Blackouts: African Citizens Must be Proactive

Published on 9th June 2008

“If we were living in Africa, we would understand: but we’re not. We’re living in Australia!” Remarked an angry Australian citizen when a blackout hit his neighbourhood. Have blackouts become Africa’s brand to the extent that energy companies are being allowed to get away with them?

Rolling power cuts across South Africa have curtailed production in Gold Fields, Harmony & Anglo Gold Ashanti – three of the largest gold producers. South Africa, the world’s largest gold producer has now been overtaken by China. “The damage is huge, we are talking about millions, possibly billions of dollars” in revenue losses, says Jerry Vilakazi, Head of Business unity in South Africa. 

In Nigeria, virtually all businesses and residents run private generators to supplement faltering public service, saddling economies with added costs and pollution. Only 19 of the 79 power plants work. Daily electricity output has plunged 60% from its peak and blackouts cost the economy $ 1 billion a year, the Council for Renewable energy in Nigeria says. Ironically – imported generator turbines are still in ports unable to be moved years after they were delivered according to a parliamentary investigation in March.

“When they make a loss, they just raise their tariff,” laments angry Mr. Mwale, a Zambian farmer referring to the inefficiency in Zesco (Zambia Electricity Supply Company). “When I make loss I have to make it up myself. Is that fair?”

When Nigeria’s Yar Adua endures power interruptions during his public speeches, what message is he sending? When Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni uses donors as his punching bag on matters surrounding Uganda’s electricity woes, should he be taken seriously? Such complacency leads to what happened in Zambia early this year when someone manually switched off generators at the Kariba North Bank Power stations, causing three nationwide blackouts.

For a region bracing for industrialization, being satisfied with the status quo and adopting the ‘business as usual’ stance in the face of gross inefficiency and irresponsibility is unpalatable. It is time that African citizens got fed up with this stigma and held respective departments accountable. A casual explanation by the Kenya Power and Lighting Company that the recent grueling five-hour power blackout that engulfed the country “… was a technical fault on the transmission system” is not satisfactory.

Instead of probing whether this was sabotage (as happened in Zambia when) or a ‘brilliant’ person trying out a new political weapon (Kenya’s post 2007 election era has a lot of political intrigues!), or simply- the business as usual stance, the Kenya Power and Lighting Company was allowed to get away with this.

When Kenya experienced a series of blackouts in July 2000, ten children at Embu Provincial General Hospital (94 miles north-east of Nairobi) succumbed to death after hospital incubators failed to function, reported The People Daily. This year, the blackout interfered with water supply at the Kenyan coast – plunging Mombasa, Bombolulu, and Tononoka towns into an acute water shortage according to Antony Chitavi, MD Mombasa Water Company. Residents were forced to buy water from vendors at a fee of Kshs 50 per 20-litre jerrycan. In addition, flights were delayed (imagine losing a business deal for failure to show up  in good time!); elevators failed and social joints lost patrons.

Does all this warrant a simple sorry? How much revenue did shareholders in KPLC lose in the five-hour incident? If inefficiency in public-funded service providers is allowed to go scot free, what incentive will road engineers have to build better roads? What incentives will constructors have to build safe and standard houses? What incentive will the food industry have to meet internationally laid standards? What signal are we sending to investors if we allow such a serious crime off the hooks?

If Africa has to be industrialized and exit third world status, its citizens must be tired of the status quo and demand efficient service delivery. In Kenya, the KPLC must be compelled by law to compensate all people who were affected in one way or another by the unfortunate blackout. This precedent will ensure future quality and accountability.


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