Nigerian communities challenge corporate power in quest for Energy Democracy

July 24, 2014
Boldwin Anugwara
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That Nigeria is facing power supply challenge is an understatement. But the Executive Director, Environmental Rights Action/Friends of the Earth Nigeria (ERA/FoEN), Dr Godwin Uyi Ojo, in this interview with CHARLES OKONJI, says the epileptic power supply has an exit date if only Nigeria embraces energy democracy. Excerpts:

You have been advocating energy democracy. Can you explain to us what you mean by energy democracy?

The world is operating an energy system that tended to be monopolistic in the sense that few corporations around the world have taken over the space of energy and as a result, they have made business out of it. Not only that, the kind of energy system being operated in the world depends on gigantic infrastructures, which provide the grid lines, power stations, supply lines and others. This makes it difficult to produce energy at a low price. So, energy, at the moment, is capital intensive. Energy democracy will address all these issues. By

diversifying the sources of energy, by ensuring that rather than the energy sources being monopolised by a few corporations, communities and individuals will now be involved in the production of energy, supply of energy and maintenance of energy. This energy system is calling for ownership of renewable sources of energy. This energy source needs not be of gigantic infrastructure. It is an energy system that communities can design, operate and manage. It requires low technology input and little finances. This is the energy democracy that I am advocating that should be in the hands of the majority of the people and communities, but not in the hands of a few corporations.

Are you saying it is very different from the conventional types like turbines and hydro?

It is very different in the sense that this is small scale, people-powered, people-managed and it is not intended for profit. Cost recovery is allowable, but there is nowhere the shareholders are going to sit around the table and share dividends. So, this is a system that will utilise local expertise. We are talking of renewable sources of energy. We are talking of solar, wind farm and others, which communities can own and operate themselves. We are talking of small scale dams instead of big dams that will gulf millions of dollars. We are talking of small scale dams, which communities can construct and manage. In that sense, it is different.

The implication of this is that even though it is a small scale, it will still require initial huge capital to put it in place, unlike the big turbine and hydro-electric power plant being built by government and people will just be paying a token as electricity bill. How do you reconcile this?

We are calling for decentralisation of the energy system in terms of production, supply and management. When you remove the overhead cost from all this, the amount involved in the execution and implementation of the energy project becomes very little and manageable. Now, government wants to construct trans-Sahara gas pipeline. At the moment, the government is looking at $12 billion loan in addition to the West African Gas Pipeline (WAGP) to extend it to Algeria through the Sahara desert to Europe. Of whose benefit, is this type of energy? So, we are calling for local scale energy producing system that will take cognisance of the energy need of the people rather than the energy for the elite or energy for export.

How will this help to tackle the crisis in the Niger Delta?

The amount of energy that is available to the people can be a major source of their social status. So, if you agree that majority of Nigerians are poor, it is also simply because they lack access to energy. Therefore, a diversification of the energy is part of the poverty-reduction measure to bring energy to the doorstep of many people as much as possible. So, the decentralisation of the energy sources is very important in the sense that rather than depends on these gigantic structures, we are advocating for community energy committee – local

energy committee – to take the initiative and begin to put money together to put their system together. All that the government requires is to put in place the right framework to allow this kind of energy transition from fossil fuel, which is responsible for carbon emission into the atmosphere that is leading to climate change due to rising global temperature, to renewable sources of energy. So, we are calling for renewable form of energy framework that will allow as many people as want to be involved in the production and distribution of energy.

Will it be quite different from the rural electrification system, which the government is implementing?

It is very different. Rural electrification system is also a system that is tied to the grid. But remember that we said that this system is going to be non-grid. We are talking of solar, wind farm and others. We are talking of small scale hydro power station and others, which are very minimal in terms of cost. Yes, it can have a fulfillment of rural electrification, but it will produce the result at a greater level and distribute electricity at a faster space.

Which other countries have you seen this practice?

This is new. We are calling for energy transition from fossil fuel to renewable sources of energy. The world is currently facing planetary crisis due to climate change. One way that the world is looking at it is projecting to the industrialised nations that they should cut emission at source. If they should cut emission at source, they will reduce the level of energy consumption and also reduce the level of carbon emission in the atmosphere. While the North is already enjoying tremendous over-consumption of energy, many people in the source, such as Nigeria, over 80 per cent has no electricity.

So, the point we are making is that, although it is new, there is an observable trend in Europe, United Kingdom, Sweden and other countries where energy production is now in local hands – the communities – and they send this to the national grid and they are paid certain amount of money in return for generating electricity in their own houses and feeding into the national grid. So, this system of energy is new and it is spreading. We are only advocating that Nigeria should not be left out. But the government needs to intensify more efforts, put in money resources by way of statutory allocation and budget. Government should rise beyond using solar as a beautification project. Rather, government should see it as a way of energy delivery to the poor.

How do you hope to push this issue for the government to accept it?

We are making contribution to the Energy Review Commission on energy production in Nigeria. We have been able to emphasise the need for energy transition from fossil fuel to renewable energy. So, we keep engaging with the government. We were in the last review for the Energy Commission and we made contribution. We will continue to engage. But the essential thing is that Nigeria should not be left behind in the new energy democratisation that is beginning to take shape throughout the world.

In South Africa, this is already happening and in other parts of the world. From people and corporation, the energy sector has been totally diversified. So, that is a major point in the right direction in Nigeria as well.

We understand you are against Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD), which is a global issue now. Why?

Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) is a United Nations’ designed project, but it is driven largely by corporation. The bottom-line is to put the forest of local people to the market. To value diversity, they want to convert the forest into carbon stock so that it becomes a product for speculation. In the name of REDD, communities are being driven out of their forests. You will see the signs: ‘No trespass, No- go area, No swimming, No entry.’

So, you become a labourer for wages for looking after the forest. But we know that local communities do not operate like that. Their lives are embedded in the environment; the forest is our lives. As a result, they manage the ecosystem – the forest – in a sustainable manner. They interact with the forest in a way that it will continue to generate livelihood for them. This is why we are against mono-plantation.

We are against REDD because REDD seems to take the right of the people away and put in place a corporation attitude, corporation philosophy or profit. Do not forget that we have asked that the industrialised nations should cut the emission at source. But rather than cut the emission at source, they are coming to tell third world countries, poorer countries, where there is poor judicial system and  where there is so much conflict, to pretend to bring money to the people so that their forests will become a carbon-storing facility. We are vehemently opposed to this.

Originally published on February 12, 2014