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Fashola talking a good game at Chatham House

Fashola at Chatham House: Talking loud and saying nothing

The Minister for Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, was at the Royal Institute of International Affairs aka Chatham House in London this afternoon to talk about “Developing Power and Infrastructure in Nigeria – Strategies for Successful Reform”.

When I told a friend I was going to attend the event, he suggested I ask the minister “what he had come to Chatham House to achieve”. After spending an hour listening to the minister speak and field questions from the audience, I was still none the wiser what he had come to London for.

He started off his presentation saying “reforms” of the power sector were two decades in the making. “Reform” is a word I don’t like. Noam Chomsky once said: “Reform is a word you always ought to watch out for. Like, when Mao started the Cultural Revolution it wasn’t called a reform. Reform is a change that you’re supposed to like. So as soon as you hear the word reform you can reach for your wallet and see who’s lifting it”.

This should resonate with many poor Nigerians complaining about the increase in electricity tariffs. But these “reforms” are, in Fashola’s view, something that the country needed. He claimed it was necessary to open up the power sector to “private capital and capacity and accepting the need for reform is half the problem solved”.

He told the audience that the privatisation of power supply was agreed in 2005 but didn’t actually happen until 2013. The process “moved with difficulty” and there was a “perception that it was rushed”. Nigerians also seemed to see privatisation as “an event and not a process”. So they expected the gains immediately.

He reassured that contracts signed in 2013 will remain respected with minor “resetting”. He then listed what he had done since taking over last year:

1. Transparency – more information available to the public on what was happening.

2. Commitment – he was “breaking down difficult relationships” with stakeholders. This also involved “regulatory reinforcement”. It was necessary to provide “assurance” that there was “competence in the sector”. He claimed that “debt owed to operators by the government were being paid” (apparently contractors were not paid for two years) and they had “cut red tape”.

The minister stressed that there was “clarity of thought” now and a “roadmap to the solution”. This roadmap involved:

1. Incremental increase in generation

2. Stabilising what was generated

3. The provision of uninterrupted power.

He said nothing about linkages between each step. But said they were focusing on how to get other sources of power on board.

Fashola claimed to be an optimist and illustrated this with the declaration that a refinery being built by the Dangote Group would have an impact on power supply by 2018/19. He expected that refinery to deliver a pipeline network to transport gas from the Niger Delta to Lagos.

Fashola taking questions from the audience
Fashola taking questions from the audience

After half an hour of much of the same stuff he has repeated on different forums, he took questions from the audience that ranged from challenges he has faced to commitment towards developing coal as an alternative to gas as a source for power generation.

He came unstuck when asked to put a tentative time frame on when Nigerians could expect decent power supply. He responded that he could not give a date and would only commit to incremental improvements.

On coal, he could not give any specifics beyond saying it required “heavy investment, things were evolving” and the data about deposits needed to be verified.

He blamed the vandalising of assets for poor power supply and proposed “community engagement” as a way forward.

He ended by saying that in the power sector, government were just “policy makers and regulators and not builders”. So no one should expect them to build a new plant. This echoed the comment by the Emir of Kano Lamido Sanusi who described the Power Minister as a mere figurehead and even President Muhammadu Buhari’s derogatory dismissal of ministers as “noisemakers”.

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