Art and Culture

When Trivialities Plunged Nigeria into Darkness

todayAugust 21, 2022

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Peter Uzoho writes that last Wednesday’s decision of the leadership of the electricity workers union to plunge the nation into darkness, with the attendant losses by businesses and homes, in protest against an official directive to sit for promotion exams and other sundry issues, is blackmail taken too far

It is inconceivable that over 200 million Nigerians had to be subjected to total darkness for just petty reasons advanced by so-called electricity workers.  Nigerian homes and business outlets were thrown into darkness on Wednesday and the better part of Thursday following the strike action embarked upon by electricity workers, which was led by their union leaders. 

No one could have anticipated that this would be happening at a time the Nigerian power was trying to make some improvement, having become notorious for poor performance even with reforms leading to the eventual privatisation of the generation and distribution segments about nine years ago.

 From about 4,800 megawatts (MW) of peak electricity generation recorded on Tuesday, the grid gradually collapsed to zero on Wednesday, due to the shut down of all electricity generation plants, transmission and distribution networks in the country as electricity workers made good their threat to embark on an industrial action to press home some somewhat trivial demands.

The National Union of Electricity Employees (NUEE) had in a circular issued on Tuesday directed its members to embark on an indefinite strike following alleged anti-masses activities.

In the circular signed by its National Secretary, Mr Joe Ajaero, NUEE specifically ordered the electricity workers to mobilise immediately for serious picketing of the Transmission Company of Nigeria’s (TCN) headquarters and stations nationwide from that Tuesday over the directive by the TCN Board that all principal managers (PMs) in acting capacity going to the next position-assistant general managers (AGMs) must appear for a promotion interview.

 Ajaero had insisted that the directive was in contravention of the workers’ conditions of service and career progression paths, adding that “it was unilaterally done without the relevant stakeholders.”

They faulted the authorities for not resolving the promotion issues for three years and stressing that memos addressed to the HoS’ office had gone without even the courtesy of an acknowledgement.

The group also complained about the failure of the authorities to pay the entitlement of former staff of the defunct Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) since December 2019.

Nation-wide Blackout Ensued 

Defying earlier interventions by government’s representatives, the aggrieved workers proceeded with their planned industrial action, shutting down power stations across the nation, which resulted in the collapse of the national grid from over 4,000MW to 762MW and finally to zero generation at about 4 pm.

According to information gathered from the Independent System Operation (ISO), which is a section of TCN, power generation on the grid was 4,149.40MW from 21 power plants as of 6 am on Wednesday but drastically dropped to 1,635MW from 17 plants when the protesters started shutting down the plants.

Confirming the grid shutdown, TCN in a statement on that Wednesday by its Manager, Public Affairs, Ndidi Mbah, said following the industrial dispute declared by the two in-house unions at the company, the national electric power grid had been shut down by union functionaries.

She recalled the modest improvement in the grid generation which she said had reached 4,830.69MW as of August 16, 2022, a development she attributed to the interventions of the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC),  the ministry of power, and other stakeholders in the value chain. 

“Despite this setback, we are set to restore the grid as quickly as possible. The ministries of power and labour & employment are currently meeting with the union officials to resolve the issues,” Mbah stated.

 Setback to Progress Recorded 

Although the workers had suspended the industrial action for two weeks following successful interventions by the Minister of Labour and Employment, Dr Chris Ngige, their action not only threw the entire nation into a total blackout, it caused the nation about N3 billion loss.

Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading (NBET) Plc earlier stated that electricity invoices in the country average N60 billion monthly from the national grid, translating to about N720 billion every year. With existing subsidies being incurred by the government, the daily cost of the strike may hover around N3 billion, according to industry sources.

 More worrying is that the industrial action by the electricity workers caused heavy damage to the sector that was just trying to improve on the back of recent efforts by the market participants to achieve the generation, transmission, and distribution of at least 5,000mw of power.

The targeted 5,000mw minimum power supply which was supposed to take off from July 1, 2022, was a resolution of the market participants including NERC, TCN, generation companies (Gencos), distribution companies (Discos), gas suppliers and other critical stakeholders in the Nigerian Electricity Supply Industry (NESI) aimed to incrementally improve the nation’s power supply situation.

