By SKC Ogbonnia
May 29th, 2015 has come and gone. Goodluck Ebele Jonathan is now a former president, and Nigeria ’s prevalent electricity crisis is no longer his headache. The problem is now wholly owned by Muhammadu Buhari, the new President of the Federal Republic of Nigeria and Commander-In-Chief of the Armed Forces. Thus far, Buhari has started on a good note, declaring in his inaugural speech that “Careful studies are under way during this transition to identify the quickest, safest and most cost-effective way to bring light and relief to Nigerians.”
Clearly, President Buhari is inheriting dizzying catalogues of crisis on all fronts. However, considering the importance of electricity in national development as well as human life, the new government cannot afford the luxury of an extended study or any level of presidential honeymoon in the area of the current energy crisis. There is an urgent need for immediate solution.
Truth be told, while it can be very apt to equate the past Jonathan government with every failure to proffer practical solutions in many areas, the team can hardly be faulted for the failure to identify and echo the problems. Thus, the last official press conference granted by the former Minister of Power, Prof. Chinedu Nebo, on the electricity crisis is very instructive. In his words, “Energy security must be addressed in a holistic manner…The first phase of the war has to do with the issue of gas pipeline vandalism and it may interest you to know that millions of dollars are spent fixing these gas pipelines on a monthly basis.”
The point is that, even as the existing energy policy is fraught with various challenges, the situation no longer requires a rocket scientist to discern that the most immediate is that gas pipelines to Nigeria ’s main feed to the National Power Grid are constantly being vandalized particularly along the Trans Forcardos and Escravos-Lagos axis.
A corpus of research has pegged the main cause of pipeline vandalism to restless youths who are agitated because of a long history of neglect of host communities. The area is replete with high unemployment, abject poverty, inadequate social amenities, and environmental hazards. Various governments responded by establishing agencies, such as Niger Delta Basin Development Authority (NDBDA), Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC), and Niger Delta Ministry. However, despite billions of dollars in annual budget, the programs are mired in all manners of controversy, including massive corruption, phantom projects, and gross neglect of the intended beneficiaries.
Unlike in the past, the issue of pipeline vandalism requires every sense of urgency and decisiveness. It is time to view the matter with similar lens as in an act of war. Not only has the current electricity crisis cost thousands of lives directly or indirectly, it has also resulted to billions of dollars more of incalculable loss to the national economy. Further, depending on the index of measurement, several studies have cited the linear cost of the sabotage anywhere from $7 to $24 billion per annum. Moreover, the pattern of vandalism and attendant epileptic power supply has historically discouraged both local and foreign investment in Nigeria . The objective fact is that the incessant vandalism of energy assets is a serious threat to national security and potentially as grave as the Boko Haram menace terrorizing the country.
Accordingly, President Buhari should without any delay isolate the problem and inaugurate a presidential task force on Pipeline Vandalism. Such task force should include but not limited to some influential representatives from Niger Delta and other host communities. With new faces expected soon at the helm of the Niger Delta Ministry, the host communities can be reassured by also effecting necessary changes to the leaderships of both NDBDA and NDDC commonly associated with corruption and ineptitude.
In the process, the president should demonstrate the common sense leadership that has eluded Nigeria for ages. Buhari’s unique pedigree, the manner of his second coming, and charming political goodwill have combined to position him better than anyone in the national history to effectively influence followers towards the desired change. Influence! Now is the time to lead by influencing the people of the host communities with a clear message that crystallizes the impact of pipeline vandalism, sincerity of purpose, and the implications for the greater good.
The measures above should go in tandem with practical solutions. Of course, a permanent solution to pipeline vandalism ought to include 100% digital surveillance systems, but such approach requires longer time to install. Thus, the “quickest, safest and most cost-effective way” to curb the problem, at the interim, is to deploy with immediate effect Nigeria ’s armed forces to fully safeguard every pole in the breadth and depth of the problematic areas along the Trans Forcardos and Escravos-Lagos axis of the pipelines. The phalanx can be augmented with ever-ready labour from the National Youth Service Corps or the other teeming unemployed graduates who are eager to work. The recurring costs of fixing the pipelines, current security, and other contingencies are well adequate to fund this proposal. The ancient idea of entrusting recreant militants with the nation’s oil and gas pipelines was never a solution in the first place.
Next, unlike the case of oil pipelines, there are no visible benefits to the perpetrators of gas pipeline vandalism themselves. The most likely justification is a possible conspiracy within the electric generator industry whose businesses thrive upon any drop on power supply. The other scheme resides within the maintenance structure that gulps about N1.5 billion per year for fixing vandalized pipelines. But these conspiracy theories have lingered for far too long. The cabals are well known. Their activities are traceable. It is time to unmask and mete them with commensurate punishment once and for all.
Also important, similar to other countries of the world, Nigeria has in place specific anti-sabotage laws that address punishment for vandalism and conspiracy in the oil and gas sector. But a major Nigerian problem had been the absence of a leader with the will power to enforce the laws. This was exactly one of the major areas where and why Nigerian masses beckoned Muhammadu Buhari back to power. The president must seize the moment and work with relevant agencies to ensure that culprits face the full wrath of the law.
Yet, I pity Muhammadu Buhari here. True. Given his background, any mention of war or mere emphasis on punishment in relation to his presidency is sure to awaken critics who are anxious to castigate such notion as a perpetual vestige of the man’s military regime, serially discredited during the past election.
But Mr. President should not waver. Buhari does not need to be reminded that his impeccable track record against indiscipline remains the prime seal of his contract with the Nigerian masses. Moreover, not only is leadership contingent upon the prevailing environment, effective democracies are consistent with accountability, checks and balances and, of course, consequences. A mere tampering of electric meter in the State of Texas, USA, for instance, is treated as a felony let alone any threat to national security like the endemic sabotage of oil and gas pipelines. Where there are no serious consequences for bad behaviours, the bad behaviours usually worsen. And that has been the Nigeria ’s Achilles’ heel for the longest time.
(Dr. Ogbonnia is the Chairman of First Texas Energy Corporation)