Electricity workers at it again

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The Nigerian Power Sector was the focus of economy players across the globe in 2013. The attention which the sector attracted was based on the fact that it was making positive history, after decades of disgracefully and wastefully paying lip service to turning the industry around.

Nigerians are all too familiar with the scenario of huge budgetary allocations to the hitherto corruption-infested sector, the disappearance of such monies in a manner that suggested that the pervading darkness provided the needed cover for this to happen.

The uneventful transition over time from the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN), through the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), to the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) is a story that even toddlers can tell. Indeed, current Minister of Power, Professor Chinedu Nebo recalled in a recent interview, that the inefficiency of these energy parastatals became an issue of painful comedy down through the ages, as Nigerians, the incurably happy, witty people, invented sarcastic tags to match the acronyms viz: Electrical Confusionist of Nigeria (ECN), Never Expect Power Always/National Embarrassment and Public Annoyance (NEPA), and Problem Has Changed Hands (PHCN).

But time was to come, when Nigerians would keep a date with history. Evidentially that time is now. It began with relevant policy changes and legislations, one of which was the Electricity Power Sector Reform (EPSR) Act of 2005 and the launch of a Sector Roadmap by President Goodluck Jonathan in 2010 to guide the implementation of planned reforms.

The reforms, a central feature of which has been the carefully planned-out privatisation of the sector was not expected by any sensible adult, to come without drastic changes to the status quo.

Because nothing remains the same after a revolution happens, PHCN workers were to be affected in many ways including loss of jobs. But the disengagement plan also provided for very generous monetary settlements for bonafide staff, as well as the opportunity to be re-engaged by incoming owners.

Incidentally, initial resistance of the workers through their unions contributed largely to the failure of previous governments to move the reform process forward.

But when the date with destiny came, in the form of determination on the part of President Jonathan, and the appointment, early 2013, of Professor Chinedu Nebo as Power Minister, the train of change left the station and went full throttle.

Brushing aside several challenges that confronted him, Nebo, a reverend gentleman and former Vice Chancellor of two federal universities apart from reuniting all the segments of the sector to achieve synergy, also inaugurated the TCN Supervisory Board, armed its management partners Manitoba Hydro International with the required SODA charging them to take off immediately, sourced the huge funding required to expand and strengthen the transmission network. He sourced intervention funding to keep the generation and distribution companies afloat in the face of funding gap created from the error of miscalculation and zero funding by previous sector heads, and took so many other actions that were previously thought impossible, thereby fast-tracking the implementation of the Power Sector Roadmap.

But perhaps the most impressive was the mature and humane manner in which he Minister dealt with Labour issues, hitherto, described by many as ‘intractable’. With a show of immeasurable respect for the workforce that had kept the sector going for ages, and with an unprecedented level of empathy for their cause, their welfare and future, Nebo, together with the Ministry’s Permanent Secretary, Ambassador Godknows Igali, brought the workers’ representatives to a round table even amid several antics, including often being stood up by the unionists without notice or explanation. Igali headed the high level Committee that sat for long (sometimes up to 13) hours a day, for weeks, to reach amicable resolutions for the payment of entitlements to the workers. Computations, screening and documentation were painstakingly done, to ensure that the workers were not shortchanged. Besides securing an understanding from private investors, for the welfare of workers who were to be retained, the issue of casual workers in the system was not brushed aside as some had expected, seeing that government owed them no legal obligation.  On compassionate grounds, a plan was made for them to be absorbed and paid.

Knowing just how similar government resettlement plans went with various groups of workers in the past, an average Nigerian would see sense in the stubborn attitude of the PHCN staff at the initial point. BUT with the level of consistency, transparency and seriousness of government in this particular issue, the union leaders began to lose the sympathy of Nigerians and the news media that had for long, been fighting their cause by amplifying their every cry.

What makes the threats of the union leaders to go on strike this season even more ridiculous is the fact that the practical evidence of government’s efforts, in form of improved power supply is reported by ordinary Nigerians across the country. This includes distantly remote communities that are now being lit up, independently of existing power programmes, through the Light Up Rural Nigeria Project of the Federal Ministry of Power.

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