Nigeria: Will someone turn on the lights?
The phone signal barely drops on a drive some five hours out of Abuja, through countryside where the only people visible are hoeing the red earth and balancing unwieldy stems of sugar cane on bicycles. A growing number of village households now have phones.
It marks a big change in a country where not long ago it was often easier to visit someone than to try to call.
As elsewhere in Africa, free access to mobile phones has created a new industry and made business easier for everyone – helping to propel the continent’s fastest growth in years.
But finding somewhere to charge a mobile phone’s battery can be problematic.
Nigeria, like some of its neighbours, has had far less success in bringing the reliable power supplies that business also needs to take off.
Nigerians blame that failure as much as anything else for holding back Africa’s giant. They increasingly question the ability of President Umaru Yar’Adua to make a difference, despite campaign promises ahead of last year’s election and a pledge to declare a “national emergency” to improve power supplies.
For many Nigerians, the lights rarely – if ever – come on. It is not only frustrating, it forces businesses to run their own generators, pushing up costs and eating into profits.
The growing economy and population have only made the shortfall more dramatic.
To put Nigeria’s failure to meet its power needs in context, South Africa suffered crippling outages early this year despite having 10 times Nigeria’s generating capacity for only one third of the population.
The success of mobile phones in Nigeria was not so much because of anything the previous government did as the fact that it was able to remove longstanding official obstacles to private firms eager to invest in a country of over 140 million.
The power sector is a bigger task, given the huge investments needed, but there is little sign of government action to address the problem despite an investigation into billions of dollars that the previous administration is accused of misusing in its failed efforts to improve electricity supplies.
In fact, there is concern among Nigerians and foreign investors alike at the slow pace of government under President Yar’Adua, now widely dubbed “Baba Go-Slow”.
A new cabinet has yet to be announced despite the sacking of 20 ministers and there are doubts over progress on the 2009 draft budget. Worries over Yar’Adua’s health have added to the mood of uncertainty.
Meanwhile, the economic environment is getting harsher with prices for the crude oil on which Nigeria relies now closer to $60 a barrel than the $140 they topped earlier this year. Turmoil in the Niger Delta continues to restrain oil production. Nigeria’s main stock market index has lost nearly half its value since March.
Is Yar’Adua going to be up to the task of turning on the lights? Is anyone? What do you think?