jeudi 22 octobre 2009

THE ELECTRICAL POWER CUTS IN CAMEROON

This paper is an adaptation of an earlier one I delivered on the Cameroon National Radio Station on the 5th of May 2003, as a spontaneous reaction to the repeated power cuts that rocked the country. The paper was one of the daily political commentaries I delivered on the 6.30 a.m. prime time national and world news on Cameroon Radio Television (CRTV), Yaoundé, between 2002 and 2005.

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No one who lives in or has visited Cameroon recently can claim not to have noticed that the country has been plunged into a crisis of unprecedented proportions, for never before has energy supply been such a bone of contention to so many Cameroonians. Surely, if the damage done to businesses and homes were to be quantified, the figures would be horrifyingly high. And of course, if someone were to dare to take the bull by the horns and sue the national power provider, AES SONEL, for damages, the cost to the latter might be so astronomical that the company would fold up. Yet, as far as the consumer is concerned, the key question remains: who will pick up the pieces, especially as they so much look like those of Humpty Dumpty? That question is pertinent because the gulf between supplier and consumer appears to be deepening and widening by the day. But instead of seeking ways of easing the tension, AES SONEL appears to be digging in its heels and rubbing it in with higher customer bills.

Surely, it may be argued that within the new context of the national electricity board having been privatized, the new owners deemed it necessary to tax consumers a bit more in order to improve services. Under normal circumstances, hardly anyone would quarrel with that approach if the goods were delivered to the customer’s satisfaction, so to speak. But as things stand, not only is offer mediocre, it is getting worse.

Faced with the dilemma, the helpless and impotent consumer has no choice than to cry to the state for salvation. Although it is true that the Prime Minister Head of Government has handed down firm instructions for the situation to be reversed, many still think he should have put his foot down more firmly by taking the same robust action he took previously when Yaounde, the national capital, was plunged into acute water shortages a couple of years ago. At the time, the prime minister simply issued an ultimatum which was taken seriously.

The key players who should implement the decision of the prime minister are the Electricity Regulatory Board, commonly known by its French acronym, ARSEL, and the Ministry of Mines, Water and Energy which is the parent ministerial department. For the minister concerned, the electricity crisis has come to intensify his baptism of fire, previous instances having been the acute shortage of cooking gas and fuel felt in the country.

AES SONEL`s explanation for the crisis situation with power supply is that poor rainfall has led to low voltage which has in turn forced the corporation to ration electricity through a strategy they call `load shedding`, or `délestage`, in French, the other official language of Cameroon. But as the crisis deepens, more and more questions crop up. For instance, why is it that the nation never knew a predicament of such a dimension when SONEL was for years run by the Cameroonian team led by its General Manager, Niat Marcel Njifenji? If the problem is inefficiency, then why does the new team, mainly from North America, not come clean and throw in the towel? Furthermore, how could there have been such a total reliance on rainfall alone to power the turbines, when everyone knows how temperamental and unpredictable the rain can be? Why is it that alternatives such as water fall power or solar electricity have not been sought? Why were no emergency measures, no contingency plans, taken?

Beyond the rhetoric and the semantics, the consumer is interested in knowing when he will be given fair treatment and not be served with a sub standard product coupled with grief and misery. All eyes are on the authorities to see whether they will be up to the task.

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