Sour Sides Of Constant Power By Femi Alabi Onikeku
EVERY disappointment is a blessing in disguise, people say. Few, however, might admit that every blessing is equally a disappointment, at least to somebody. It goes without saying that if the ‘little change’ a section of Nigerians are witnessing in electricity supply is sustained, millions might discover they have signed an unwitting pact with hunger.

As with roaches and all things that love darkness, decades of blackness cast on the nation by inept governments and their terminally sick electricity providers have fostered a community of opportunists; men and women who make a living from the situation, and consequently smile to the banks, as hapless other Nigerians groan in a vicious cycle of epileptic power supply. But times seem to be changing, with more citizens laughing and the latter sobbing.

“Sincerely, I will be happy if there’s no electricity supply in this area in the next six months,” said Mr. Nurudeen laughingly. It was not difficult to see why he prayed thus. At 10am, when business people occupy themselves with the leftovers of yesterday’s jobs, the generator repairer sat idly in front of his shop in the Ikotun area of Lagos State, watching vehicles as they zoomed by and chatting with co-repairer, Ola Shehu.

“In fact, what you just asked us was exactly what we had been discussing before you arrived,” Ola Shehu told the reporter. “We had been talking about the downturn in our business. The situation is critical. Only God can deliver us.”

Boldly splashed on a board behind the sad discussants was the inscription: ‘Nubat Generator Repairs’. Inside the shop, the skeletons and innards of dissected engines lay everywhere. An apprentice, possibly in his eighteenth year, sat on a bench at a spot outside the shop. Like his boss, Mr. Nurudeen, he also chatted with some younger fellow.

“Before, we used to have a lot of work. But with the recent improvement in power supply, things have changed. I am a family man with mouths to feed. At my age, you wouldn’t expect me to start all over again learning another trade in order to make ends meet,” Nurudeen lamented.

Bolaji, the apprentice, however, is already thinking fast. No doubt, he had watched his oga complain about how patronage to the shop has dwindled, and perhaps recalls how less frequently he had been sent to buy roasted corn and groundnuts. “After this training, I will learn to become an auto mechanic,” he said, his reason being the proverbial, “no single road leads to the market.”

But Duro, another gen-fixer, is already treading a wiser path to survival. He admitted that the recent boost in electricity supply has “seriously affected” many of his colleagues, with some working as labourers to augment their diminishing income. “I combine this work with rewiring jobs,” he said, narrating the case of a colleague whose mother-in-law had begun to fret over “the way things are” in her daughter’s family.

THE repairers, however, are not the only casualties. Tony, who sells spare parts to them, confessed: “It has affected business a lot. Before, I used to have about 50 customers a day. But now, the number has reduced to about 20. And whenever they come, they are full of complaints about how unexciting the occupation has become.”

Even with dozens of visitors less, Tony still thinks he is one of the lucky few, having, over the years, gained popularity and a broad customer base. According to him, his unfortunate colleagues have to incorporate sale of tricycle and motorcycle parts to make their income add up. “Some generator repairers are also combining the trade with rewiring and electrical jobs. But those that fix generators, solely, are in for a tough time,” he said.

Tony reasoned that if after many years of poor power supply and during which people embraced avenues to make a living off the problem, government could do better than wake up suddenly without providing some form of palliatives to ill-affected citizens.

Notwithstanding the pockets of improvement in power supply across the country, the spare parts seller is of the view that the “season factor” should not be dismissed outright as being partly responsible for the slump in business.

“The weather at this period is cooler, as a result of the rainy season. This is a time when people use air conditioners, refrigerators and fans less. We often focus on the dry season for best sales. If December/January, however, comes and the present state of supply remains, then it means change has indeed come to the power sector.”

Mobil and Waleola filling stations, along Abaranje road, also in the Ikotun area, are popular with local residents. At evenings, they troop out of their houses, gallons in hand, and literally besiege the pumps. And while they sometimes queue and sometimes quarrel, managers of the two stations most certainly chuckle, glad that every drop from the nozzles means a fattening of their coffers.

“We make our biggest sales from people who purchase fuel in hand-held containers. But now, such buyers have reduced drastically. Before, we used to sell about 4,000-5,000 litres of petrol (Premium Motor Spirit -PMS) a day. Now, sales have fallen to 1,000-2000 litres,” said the Mobil station supervisor, Ismail Musa.

To explain what he meant by “reduced drastically”, Musa pointed to a pump that has been placed under lock and key. (Why deploy an extra pump when remaining ones are still struggling to be busy?) The young man, whose generator, back at home, still has in its tank the litres he fed it a week before, said some workers across the country may eventually lose their sources of livelihood. (And by the way, when was the last time you parted with money to charge you mobile phone battery or waited till you reached the office or elsewhere?)

