THE part of Kampala where we are currently staying has been having a very African problem nearly every night – the power goes out until well past midnight.
Meanwhile, in far off eastern Tanzania, Bukoba had electricity. Tanzania’s electricity industry is a disgraceful shambles. Bukoba, though, suffers the least power outages. The reason for that is that Bukoba gets most of its power from Uganda.
So while most of the rest of Tanzania was in pain, and part of Uganda’s capital Kampala was in darkness, they were partying away and serving cold beers in Bukoba – thanks to Uganda’s power.
Most of Africa, even its leading economy South Africa, endures severe electricity disruptions. One of my favourite maps shows the various continents by night. While you can see many large swathes of lit up spaces in most continents from outer space, apart from tiny parts of Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Nigeria, South Africa, and Kenya, most of the rest of Africa is pitch dark.
The explorers and early colonials called Africa the “Dark Continent” not because it didn’t have lights, or because of the complexion of (most) the people who inhabit it, but because little was known about it, and the bit that was, was often unfathomable to Europeans. Today, though, because of how often parts of it go without power, it is actually pitch dark to an impartial satellite.
TRYING TO FIX THE PAIN
To deal with the power crisis, all African countries have taken a few or many of the following four approaches to solving the crisis: 1. Increased power production by building more dams. 2. Diversified into greener and more sustainable sources like thermal, solar, and wind. 3. Fully or partially privatised power generation and distribution. 4. Revamped the grid.
While some countries, like Ethiopia, have seen improvements, others like Tanzania, Uganda, and Nigeria have seen sharp rises in power costs, and more disruptions despite the “reforms”.
I suspect the real solution could be in something that is anathema in Africa – break up the national power generation and distribution firms into smaller regional companies. Countries could have Northern, Southern, Central, Western, and Eastern electricity companies. The so-called “national grid” would then come from linking up the regional power companies.
Right now, what goes for national grids in most countries are essentially regional ones, because large parts of many African nations remain in the Stone Age as far as electricity goes.
Now, so many things could go wrong in this scenario: Regional power companies could be captured by local mafias, and the people there would end up paying even higher prices. Then, you could have a bunch of corrupt incompetents taking control of regional power companies and running them down, leaving the consumers worse off than they are today.
Then you could just have huge inefficiencies, with some regions having power surpluses, and others deficits.
However, some or all of these problems could be solved by regionalisation. With the right governance structures, regional power authorities could be made more accountable than the remote energy oligarchs in far away capitals that we have today.
Crime-infested regional power markets and incompetent ones could be punished by the free hand of the market: Businesses will flee the rotten regions, eventually leaving the corrupt with nothing to feed on. Hopefully, in the long run, long-suffering regions would rise and revolt against their power mafias. If not, they deserve to suffer.
As for the inefficiencies, regions with surpluses and that are better at producing power, should be smart enough to sell it to the deficit areas. This hard deal-making over real issues, could actually serve more to unite countries than all the empty rhetoric about nationalism and patriotism that Africans are fed on.
However, the best thing is that the present situation where whole countries are punished when ruling parties appoint idiotic functionaries to run the energy sector, or where business cronies of corrupt politicians suck the industry dry, would be no more. Better two regions suffer, than all six.
Kenya’s Constituency Development Fund (CDF) offers us a good example why a decentralisation of the power industry would be good – and bad for Africa.
The plain robbery, abuse, and crass nepotism involving CDFs in some constituencies in Kenya are shameful. Some MPs pack the CDF Committees with their campaign managers, ignorant relatives and wives, who squander most of the money.
Some do a bloody good job of it. A constituency that many donors and diplomats like to visit to see the success of CDF is wanna-be president and assistant minister Peter Kenneth’s Gatanga.
As one UN diplomat put it, the difference between Gatanga where CDF money has worked near-wonders, and some of the corrupt backward ones is “nearly 20 years”.
The same accolades are also paid to Rev. Mutava Musyimi’s Gachoka constituency.
Until the CDF was introduced by the Mwai Kibaki government, all of Kenya wallowed in poverty and suffering under the KANU government of Daniel arap Moi.
I asked a Kenyan friend whose insights I value whether Kenneth, based on his Gatanga CDF record, will make any impression as a presidential candidate later this year.
His answer was quick and straightforward: “No, he won’t, because he has ‘no tribal’ content”.
Let me explain. Kenneth is a Kikuyu from Central Kenya. However, what my friend meant by him not having sufficient “tribal content”, is that he is of mixed race. One of his parents is white. In other words, he is not black enough.
Likewise, competent managers who could make a difference to the power industries in many African countries will just never get the jobs because they don’t have sufficient sectarian content. They are either from the “wrong” tribes – or religions, regions, or sympathise with the “wrong” parties.
Breaking up the power companies into regional organisations will open doors for intelligent energy experts from small tribes, to bring their skills to bear. Put crudely, the solution to solving Africa’s energy crisis could be to democratically tribalise it.