The participants had agreed to activate contracts to enable the seamless gas supply to Gencos and also to ensure that at least 5,000mw was generated, transmitted, and distributed to consumers with effect from the said date.

 Part of the outcomes of the deal would be the elimination of the perennial 2,000mw stranded power posted now and then by the TCN.

But while the national grid was experiencing a shutdown on Wednesday, as a result of the workers’ industrial action, it emerged that the inability to achieve the 5,000mw of electricity generation was due to a shortage in gas supply.

Minister of Power, Abubakar Aliyu, who disclosed this to journalists after the Federal Executive Council (FEC) meeting at the State House, Abuja, explained that the government had entered into a firm contract with the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading (NBET) Plc, power generation had remained around 4,000 megawatts because of the challenge of gas.

He said the federal government had firm contracts with only five out of the 28 Gencos but had to extend it to more Gencos to stabilise supply at 5000mw as of July 1.

 Aliyu, however, assured Nigerians that the government has, “all the ingredients” to solve the supply challenge soon.

 Commenting on the strike embarked upon by the electricity workers, the minister said the protesting workers had no grudges with his ministry, but the Head of Civil Service of the Federation, Mrs Folashade Yemi-Esan.

Resolving the Strike Action

 After several hours of a nationwide blackout, Ngige intervened and met the protesting, resulting in the suspension of the strike by two weeks 

 Speaking after the meeting with the leadership of the workers including NUEE and the Senior Staff Association of Electricity and Allied Companies (SSAEC), Ngige said that after exhaustive deliberations on the issues in dispute, they agreed to constitute a bipartite committee to look into the grievances of the electricity workers and report back in two weeks.

According to him, the members of the bipartite committee include the Minister of State for Power, Goddy Jeddy-Agba (Chairman), Permanent Secretary, Office of the Secretary to Government of the Federation (SGF), Permanent Secretary, General Services, Office of the Head of Service of the Federation, Permanent Secretary, Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment, representative of Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) and two representatives from NUEE and SSAEC. 

The minister said the committee has two weeks to report back to the whole house.

Workers Expressed Hope in Govt 

Speaking after the meeting with the minister, the NUEE scribe expressed hope that the federal government would act in good faith on the issues in dispute which have lingered for years.

Ajaero said they would pause the industrial action and wait for two weeks as agreed in the meeting for the government to address their grievances.

Also, the President of SSAEC, Chika Ben, assured the nation that the matter would be nipped in the bud before it escalates, adding that there would be no further blackout in any part of the country.

Grid Shutdown a Disaster to Nigeria’s Image 

 Worried by the strike that wreaked havoc in the power industry and caused untold hardship in homes and businesses, an electricity meter manufacturer,  Mr Kola Balogun, said for a nation to allow its power systems to be shutdown was a disaster to the image of that country.

Balogun, who is the Chairman of Momas Electricity Meter Manufacturing Company (MEMMCOL), noted that the grid shutdown could have also caused outages at the nation’s airports, which might have put the lives of thousands of air travellers at risk.

He said the shutdown could have endangered Nigerians, who were having life-saving surgeries at hospitals, and damaged several expensive machines being used for production by manufacturers.

Adding that the strike action was a product of a lack of coherence in terms of communication between the government and the labour union, he advised the federal government to reach a compromise with the workers to avert another shutdown of the nation’s power sector.

He said: “The parties should not have allowed it to aggravate to the extent of shutting down the systems. It is big economic sabotage and it is like taking the country for granted. In any civilised country, that kind of thing will not be allowed to happen. It is like a coup against the nation for some people to shut down the entire power plants.

To many observers, the shutdown of power and throwing the entire country into darkness further confirmed that the country lacked leadership.

“Why was the federal government not proactive by deploying security agencies to man the power stations? Where were the security operatives such as the civil defence when the protesting workers entered the TCN facility to shut down equipment? All these tell you how porous the country is. No leadership, no security. It is really sad. One day protesting workers will take over the airports,” said one of the observers.

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