent sale process. That way, they say, government would not have to spend any single cent more to provide electricity, going forward.
But what’s crucial here is what the president wants.
Is he prepared to allow the forty something year old Babalola push his own initiatives, or is he just having him in the cabinet, to suggest that there are young people in his court, while he implements the initiatives of the elderly Lukman?
With Babalola and Lukman in the same cabinet, are we going to have a bruising fight between those who want the status quo of Africa’s largest country lavishing money on a chronically ill power utility and those who want a choice to a more competitive environment, with a strong regulatory oversight that ensures equitable prices and businesses that don’t take advantage?
President Yar’adua has shown so far to be on the side of those who prefer government ownership of energy companies, no matter how inefficient. In September 2008, Mr. Yaradua’s spokesmen publicly disowned, in a very gruff manner, an announcement by the BPE to privatise the Petroleum Products Marketing Company. The government statement essentially reversed proposals that the BPE, itself an arm of the Nigerian presidency, had put forward after deliberations with members of Mr Yaradua’s cabinet. In the move against the PPMC sale, there were echoes of Mr Yar’adua’s first symbolic act in office; the re-nationalisation of two refineries (with total capacity in excess of 300,000BOPD)from a private enterprise that bought them, returning cheques with value in excess of half a billion dollars. Mr Yar’adua had stated then, that the state hydrocarbon company NNPC had only 12 months to restore the refineries to health. As of the time of writing this, 19 months after, the refineries are still short of that target.