No answers on Nigerian energy privatisation

No answers on Nigerian energy privatisation

Date: 26 June 2015

Last week we were excited to host Nigerian energy activist, Ken Henshaw, in the UK. Ken is from the Niger Delta region and so has long been involved in struggles against the corporate control of oil resources in this part of Nigeria. Recently, we’ve been working with him and his organisation, Social Action, to expose and challenge the UK government’s disastrous support for energy privatisation across Nigeria.

At our Shifting Ground conference in Glasgow, Ken spoke powerfully about the price hikes and increasingly regular power cuts that Nigerians have been facing since privatisation took place in 2013, and the way in which this is making electricity less rather than more accessible, particularly to those living in poverty.

During his visit we also, after much chasing of diary secretaries, secured a short meeting with civil servants at the Department for International Development (DfID), so that they could hear first-hand from Ken about the impacts of the project that is being supported with millions from the UK aid budget.

So how did we get on? Well, we were pleased to get a meeting with one of the department’s senior officials, with oversight of DfID’s  activities in West and Southern Africa division (although we’d actually asked to meet development secretary Justine Greening, who has the ultimate say over the whole department).

She and her colleague listened to Ken’s account of the fall in the amount of power being generated, failure to connect more Nigerians to the grid, and protests that have happened in response to rising prices and more blackouts.

They seemed to accept that not enough power is being generated to meet people’s needs, and that even what is available is not, by a long stretch, reaching everyone. But unfortunately they were unable to answer any of our questions about the programme, or address our concerns.

While we plan to follow up with the DfID officials in Nigeria that have responsibility for the project, it was striking that our questions about why reviews of the project don’t contain any measures to assess what impact it is having on Nigerians living in poverty (for example, how many people are connected to the grid, and whether they can afford to access that electricity) went unanswered. We’re not the only ones with these concerns: recently, the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, which monitors DfID’s spending, has criticised the department’s pro-business approach for failing to deliver on poverty reduction.

Equally disappointing is the lack of evidence we have seen for why DfID decided to back privatisation as a means of improving the power system was based on. Ken agreed that the state system that was in place until recently was in need of improvement (although he pointed out that more power was being provided under this set-up than recently). But energy privatisation has a track record of failure, as our briefing shows, and DfID’s own annual review of the project highlights concerns that project strategies don’t reflect an “evidence-based approach”.

Instead, we were asked what alternatives to privatisation we could suggest, with the question seeming to reflect the “there is no alternative” mindset that proponents of privatisation and other neoliberal approaches have been trying to convince us of for decades. While we aren’t promoting one single solution, it does seem like DfID officials could have demonstrated a little more imagination in attempting to help Nigeria’s energy system meet its citizens’ needs. From large-scale rural energy co-operatives in Costa Rica set up with the support of USAID to municipal-owned power grids in Germany, there are plenty of more democratic alternatives to privatisation – and they’re generally doing a much better job of meeting people’s energy needs without trashing the planet.

So what next for the campaign? We want to see DfID shift away from supporting the privatisation approach that has failed time and again to meet people’s energy needs and instead support democratic alternatives that do. We plan to document in greater detail the impact of the privatisation on Nigerians living in poverty, and ramp up pressure on the UK government and the UK’s other political parties to distance themselves from the disastrous reforms that are taking place in Nigeria and elsewhere. At the same time, we want to help build a broad-based movement to demand real democratic solutions to the energy crisis