Rolling blackouts, heatwave and tales from dead bulbs, by Azu Ishiekwene

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I don’t know how it is in your part of town. But it’s been a nightmare in mine, a supposedly middle-class residential area in Abuja, Nigeria’s federal capital. Rolling blackouts do not begin to explain the depth of the misery. It’s been a dreadful time of rolling and erratic blackouts. Like surfing an angry wave, if you understand what I mean.

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Generators and other alternative sources of power, mostly inverters, solar panels and repurposed domestic gas, have replaced public power supply. Private power supply has become the main source; while public supply, if you ever get it, has become the back up.

At 144 kwh per hour annually, Nigeria is grossly underpowered. It is 80 percent below expectations, with Ghana consuming twice as much, Tunisia over 10 times and South Africa, over 30 times as much power.

The epileptic power supply has flooded my mind with memories of what I used to think of folks at the public power company (we used to call it NEPA) in my younger days.

I still think the demons there do what they used to do – just messing around with light switches as if it was a game of tumbo, tumbo, bas kalaba… Out of shame, however, or perhaps incredulity, I’m not inclined to express my layman’s view of these malicious spoilsports at public power substations as openly as I used to in my younger days.

What I have witnessed in the last two or three weeks with public power supply has however exhumed the scarecrow from my past. I’ve been around a bit and visited such African countries as Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Mozambique, among others.

I cannot remember anywhere with the sort of maddening erratic supply that I have seen in my neighbourhood and workplace recently. I’m tempted to think that, like a number of things Nigerian, there is a peculiarity about the rolling blackouts that make them nearly impossible to replicate elsewhere.

Dead bulbs tell tales

One day in the last week of February, for example, the light went off and came back, surging each time at different frequencies, four times in less than 10 minutes. It was as if someone somewhere was testing the supply or that in my confused state, I never quite saw the light come on before it went off again. That was late evening, after work. I’m not counting how many other times this erratic supply may have occurred after I went to bed that night. But the evidence was waiting the next day.

By morning, I was left with the remains of five dead bulbs and a damaged changeover switch which was barely one year old. It will cost me more than twice the minimum wage of N30,000 to replace the switch alone. These are the only more recent casualties of erratic power supply in my house. I’m not counting the electric kettle or the power stabilisers. On top of that, I have bought more UPSs than I can count. I even use a few of the remnants damaged by erratic power supply as domestic props!

Neighbour from hell

I’m not going to discuss the trauma that comes from generator pollution and noise. I was so distraught by the noise from the generator on one side of my flat that I tinkered with the idea of buying a replacement for the owner, not out of love or abundance, but to preserve my sanity.

Poor fellow! He can’t seem to wait for the light-switch flippers at the Abuja Electricity Distribution Company, AEDC, to turn off the lights before he powers on his contraption. And even when the alarm sounds that light is back, he still leaves the damn thing chugging!

If you live around my neighbourhood or even elsewhere around many parts of the country from where I have also received similar complaints of insurgent blackouts, you may consider noise, the loss of five bulbs in one day or a few UPSs small potatoes.

I imagine that folks may have lost more valuable appliances or suffered more severe emotional and material setbacks. There was a report last week that Nigeria’s Senate stood down proceedings and adjourned indefinitely amidst the power crisis.

But Discos, being Discos, no one can file any legal claims.

Heatwave troubles

The current heatwave has further highlighted our collective misery. With diesel and petrol at over 106 percent higher than their prices one year ago, only those who have solar panels can hope to enjoy a measure of relief for now.

Fossil-fuel powered generators are costlier to run as are inverters, which also depend on primary sources of power to charge. So, those who wish to use some form of cooling at home – especially at night – to keep their heads for the next day, have a difficult choice: spend more on alternative energy or just suffer and smile.

I had a particularly interesting night the day before I wrote this article. I had gone to bed at about 11pm with the generator humming and left an instruction that it should be left on for another two hours. Apparently, less than one hour after I slept, the public power supply was restored and the generator turned off. But as usual, that didn’t last. This was on a day when daytime temperature was about 40 degrees.

Somewhere, in the depths of slumber, I began to feel as if my mattress had been replaced with a cauldron and that the sheets were thermal fabrics. I was in that place between sleeping and waking up, where your spirit is dying to sleep but your body is wracked by discomfort.

The body prevailed and I soon noticed I was sweating like a labourer! I crawled out of my bed and on this hot, airless night, I had to decide between opening only a few windows or opening all the windows with the mosquito nets drawn back. Who, for heaven’s sake, is toying with the lights at AEDC that I cannot even have two straight hours of electricity?

Misery source

Is it all inevitable? Is it all down to poor gas supply at the power stations; compromised grids and transmission lines. Is it, as some have suggested, a lack of competence among the Discos that have also been accused of feeding off the assets they inherited during the privatisation without investing one naira since?

I called my cousin who works at an electricity company for possible answers. I’m still trying to digest his response. Erratic supply – the kind that imitates trafficators – he said, can be caused by several factors. He called the problem, “feeder tripping”. According to him, anything from a bird perching on the wire to a colony of ants at the feeder base or even an adventurous tree branch, can cause a feeder trip.

He said even though staff at the substation are supposed to pick up such signals and act on them, it’s hardly the case and therefore distressed customers like me are advised to call and complain.

Customer service by phone in Nigeria when it’s not a bank teller calling you to ask why your account is inactive is hell. I hardly bother, and I’m unlikely going to start with electricity companies. I’m still trying to figure out how or why we cannot enjoy a minimum X-hour of electricity supply a day, at least under a load-shedding plan that allows consumers to keep their sanity. This story of stray birds, angry ants and stray tree branches don’t make sense to me.

All I can think of, right now, especially in the furnace of our current existence, is to assume that there are some switch-trigger-happy fellows at that substation delighted to ruin as much of my domestic appliances as they can and keep me miserably uncomfortable night and day, just because they can!

I’m counting days until this heatwave is over and hopefully, I’ll once again get some deserved respite, especially at night, with or without “NEPA”!


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