(ECONOMIST) The president is launching Africa’s most ambitious privatisation scheme shortly before facing a tight election
THE e-mail from Nigeria claimed to come from an aide to the president and touted a business opportunity with potentially vast returns. But unlike similar-sounding messages from Nigerian princes and finance ministers—known in Nigeria as “419” scams after a section of the penal code—this one seemed genuine.
President Goodluck Jonathan, who early next year will stand in an election that could split his party and spark violent protests, has asked investors to participate in a grandiose privatisation programme meant to raise $35 billion over ten years. He wants to flog state power-generation and distribution companies, and put the grid under private management.
The scheme may be his—and his country’s—best hope of salvation from chronic power cuts. At a prayer meeting on October 4th Mr Jonathan was reading a biblical passage in front of many of the country’s elite when the grid failed and his microphone cut out. He walked off in a huff.
Ordinary Nigerians are angry too. The power supply, they say, is “epileptic”. Nigeria is a big oil exporter, but its people get only a few hours of electricity a day. The entire population–around 150m–is said to use as much grid power as the area around Narita airport in Tokyo. South Africans consume 55 times more energy per head, and Americans 100 times more.
The problem is not new. Nigeria’s power supply has been stagnant for 30 years. During the tumultuous 1990s there was no investment despite surging demand. Since then, generation capacity has risen by half but distribution is so dysfunctional that actual supply has remained flat. One result is a laughably small manufacturing sector, about 4% of GDP.
There have been reform attempts in the past. The Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), the monopoly supplier, is known to consumers as Please Have Candle Nearby. Five years ago it replaced the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), nicknamed Never Expect Power Again. Mischarging and other sins continued. “I just got a bill for the last four months but had no lights for three,” says a doctor 20 miles (32km) outside the capital, Abuja.
To survive, many Nigerians have their own power plants, creating the world’s highest concentration of small-scale generators. Two-thirds of all electricity is produced in basements and backyards, at a cost of $13 billion a year. Generator merchants say the government is their best client. Some have set up steel plants to keep up with demand. One has 3,000 workers assembling the grunting machines.
All this could change if the privatisation scheme succeeds. It aims to raise $3.5 billion a year and boost the power supply 13-fold over a decade. The government is offering to guarantee some bank loans and may cap the interest at 7%. At a recent conference in Abuja Mr Jonathan wooed hundreds of investors, including executives from Goldman Sachs and General Electric.
Other African leaders are watching closely, sensing that this may prove to be a test bed for the continent. Some, though not all (see article), are asking what alternatives there are to growing dependence on Chinese investment. Like most of its neighbours, Nigeria is making big infrastructure deals with China. In May, it inked a $23 billion Chinese oil refinery project. But Mr Jonathan acknowledges that China’s interest in Africa is no panacea. The case for privatisation will get a boost if he can keep the lights on at home.
There are reasons to be optimistic. The programme has a sound legal basis. It follows a conventional privatisation model. Its pricing scheme seems transparent. That has reassured investors. They also welcome the easy access to local-currency loans in Nigeria, one of Africa’s most developed capital markets. And they like the country’s strong GDP growth, expected to top 7% this year.
Yet there is still plenty to worry about. Supplying new power stations with gas is a headache, as is recruiting competent staff. But it is the politics of privatisation that investors fear most. There will be plenty of losers, many with vocal lobbies. Trade unions are protesting against staff cuts, although the president has set aside money for compensation. Consumers fear steep price hikes. The fuel mafia that supplies generator owners is up in arms.
Even more worrying, the corrupt state bureaucracy is drooling in anticipation. The influx of billions of dollars will create long queues at the trough. Observers warn of the “rascality” of Nigerian officials.
The president says he will work hard to make his privatisation plan work. To convince investors, he has appointed himself electricity minister and scheduled weekly power summits (11am on Tuesdays). He has also surrounded himself with men familiar to potential investors. The central bank governor and the finance minister are career bankers with experience abroad. He calls them his “war cabinet”, although they have limited influence.
The strongest pitch the government could make would be its own re-election. Voting is due early next year and for the first time in recent history the outcome is uncertain. The president’s party—dominant since the end of military rule 11 years ago—cannot agree on a nominee. The losers in a forthcoming primary may break away. One-party rule could end.
As the election campaign picks up pace, the president’s focus is likely to drift and electricity may return to the back burner. Or perhaps it already has. At the two-day conference in Abuja, Mr Jonathan failed to show up for the second day. Apparently, he was lured away to another meeting by his wife, Dame Patience, who is one of his closest advisers.
For now, privatisation is wobbling along and some deals may be done. But consumers will have to wait until next year before they can even think about turning off their generators. Good luck and patience will both be needed.