Ending electricity outage in Freetown takes a step closer to reality

The Sierra Leone Telegraph: 20 June 2013

Sierra Leone’s electricity problem could become a thing of the past, if the newly announced World Bank and DFID’s $16 million funded project succeeds. But where did it all go so badly wrong?

Many in Sierra Leone believe that the hosting of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) conference in Freetown by president Siaka Stevens, in the early 1980s marked the beginning of a nation in decay.

The government of Sierra Leone borrowed over $500 million to stage that conference, which clearly it could not afford, leaving the country in a state of paralysis.

With such misplaced priorities, the APC government neglected key sectors such as education, health and social care, as corruption and the misappropriation of public funds became rampant.

Government spending on maintaining and developing vital utilities – electricity and water supply in response to rising demand, fell by more than 80%, as the nation grinds to a halt and abject poverty consumed almost every household, except for the few in power.

By the end of the war in 2001, Freetown had become known as one of the darkest cities in the world. Fuel meant to power electricity generating stations was stolen by corrupt officials for private sale in the black market.

The elected government of Tejan Kabbah, which ruled Sierra Leone for the most part of the late 1990s to the end of the war in 2001 and until it lost the general elections of 2007, did not prioritize the provision of electricity, despite the perpetual darkness suffered by most households.

However, it did resume the reconstruction of the Bumbuna Hydro-electricity dam by spending over $200 million on the project, without generating a single watt of electricity.

Whilst the Kabbah government was investing millions of dollars laying down the infrastructure for the distribution of electricity across the country, criminal gangs including senior APC operatives were alleged to have stolen the copper wires needed for the success of the project.

No one was brought to justice for that crime, including the younger brother of president Koroma who was also accused of theft.

When president Koroma won the 2007 elections, he made the instant supply of electricity a key priority for his government.

And within months of taking office, Freetown – the country’s capital was glowing, as the electricity power stations were brought back to life.

This impressive supply of electricity across most parts of Freetown, which was funded by massive government borrowing and support from the World Bank, came at a very high  price.

For the most part of the last five years, the government has been spending over $5 million a week on fuel, needed to generate the electricity that kept the urban residents happy in Freetown. This level of government spending on fuel could not be sustained.

The promised massive expansion in government revenue through taxation and exports, under the government’s acclaimed Agenda for Change, did not materialize.

The government’s dependency on foreign aid had to continue, although this too has been significantly reduced.

According to the finance minister, speaking recently in Freetown, the government has lost over 10% of its foreign aid in the last three years alone.

The embezzlement of state funds is chasing away much needed foreign investments, and discouraging and curtailing foreign donor funds.

The government of president Koroma has been forced by the international community to re-prioritize his government’s spending programme towards health, education and the provision of safe, clean drinking water – under his yet to be published – all new Agenda for Prosperity.

In the meantime Freetown has once again returned to the dark ages, as most parts of the city suffer acute blackouts, posing high risks of social and political instability.

Safe, clean drinking water has become a precious commodity, few can afford, prompting questions about the sincerity of president Koroma in tackling corruption.

Despite several indictments of state officials, no government minister or senior party official has been imprisoned for corruption, whilst the government is now putting measures in place to arrest and jail the country’s journalists who dare to speak out.

But today’s announcement by the World Bank, that it has signed an agreement with the government of president Koroma to fund an energy ‘resuscitation’ programme, must be regarded as a ray of light at the end of a very dark tunnel.

The World Bank will provide matched funding of $16 million towards the project, which is being co-financed by the British government, through its Department for International Development (DFID).

The money will go directly to the government of Sierra Leone in support of its Infrastructure Development Programme, though there are widespread fears this money could disappear in a black hole through corruption.

So how will this money be spent?

According to the World Bank, $13.3 million will be spent on the rehabilitation of primary distribution network, loss reduction and improvement of the National Power Authority’s operational and commercial performance; £1.4 million and $1.2 million will be spent on rural electrification and project implementation respectively.

The World Bank says that electricity access and consumption in Sierra Leone are among the lowest in Africa, and that as a driver of economic growth, improving access to electricity is essential to Sierra Leone’s Poverty Reduction Strategy.

According to the Bank, Sierra Leone’s limited and ageing power infrastructure for the generation, transmission and distribution of electricity, is a major constraint to expanding electricity access in the country, which it says remains below 10 percent. (Photo: Finance minister Marah).

This is the same rate of access to electricity that prevailed in Sierra Leone in the 1980s, under the APC government.

The World Bank agrees that “sparse coverage and unreliable electricity service, particularly exacerbates poverty conditions. Public electricity services are limited to selected areas.”

The World Bank says that it approved the ‘Energy Access Project’ on January 31, 2013, in order to help ameliorate these problems and alleviate the suffering of the people of Sierra Leone.

“Overcoming the monumental challenges of improving access and quality of power supply is of critical importance for enhancing economic transformation in Sierra Leone”, said Francis Ato-Brown – World Bank Country Manager.

Mr. Brown explained that; “This $16 million project is aimed firstly at reducing losses in electricity supply in Freetown, by investing in the rehabilitation of critical components of NPA’s network, which is the most urgent step to enable expanded and more reliable electricity supply.

“Secondly, the project will improve the commercial performance of the National Power Authority (NPA), through the supply and installation of a Business Information System and metering equipment at NPA, which will help raise collection rates and overall commercial performance of the utility.

“And thirdly, the project will contribute to improving access to electricity in rural areas, through a pilot program for installing PV systems in schools and hospitals in one village in each of the 14 administrative districts in the country.”

The World Bank says that the Energy Access Project is consistent with and provides the complementary strategic capacity building and investment resources, which will help put Sierra Leone’s power sector on a more sustainable footing.

“It is complementary to the recently approved Sierra Leone Infrastructure Development Fund (SLIDF), not only because of its targeted investments in both primary and secondary networks and protection systems, but also because of the emphasis on upgrading NPA’s managerial and implementation capacities, the Bank emphasised”, says the World Bank,

“We are delighted that the World Bank has continued to broaden and deepen its role in the development of our country and today’s signing agreement is turning point in the energy sector as we prepare to launch the agenda for prosperity”, says the country’s minister of finance and economic development – Dr. Kaifala Marah.