by Adedayo Ademuwagun
Children often scream “Up NEPA!” when electricity supply is restored in their neighbourhood. This is quite prevalent in Lagos and other places in Nigeria.
“We used to scream like that too when I was a kid,” says John Ogbu, a young man. “So now that I observe kids doing the same thing today, I just wonder if things have always been this way.”
NEPA was set up in 1972 from the merging of the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria and the Niger Dam Authority. Prior to that, both authorities operated independently.
The ECN was set up in 1950 to harmonise regional and local power generation authorities. Then as urbanisation grew and the need for more electricity came up, the Niger Dam Authority was established in 1962 and charged with the construction of the Kainji Dam and the provision of hydro power to scale up power generation nationwide.
With the combined operations of the ECN and NDA, power generation surpassed the public’s consumption of power at the time. So supply was very plentiful.
Who was there?
Banji Oladipe lived in Mushin, Lagos during the 60s. He says, “In those days there was rarely a power outage. Supply was constant. The generation was far lower than it is today, but it was more than enough for everyone at that time.
“One of the reasons for this is that the population was much lower. Nobody was living in most of the places that are now densely populated in Lagos today. They were mostly bush. So the number of people using electricity was low and so the supply was enough and consumption was very low.”
But you see today, the population has boomed. We have so many more people using electricity. This human overload is one reason for this shortfall.”
Khadija Bala lived in Sokoto in that era. She says, “Back then, consumption was very low. Electronics were scarce. Few people owned a TV. There was just this large cinema-like gadget that the government used to bring to communities occasionally. Most households only had bulbs and maybe a radio. That was all.”
“But today people use different types of gadgets that we didn’t have in those days, like refrigerator, computers and so on. In a house there are normally several TVs, unlike before. So consumption has increased.”
“As children, we had little use for electricity,” says Chinedu Nwancho who lived in Effium and Abakaliki in what is now Ebonyi state. “My home town Effium was a village at the time and we weren’t yet connected to power supply.
“But even in Abakaliki, once there were bulbs and perhaps a fan, that was all people needed. There was no watching TV or movies like today. Besides, there was steady power supply, so even if there was an outage and power was restored, it wasn’t something to cheer. Electricity supply was commonplace.”
“Today, when power comes on, children and adults get happy because it’s not regular and they have things to do with the power. They want to watch TV, they want to do many things, so people are excited that the power is restored. I think that was why this ‘Up Nepa!’ thing came about.”
Discipline as a factor
“Back then, there was less development,” Mr. Oladipe continues. “Most of where is now densely populated in Lagos was full of bush. Ipaja, for instance, was a village. Most areas in Lagos were uninhabited. People mostly lived around Mushin, Ojuelegba, Lagos Island and Ikeja. Places like Agege were outskirts. The country was just developing in terms of industry and technology. So the moderate power generation was sufficient.”
“Today, there are a lot more industries and other businesses using electricity for their business. The society has grown more urbanised and industrialised than before.”
“Also, usage was more conservative. People switched off appliances when not in use. You don’t leave bulbs on during the day or when you’re going out.”
“Today people do the exact opposite. The society is less disciplined. When power supply resumes, people want to use everything at once before there’s an outage again. When they go away, they leave appliances plugged in and leave switches on. In my house I switch off the lights myself because my children often neglect to do so.”
Failure to match expansion
As urbanisation continued to spread nationwide, more towns and villages were continuously added to the national grid between the 60s and the 80s. This piled more load on the grid, and soon consumption began to surpass supply. This led to a shortage and the authorities had to start rationing electricity since there wasn’t enough to go round.
In that period, NEPA expanded its generating capacity to accommodate the increased consumption caused by the population boom, urbanisation, industrialisation and technological advancements. But the expansion was markedly inadequate to deliver adequate power to the fast-growing number of households and industries.
The situation was exacerbated because poor maintenance and vandalism undermined the grid, so that less power was being generated and even less was reaching the public.
There was also trouble with the management of the power authority, caused significantly by the persistent political instability of the period.
Many citizens who lived during the better days blame the government for letting the system worsen to the present level.
Khadija says, “Back then, the governments that we had were better and more inclined to do things for the good of the people. They wanted to make things better. But the governments we’ve had in the past few decades have ruined the system in the pursuit of their own gain.
Mr. Oladipe agrees with Khadija. He says, “Unlike now, the system was properly managed. I remember the power authority officers used to go round to check meters and see how things are functioning on the ground. The authority would notify the public before there’ll be a power cut. Even during the war, they’d tell us on radio to switch off bulbs outside at night so that enemy aircraft cannot pick out residential areas to attack. Everything was in order.”
“Today, the government is not interested,” says Khadija. “It was in the 80s that the electricity supply started to grow infrequent. The will to make things better is not there and government just left things alone to break down. The people in government just want to grab their own and no one wants to improve the system.”
Last year, the federal government finalised the privatisation of the power sector and set up plans to upgrade facilities and expand the grid. But will this transform the system and deliver adequate power supply in the near future?
John, the young man, hopes so. He says, “I hope that at least when I have children, they will not grow up saying ‘Up NEPA’ like I did as a child. Things will have changed by then.”