Gas flares, blackouts and the paradox of Nigeria’s energy problems

The other night on a flight from Port Harcourt to Lagos, I saw what a gas flare looks like from the sky. Against a black backdrop, I counted flares by the dozens – giant, violent looking plumes of burning gas illuminating the night sky. I was struck by the darkness between the flares: I saw no electric lights, save for a few faintly glowing clusters, as I flew across a region that sustains upwards of 31 million people.

In this I felt a great paradox: an activity, gas flaring, through which nearly a quarter of Nigeria’s associated natural gas is burned off and billions of dollars in potential revenues are lost; while beneath and between these flares, millions of people move through the night in near or complete darkness. If there is a better image to illustrate Nigeria’s energy woes, I have not seen it.

Nigerians I’ve met take a sanguine approach to life generally, happy by default, but a simmering discontent emerges when topics like energy, poverty and corruption in their country come up. Last week a friend in Port Harcourt wanted to invite me over to his apartment for a drink, but we moved at the last minute to a hotel bar because he hadn’t had time to stop to pick up generator fuel. As he told me, his flat had no power and he would have to borrow electricity, again, from a neighbor with a bigger generator when he got home that night. This guy was not starving, homeless or jobless, his friends and family were healthy – but as he talked I sensed in him anger, deep frustration that had festered over the years, a sense that something had been stolen from him but he could not make the thieves pay. For my friend and others like him, the salient question seemed to be: I live in one of the biggest oil producing countries in the world, so why the hell can’t I expect the lights to work when I come home?

Well, the lights do work if you’ve bought your weekly generator fuel, but if you haven’t you will probably be out of luck. A 2010 Harvard paper estimated that more than 30% of Nigeria’s electricity comes from dirty and inefficient private generators. The amount of gas flared, according to the same study, equals what would be needed to power all of sub-Saharan Africa for a year. This paradox – that Nigerians have irregular access to electricity while so much potential energy simply goes up in smoke – is one that has people’s blood boiling.

In Port Harcourt I was lucky enough to see how people in the Delta cope with these issues, and what they are doing on the ground to make things better. In the Old Township, in a building where Ken Saro-Wiwa had his office, the martyred activist’s friends and family have set up an art gallery to showcase regional work and capture the experience of life in the Delta. Much has changed since Saro-Wiwa’s Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People came on the scene in the early 1990s. Mobile technology and social media have made it possible for videos like this to convey how communities in the region are treated when they get in the way of commercial or political opportunity. Web applications, like this one on oil spills, are adding to a growing set of resources that help people identify where exactly a problem has occurred and who is responsible. We hope our own web app will soon help shed light on which companies are operating where, and how much these projects earn.

In other ways, though, things remain the same. I spent one afternoon in Port Harcourt sitting in on a lunch debate with a group of friends, some business people and academics, which reminded me uncannily of the 1960s social group described in Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel about the Biafran War, Half of a Yellow Sun. Afternoons full of arguments, analyses and sophisticated jokes, and bellies full of palm wine and jollof rice. In the book, though, despite the debaters’ best efforts, the war still came. The paradox at the heart of Nigeria’s energy troubles may eventually ameliorate – more people are at least aware of it, now, who weren’t before – but I wonder sometimes what happens when that collective frustration boils over.

Will we see another bloody civil war? No: different times, different problems. But the human consequences of mismanagement in the oil industry are real, and to me, the resentment among people in Port Harcourt was tangible. Will the strivings of all the activists and social entrepreneurs I met there eventually bear fruit, in the form of a more efficient oil sector whose benefits are more equitable? If so, it’s fair to say that people looking out the window on night flights through the Delta will see far fewer gas flares, and a little more light.

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