Our power, pothole problems and the eating chiefs who can’t fix them

Wednesday December 07 2011

East Africa is facing a serious power crisis. In Uganda, the patience snapped, and there have been several demonstrations. I never quite thought I would see the day in Africa when the police fights running battles with people protesting power cuts.

Ugandans, as we know, also became the first East Africans to protest about potholes in Kampala city — and for good measure, had a potholes photo exhibition!

Kenya, too, can have its horrible power-cut days, and if you work in the central business district of Nairobi these days, you need strong lungs to tackle the inevitable climb up the stairs to your offices because power-cuts have immobilised the lifts.

However, bad as the situation is in the region, Tanzania takes the crown. Last Sunday, we were at Kilimanjaro Airport to check for a Precision Air flight to Nairobi.

In the space of 10 minutes, the power went off three times! There is no back-up for the computers, so when the power goes off, you have to wait for the systems to start up again.

Thus what would have been a five-minute check-in turned into a 40-minute horror for us. To add insult to injury, Precision Air suckered us with a flimsy story, and in the end our flight was four hours late.


I figured that from the time I left my hotel in Arusha to when I got home eventually, I could have driven by road from Arusha to Nairobi on the revamped road, then back to Arusha from Nairobi, and got there before I got home on the plane ride.

At the hotel in Arusha, I counted over 20 power cuts in 15 hours!

What is going on? Yes, there is incompetence. Yes, corruption plays a role in the horrid public services we get in Africa. And yes, there is a general lack of imagination and understanding of the problems we confront.

However, I think our problems with power are part of a bigger crisis. For over 40 years, the biggest problems that our governments faced were those they could resolve by bullets, bribes, or prison.

If the opposition and university students gave them trouble, they sent in the riot police to shoot and beat them down. Noisy and critical academics, those they sacked from the universities. Critical writers and human rights activists, they exiled or imprisoned.

If a region rose in revolt against them, they either pummeled it into submission, or bribed it. All they had to do was get their leaders, give them fat jobs, and allow them to loot taxpayers’ money. Then, they threw in a second-rate road and a few schools, and the region quieted down.

In the meantime, the electricity lines, the hospitals, the roads, and bridges built by the colonialists got old or became decrepit through neglect.

At the same, our populations grew to record numbers, and the demand for services surged.

Today, we urgently need to build new ones. We need to create new delivery systems for health. We need to stabilise water levels in our dams, in situations where corruption has led to the grabbing of wetlands and forests, and environmental carnage has wrecked water sources.

These are problems that you cannot shoot, imprison, or bribe and they go away. They require the best people to be hired to do the jobs, irrespective of their ethnic group, or religion.

However, we still have archaic political systems based on patronage that are unable to establish meritocratic bureaucracies.

We need to reclaim hundreds of thousands of wetlands and forests, and to save our rivers and lakes, but the political cost of kicking out thousands of grabbers and settlers from these areas is one few leaders are willing to pay.

And even if they could, our universities don’t produce enough environmental scientists and engineers who are experts at such reclamations.

If you land at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, you see this clash between opportunity and reality. JKIA’s traffic and hub status has grown ahead of the authorities’ ability to expand it. Getting your bags, not to mention parking, has become a nightmare.

Our biggest problem is that we have 20th Century institutions and rules, dealing with 21st Century societies and needs.

This may be fascinating to watch, but at the same time, we have to be afraid. Something must give.

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