The land of oil without electricity

There’s a beat to the bustle at this tailor shop in the heart of Nigeria’s oil patch.

The whir of four electric sewing machines, the snips of two industrial-sized scissors, and the sizzle of damp fabric as steam escapes from a large iron.

But another one rings out of tune as the six sweaty men work: the clank of a generator. He stands behind a wall to muffle his noise, but that can’t hide his high-pitched tone or the smoky fumes he gives off.

“I have two, in case one fails,” says Ozu Adah, a lean, muscular man with cropped hair who runs this shop in Choba, a college community in southern Rivers state.

Like millions of other small business owners in Nigeria, the 37-year-old tailor cannot rely on electricity from the national grid as blackouts are common and the 5,000 megawatts distributed are only enough to serve about five million average households in urban areas.

Most of Nigeria’s 210 million people must provide their own electricity: Africa’s largest economy is run by a variety of Chinese and Lebanese-made generators

“Since I was born I have never experienced a stable power supply. We call ourselves the giant of Africa but we don’t know how to fix electricity,” complains Mr Adah as he works on a buttonhole.

Despite being blessed with large oil and gas reserves and hydroelectric and solar resources, successive governments since independence in 1960 have failed to achieve a stable supply of electricity.

With the next presidential election just weeks away, all three frontrunners – Bola Tinubu of the All Progressives Congress (APC), Atiku Abubakar of the Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) and Peter Obi of the Labor Party – have agreed to fix the power supply as a point key in their manifestos.

Although the campaign promises may seem empty given that the outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari has failed to deliver during his eight years in office by providing at least 20,000 megawatts more.

Mr Adah’s operations rely on electricity and he spends 3,000 naira ($6, £5) a day to power his generator.

But there has been a widespread fuel shortage in Nigeria since November, which has worsened lately, forcing many to sleep at night in lines at petrol stations.

He is frustrated because he lives in an oil-rich state with so little to offer its citizens.

As a boy, he dreamed of working in the oil industry, like his father had. But when he finished studying geology at the University of Port Harcourt, he couldn’t find work in that field.

Instead, he turned to what he saw his mother do: making clothes. He used the famous but labor intensive Butterfly hand machines imported from China.

How a generation of young people forced into jobs they’d rather not do has found an innovative way to pursue it, using modern electric machines.

They are three times more efficient, but need electricity.

“No money for electricity”

Those in the electric sector complain that the business environment does not encourage expansion as they are unable to make a profit, let alone break even.

A roadside mechanic repairs electricity generators in Port Harcourt, Rivers state, Nigeria - stock photo

Africa’s largest economy depends mostly on generators for its electricity supply

Nigeria has 200 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves – the largest in Africa and ninth largest in the world – and 25 of the 28 electricity-producing companies (a mix of public and private ownership) are gas-fired.

But investors say the low tariffs, set and regulated by the government, discourage investment.

“No one will invest in what is clearly a loss-making venture,” said Olumuyiwa Abiodun, CEO of private electricity supplier Eden Power.

Many electricity customers, such as Mr. Adah’s tailor shop and thousands of households in Choba, have no meter and have to pay an estimated bill that usually varies with what they consume.

Mr Adah’s monthly electricity bill is 8,000 naira ($17, £14) for the complex in which he runs his business, a house with at least eight rooms and two flats.

Many Nigerians don’t even pay for electricity.

“Many communities here don’t want to pay for electricity because they feel the gas belongs to them,” said John Onyi, an electrical consultant in Port Harcourt.

Mr. Adah, like many young people in urban Nigeria, is rooting for Mr. Obi, who hails from southeastern Nigeria.

He believes the 61-year-old politician is serious about fixing the energy sector, noting that the Labor candidate visited Egypt last year to study that country’s electricity supply system.

“He’s not president yet and he’s traveled to learn how to solve the problem, it clearly shows how committed he is to solving it,” he says.

Key battlefield

Like most Choba residents, he has only voted for the PDP in the past, but this time his switch to the Labor Party reflects how Rivers State has emerged as a key battleground in this presidential election.

A crowd holding vuvuzelas

Vuvuzelas can be heard blaring at most election rallies now in Nigeria

Its 3.5 million registered voters are the fourth highest in Nigeria’s 36 states, but their loyalty is being tested with the APC and Labor Party appearing to be making sizable inroads that could split the vote.

The condition of the rivers reveals some of the internal battles the PDP is facing.

Outgoing Governor Nyesom Wike has been trying to win the PDP presidential ticket – supported by four other powerful PDP governors – and is suspected of backing Tinubu, the APC candidate.

An over-the-top politician who travels with his own band, Mr. Wike continues to support the PDP at the state level and is backing the PDP’s candidate for governor.

Many in Rivers State also seem to be wearing this double hat: wanting to vote for one party at the state level and perhaps another in the presidential election.

This was on display when thousands of people showed up for the PDP rally across the Choba River in Rumuji, an oil-producing village near Bayelsa state.

To attend a rally in a small village, away from the city center, is to be treated with what Nigerians call “party structure” – the well-oiled campaign machinery that many believe is only available to the PCA and PDP in the whole country.

Under the sun, women, men and young people gathered, most of them hired by local politicians. Today I’m here for the PDP, tomorrow it could be for another activist.

A woman in a blonde wig ushered a dozen disinterested teenagers from a canopy into the sun, their banner reading: “Golden Babes of Egbeda.” They jostled for a space around a podium that included Joseph Yobo, a former Nigerian international soccer player, and musician Harrysong.

The noise was as chaotic as the spectacle: a sepia-toned palette of fine dust kicked up by thousands of legs trampling the earth.

There was a group playing dozens of vuvuzelas, the latest addition to Nigeria’s election rallies.

Women in orange dresses holding up a banner during a demonstration in Rivers State, Nigeria

Only the two main parties are wealthy enough to hold rallies in small villages like this one in Rumuji

But this was more than a local government jamboree, it was the governor’s show of strength on a national stage. He wanted to show the main contenders his influence before officially saying which presidential candidate he will support.

“They can’t win the election without Rivers State, let them prove it,” Mr. Wike said to enthusiastic applause as he took the stage.

His personal band played during an interlude — a song about him as a great man, which he swayed to.

Outside the gathering ground a tailor sewed a waxed garment, seemingly unaware of the chaos around her.

With loudspeakers, the governor has promised to electrify parts of the community that still have no electricity.

But she didn’t care: she was using a brown manual Butterfly sewing machine.

Nigeria election graphics

Nigeria election graphics

Nigeria election graphics

Nigeria election graphics

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