Corruption and greed in Nigeria

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Corruption and greed in Nigeria

Nigerian Ken Henshaw is fighting the privatization of energy in Nigeria. Jess Worth meets him.


Nigerian activist Ken Henshaw. © Patrick Kane

Sitting in the Oxford sunshine, Ken Henshaw is telling me how proud he is of the solar panel on his house in Port Harcourt. ‘In Nigeria, you are your own government and energy company!’ he jokes. It was very difficult to connect his home to a power source. He also had to buy a pump to get clean water, and he has his own sewage system. ‘The government now has no responsibility for local energy,’ he says. They allow oil companies in the Niger Delta to pollute the communities, then they pay the people compensation by building the schools and health centres they need.

Ken knows he is lucky – he has enough money to generate his own power. Most Nigerians depend on national energy supplies – which are in a very bad state.

Ken came to Britain to challenge the Department of International Development (DFID) because it supported Nigeria in its recent unsuccessful energy privatization. ‘The Nigerian government decided on the worst form of privatization,’ he explains. ‘It is a story of corruption, greed and doing things badly. They sold public assets to their friends, who did not know anything about energy and had no intention of providing power. 14,000 workers lost their jobs. Then the government had to use more than half of the $3 billion they sold it for to pay compensation to the workers.’

So now, poor Nigerians (67% of the country) cannot get any electricity. Ken explained the 3 big problems with the new privatized power system. First, the cost of energy has gone up a lot in the 4 years since they agreed the privatization. Second, people have to pay a new fixed change just for the connection - even if there is no power. This is very unfair on the poor, and there have been protests already. Third, Nigerians do not pay for how much electricity they use. Their bills are estimated and they must pay whatever they are asked to pay.

‘It’s a very big crisis. The little energy we have all goes to the rich suburbs,’ says Ken. The poor majority, who used to have quite good energy (but sometimes not reliable), now have no energy.

Power in Nigeria has been a problem for a long time. They have had power cuts for decades. People who have enough money also have noisy, polluting, diesel generators that use diesel. In such a big country with bad connections and roads, it doesn’t make sense to have one central power system. But when the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank came and said they could solve the problem through privatization, the Nigerian government were very happy to do this.

‘Nigerians were forced to privatize,’ says Ken. He is very unhappy about the British government’s role - they encouraged the very unsuccessful privatization. ‘DFID have separated $80 million to support the privatization process. We have no idea where that money’s going. When I met them this week they couldn’t tell me, although they are paying Adam Smith International as contractors. They agreed the privatization has failed, but when I talked about energy democracy, about communities owning and generating their own renewable electricity, it seemed they’d never thought of that. All of DFID’s plans to help countries generate power are based on fossil fuels – only a very small part is for renewables.’

The campaign for energy democracy in Nigeria is just beginning, says Ken. ‘Nigerians are getting angry. We are asking for a decentralized system of solar and wind power controlled by the communities. Privatization doesn’t work at all.’

Ken knows a lot about big fights against corruption and the abuse of power. He grew up in the Niger Delta region, where there is a lot of oil. When he was a teenager, he started fighting for environmental justice. At university, he was national president of the National Association of Nigerian Students, which has a lot of influence. He was part of the pro-democracy movement that ended the military dictatorship. And he was involved in the 2012 protests against fuel costs and the project to force Shell to clean up the Niger Delta.

Now he works for Social Action. This is an NGO that he helped start in 2007. He says it ‘helps the people in the fight for economic and environmental justice.’ It supports community education and getting people together to fight for issues around energy, mining, trade and investment that affect human rights, democracy and livelihoods.

He has been fighting for most of his life, and the military dictatorship even put him in prison. But he is still very determined and committed. I met him just after he’d given a talk to a group of schoolchildren in Oxford. ‘I told them that life expectancy in the Niger Delta is 46 years. They asked ‘how old are you?’ When I told them I was 38, they said “Oh that means you’ve only got eight years left!”’ He laughed and it was obvious that this strong passion, full of humour, is one source of energy that should give Nigerians hope for the future.

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