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‘It’s a story of corruption, greed and ineptitude’

Nigeria
Africa
23.07.15-Credit-Patrick-Kane-590x393.jpg

Nigerian activist Ken Henshaw. © Patrick Kane

Sitting in the Oxford sunshine, Ken Henshaw is telling me how proud he is of the solar panel on his Port Harcourt house. ‘In Nigeria, you are your own government and energy company!’ he jokes, describing the lengths to which he has gone to connect his home to a power source. He also had to buy a pump to access clean water, and runs his own sewage system. ‘The government has abdicated all responsibility at the local level,’ he explains, allowing oil companies in his home region – the Niger Delta – to step in and buy off polluted communities by providing necessary schools and health centres.

Ken knows he is one of the lucky ones – he can afford to generate his own power. The vast majority of Nigerians are dependent on national energy supplies, which is a desperate position to be in right now.

Ken is in Britain to challenge the Department of International Development (DFID) over its support for Nigeria’s recent disastrous energy privatization. ‘The Nigerian government has gone for the worst form of privatization available,’ he explains. ‘It is a story of corruption, greed and ineptitude. They sold off public assets to their friends, who had no expertise and no intention of actually providing power. They laid off over 14,000 workers and had to use more than half of the $3 billion they sold it for to compensate them.’

Tariffs have increased sharply since the sell-off. There are fixed charges just for being connected, and Nigerians are not charged for how much electricity they actually use – they must pay whatever they are asked to

As a result, the 67 per cent of Nigerians who live below the poverty line are finding themselves unable to access electricity at all. Ken lays out for me the 3 big problems with the new privatized power system. First, tariffs have increased sharply in the 4 years since the sell-off was agreed. Second, there are new fixed charges just for being connected, even if there is no power available – essentially a regressive tax on the poor and energy-efficient which has already sparked protests. Third, Nigerians are not charged for how much electricity they actually use. Their bills are estimated and they must pay whatever they are asked to.

‘It’s a major crisis that has resulted in what little energy is available being channelled to the rich suburbs,’ concludes Ken. The poor majority, who used to have pretty good if unreliable access, are back in the dark.

Epic struggles

Power in Nigeria has long been a problem. Power cuts and intermittent supply have plagued the country for decades, forcing those who can afford it to rely on noisy, polluting, diesel-guzzling generators. In such a huge country with bad infrastructure, it doesn’t make sense to have one central power system. But when the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank) arrived and said they could solve the problem through privatization, the Nigerian government jumped at the chance.

‘Nigerians were blackmailed into it,’ says Ken, who is scathing about the British government’s role in encouraging this catastrophe to take place. ‘DFID have earmarked $80 million to support the privatization process. We have no idea where that money’s going. When I met them this week they couldn’t tell me, although they are funding the [free-market] Adam Smith International as contractors. They admitted the privatization has failed, but when I talked about energy democracy, about communities owning and generating their own renewable electricity, it seemed they’d never thought of that. All of DFID’s plans to help countries generate power are tied to fossil fuels – only a tiny percentage is dedicated to renewables.’

The campaign for energy democracy in Nigeria is just beginning, says Ken. ‘Nigerians are getting angry. We are asking for a decentralized system of community-controlled solar and wind power. Privatization doesn’t work on any count.’

Ken is no stranger to epic struggles against corrupt vested interests and the abuse of power. He grew up in the oil-rich Niger Delta region, joining the struggle for environmental justice and self-determination as a teenager. At university, he was elected national president of the influential National Association of Nigerian Students. He was part of the pro-democracy movement that brought military dictatorship to an end, and was involved in the 2012 uprising against fuel costs and the current mobilization to force Shell to clean up the Niger Delta.

Now he works for Social Action, an NGO for which he was a founding staff member in 2007. In his words, it ‘intervenes directly on the side of the people in the fight for economic and environmental justice.’ It supports community education, mobilization and solidarity around energy, mining, trade and investment that is affecting human rights, democracy and livelihoods.

For a man who has been at the heart of such intense struggles for most of his life, even imprisoned by the military dictatorship, his determination and continued commitment to justice seem undiminished. I met him just after he’d given a talk to a feisty bunch of Oxford schoolchildren. ‘I told them that life expectancy in the Niger Delta is 46 years old. They asked ‘how old are you?’ When I told them I was 38, they said “Oh that means you’ve only got eight years left!”’ As he guffawed with laughter it was obvious that this fierce passion suffused with humour is one source of energy that should give Nigerians hope for the future.

Sign the petition to ask development minister Grant Shapps to stop wasting UK aid money on this failed scheme: globaljustice.org.uk/stop

Read the Global Justice Now briefing on the Department of International Development and energy privatization.