By Magnus Eze
A national embarrassment emanated from the National Assembly February 7, 2017, when the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, headed by Senator Monsurat Sunmonu, screened ambassadorial nominees in the dark.
The committee, which was screening the non-career nominees, had barely screened six of them when power was interrupted during the turn of Mr. Baba Ahmad Jidda, a nominee from Borno State.
The proceedings stopped momentarily for about three minutes before Senator Ali Ndume urged the committee to continue and it resorted to rechargeable lamps until power was restored over one hour later. Cameramen from media organisations, who were not armed with lamps in anticipation of the blackout, had to use smartphone torchlights to provide illumination for their shots.
The video clip of that collective embarrassment has since gone viral on the social media.
However, if the National Assembly Complex was lucky to have power restored after one hour, it was not so for the neighbouring Federal Secretariat Complex, where blackouts have become a way of life.
It was indeed a disgraceful scenario at the conference room of the Federal Ministry of Labour and Employment, January 18, 2017, as the reign of darkness in the Federal Secretariat Complex marred a meeting between the Federal Government and representatives of the then striking National Association of Academic Technologists (NAAT), Non-Academic Staff Union of Educational and Associated Institutions (NASU) and the Senior Staff Association of Nigerian Universities (SSANU).
The meeting, which lasted for over six hours under very unfriendly weather conditions, with participants lamenting the heat, was suspended at about 7:30pm to be continued the following day; the minister, Dr. Chris Ngige, relied on flashlights of phones and the lamps of television cameras to present the outcome of the meeting to the public.
In fact, Ngige commended the participants, especially members of the universities’ Joint Action Committee, for negotiating under very uncomfortable conditions occasioned by the blackout in the secretariat.
However, NAAT president, Mr. Sani Suleiman, who spoke on behalf of his colleagues, lamented the harsh conditions under which the parley was held. He noted that accepting to negotiate in the stifling heat and darkness of the meeting room was a sign of patriotism and their desire to resolve the issues in dispute.
If Ngige could bear the blackout and sweltering heat, not so for his aviation counterpart, Senator Hadi Sirika. The minister moved at last minute the inauguration of the security sub-committee on the Abuja Airport runway closure, scheduled for his office at the Federal Secretariat on February 2, 2017, to the Federal Ministry of Transportation, Bukar Dipcharima House, Central Business District, ostensibly because of the power outage in the secretariat.
Aviation correspondents were already assembling at the Ministry of Aviation that morning, only to be told via text message that the venue of the event had been changed “due to power issues at the Federal Secretariat.”
The foregoing was one of the several government activities that have either been shifted or cancelled because of the shortage of electricity at the secretariat complex.
In fact, the expansive edifice was in the dark for the greater part of last year and coming into 2017. Daily Sun’s investigations showed that the outage was attributable to the huge debts owed the Abuja Electricity Distribution Company (AEDC) by the ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs).
Some workers who spoke with Daily Sun said that phases I, II and III of the Federal Secretariat have been without power for almost four weeks this year. They urged the Federal Government to settle the accumulated electricity bills owed the AEDC, to enable the civil servants perform their duties effectively.
An anonymous respondent in the Federal Ministry of Education described the electicity situation as “very worrisome.”
“We heard that we have been cut off from electricity supply because of accumulated unpaid bills by various establishments. We were told that the government owes a huge sum of money to the AEDC. The situation is really affecting the way and manner workers come to work. I can tell you boldly that workers’ productivity is zero since most of them no longer come to work as usual and those who could make it to the office only come to mark attendance,” he said.
Another source, who pleaded anonymity, claimed that workers in the secretariat, due to power outage, had alternative days, among colleagues, on when to come to work.
“Due to the power outage, workers now rotate and liaise among themselves when to come to work and days they should be ‘off’ to reduce cost of transportation and redundancy.’’
Another civil servant who gave her name as Hauwa, said that, “The worst part of this is that those who come to work are seen roaming around, sitting outside or standing in groups discussing, as if they came for an interview. This is a sorry sight for the country.”
Her appeal to the Federal Government to take urgent steps in restoring dignity to the Federal Secretariat seemed to have received positive attention last week as power was eventually restored to the secretariat.
While the blackout lasted, workers at the Federal Secretariat Complex deserted their offices, complaining that the situation impacted negatively on productivity, reduced office working hours and forced them to loiter around the complex, in addition to late resumption and early closure of work.
A staff of the Federal Ministry of Communication, who gave his name simply as Mr. Okoi, described the cutting off of electricity supply as an embarrassment. He wondered why the same government demanding for the payment of utility bills in every sector was a culprit in not paying bills.
He urged government to “investigate and prosecute whoever that is saddled with the responsibility of ensuring the payment of bills,” stressing that “we cannot continue this way, no electricity to pump water for the toilets and everywhere smells.”
For Mrs. Titilola Benson, the power issue posed severe health challenges given that the elevators were not functional: “Even though I know that exercise is good for one’s health, but it is not easy climbing up and down the staircase to the 11th floor all the time at my age, with health challenges.’’
More worrisome implications
Aside from other setbacks, the power outage at the Federal Secretariat was a big blow to the nation’s image as visitors, including foreigners, with business to do at the complex were also at the receiving end.
They suffered in the heat and laboured to climb the staircases of the high rise building because the elevators were not working.
An angry civil servant in the Federal Ministry of Aviation, refusing to be named, stated that, “The Federal Secretariat, especially Phase I, is a place that houses eight ministers of the Federal Republic of Nigeria with very important ministries and parastatals.
“How can there be power outage for the past three weeks now even going to the fourth week in the Federal Capital, without any solution? It is unfair; how does government expect workers to work or give account of their daily productivity?”
Daily Sun gathered that it was a big challenge handling the sanitary situation of the conveniences because of the unavailability of water.
Although alternative power source was not allowed at the complex, Mr. Peter Namdas disclosed that the provision of a new generator for the elevators eventually helped the water and sanitation situation.
“Thank God that they have been able to provide a separate generator to power the lifts and pump water to the various floors. Honestly, it has not been easy for workers,” he said.
A health, safety and environment expert, Mr. Matthew Okorie, explained the security implications of such a gigantic edifice staying for weeks without power.
In the event of an emergency or catastrophe, Okorie said, the casualty figures could be better imagined than witnessed, adding that the power outage had rendered the metal detectors installed in parts of the secretariat useless.
Cause of blackout
It could not be confirmed precisely how much the MDAs owed the AEDC on power consumed at the Federal Secretariat, but Daily Sun’s checks showed that the MDAs collectively owed the Abuja distribution company (disco) N18.6 billion.
Discos had complained that the debt was impacting negatively on their operations, with their liquidity levels becoming tight.
Managing director of AEDC, Mr. Ernest Mupwaya, at a meeting with the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Mr. Babatunde Fashola late last year, disclosed that AEDC was unable to meet the request for a letter of credit to the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading Plc and equally participate in the Central Bank of Nigeria’s market support fund due to the huge debt owed by the MDAs.
However, provision has been made for funds in the 2017 budget to defray the debts owed discos by the MDAs.
When contacted at the weekend to find out the cause of the perennial power outage at the Federal Secretariat, AEDC head of media, Mr. Ahmed Shekarau, quoting the area manager, said that no section of the complex was disconnected from the grid or had any technical issue. He explained that the frequent outage there in recent times “may be due to load shedding as a result of system instability.”
There is no denying that power was restored to the edifice last week, but what is yet to be ascertained is the economic loss, including accumulated productivity loss, during the long blackout. Even banks in the complex were not spared as their operations were also severely hampered, as some of them relied on inverters for skeletal services.