At Waleola filling station, one Richard cried that there has been a significant drop in the volume of sales in the past two months, a development he blames on failure by users of electricity generators to turn up with their gallons.

“Before, I used up to 10 litres of diesel within two days,” said Idowu, a welder. “But now, with the improvement in electricity supply, I sometimes use five litres within a three-day period. When Buhari came, we had excellent power supply for a month! Although this is no longer the case, the situation is still better than what it once was. That is why the price of diesel has fallen. It used to cost N150/N160 per litre. Now, it’s N120/130.”

One staff of Fidelity Energy fuel station in the Ijegun area, however, explained that the cost of diesel has nothing to do with poor sales, which he admitted has reduced by half. According to him the drop in price is a reflection of trends high up the supply chain.

SO, how are sellers of electricity generating sets faring? One shop attendant, while acknowledging there has been an upswing in power supply, said there has been reduction in the rate at which people pick up the items. He, however, disclosed that the development has not forced down prices.

“Demand is very low. Now, we sell like two sets a day, unlike in the past when sale of generators was the money-spinner,” said another seller in the Ejigbo area. He identified a class of small generators popularly called, ‘I better pass my neighbour’, as the worst victim of the power boon, stressing, “People no longer buy them as they used to.”

Requiring no use of petrol or diesel (though expensive), an inverter holds a number of promises: it is noiseless; it gives no carbon emissions; and it has a low running cost. While these benefits have endeared it to many Nigerians, there has also been a corresponding bloom in the army of manufacturers, sellers and repairers.
But spokesman for Cassel Engineering Limited in Surulere, Lagos, disclosed that in recent time, the business of selling inverters has taken a hit below the belt.

“Exactly! Exactly! It has! In fact, one of the men that repair generators for us complained that he doesn’t get jobs again. He said most of the time he is idle. I asked him why, and he answered that electricity supply is now stable, and that it was when PHCN (Power Holding Company of Nigeria) was messing up that he was getting a lot of jobs. I told him that the situation is affecting us also. I have noticed a drop somewhere between 30/40 per cent in our level of patronage,” he said.

The spokesman explained that the devices people now ask for are the types they would use for a brief one or two-hour period when there is a power cut. “But before, what customers used to ask for were inverters that run for 24 hours, so that for the entire day, they are sure of supply.”

Quite unlike Mr. Nurudeen, the generator repairer who earlier had wished a six-month blackout on his community, the spokesman added: “I don’t want to be misunderstood. I don’t want it to look like we are praying that the current situation in power supply will not be sustained. The improvement is a good one, and there are many other ventures we can still go into.”

ONE of the ironies of electricity supply in the country is that different folks get different strokes. While many Nigerians might attest to improvement, there are also many others who would swear the story is balderdash, especially those in rural settlements. One respondent in Ondo State, for instance, explained how in the last six months some communities in the South Senatorial District have been without power. He attributed the problem to sabotage of electrical facilities and alleged sharp practices by agents of the power company. He, however, noted that but for damage to equipment, the area could also have been reaping the benefits of improved supply.

Another respondent in Enugu, while attesting to better power supply, cited complaint by residents of Obioma Street in Achara Layout who have been without electricity for two weeks. But like the Ondo instance, the problem was blamed on a faulty transformer, which repaired, would allow them access to more stable electricity.

“There has been remarkable improvement,” one respondent from Abuja said emphatically. Although he cited complaints by some residents in the Iyanya area, again he put it down to equipment failure, highlighting the case of an aged and malfunctioning transformer that went from bad to worse.

Unscrupulous persons who steal equipment would have to up their game or be killed outright. About a week ago, two suspected vandals in Enugu State lost their lives atop an electricity pole, just as another suffered burns while attempting to vandalise a 2.5 MVA transformer in Nnewi, Anambra State. In Lagos, last week, an undergraduate student was killed when a cable fell on her, sparking protest by her colleagues.

With tens of Chinese production lines churning out generators, rechargeable lamps, rechargeable fans, rechargeable radios, rechargeable TVs and rechargeable EVERYTHING…to service Nigeria’s deficiencies in electricity, it won’t be hard to see why some importers and exporters would regret stable power supply.

Again, if supply continues to get better, many people would have to re-adjust some of their decades-long laid-back attitude to managing electrical devices, lest they pay heavy prices. Old or substandard wires, used to lying idle, would need renewal in order to cope with the new dispensation and forestall fire outbreak.

Of course, many Nigerians might begin to realise that home appliances, like televisions, stabilizers, bulbs, fans and refrigerators, actually have life spans and would one day simply refuse to work anymore, just as electricity firms might also discover that some transformers, cables and distribution facilities have lasted decades only for a very obvious reason.

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