In the very early part of the 20th century, about 1920, the founder of the Soviet Union, Vladimir Lenin, was obsessed with the wonders of electricity and the potential impact it would have on development that he went on to ambitiously define communism as “Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country.” It is no wonder that one of the most memorable allegories in Animal Farm is the windmill which had to be protected at all costs. This is one of those rare situations where energy (especially electrical) and power (especially political) become synonyms.
Almost a 100 years later the Nigerian president Dr Goodluck Jonathan, in a recent CNN interview, is making a similar pledge to his compatriots by promising a noticeable improvement before the year runs out, though falling short of a complete electrification. Even though I agree with him and argue that the problem is deep rooted and not just his own making, I still wonder why our leaders still need to be pushed to make electrification their primary election promise and objective when they get to power.
No one needs reminding or convincing of the importance of stable electricity supply in both rural and urban areas. The time whiled away in perpetual darkness, the health and security discomfort it posses, and the energy used in manual activities that have long been mechanised or even digitalised can all be directed to very meaningful activities. Most enlightened people know this and this is not the crux of the matter. The concern is that the ever industrious masses have been left to sort the problem on their own, and both the authorities and masses have become so complacent with the solution at hand: the diesel generator.
Apart from the noise, the pollution, accidents, fire, and the illuminating division of the masses into haves and have-nots it is actually the costs of running these generators that is the major setback to economic growth and development. You need to witness this first hand to see for yourself. Even those who own generators are very much aware of the need for rationing its use.
When I had to check into a hotel in Lagos last spring, I was shocked by the very high room rates when I thought I could get a better room and service at the same cost or lower somewhere in London or other European cities. However, on second thought, you see the hotel has got its own diesel generator power station which has to power all the fully air-conditioned rooms, given the scorching heat, and also provide hot water for bathing. Despite the intermittent power of this generator, you still begin to reckon that it must be serious business keeping the light on, especially in a culture of ignorance about energy efficiency.
The same goes with running other establishments. A friend of mine managing an airport cited, without my prompting him, the high cost of electricity generation as the major factor affecting prices of flights compared to other parts of the world. Staying with my brother for a few days, I was really shocked by the cost of running a generator, just to keep the lights on for a few hours a day.
It is really high time that our leaders made electrification the top priority. It has the power to dismantle poverty and open the door to development. It’s true many individuals and organisations have endeavored to introduce and encourage sustainable electricity sources at a micro level such as solar lamps and solar PV for community buildings. While this is commendable, it is really a tiny drop in the ocean, especially for countries with huge oil and gas resources.
A strategic and ambitious approach similar to that of the charismatic Soviet hero is required. It shouldn’t remain a Utopian dream. It is something we owe to ourselves and our children. As one of the holy books says:
Let Your Light Shine…