Mirror Diary
By Kwasi Gyan-Apenteng


I have been in a silly argument with a friend for the past fortnight and as there is no resolution in sight, I have decided to invite you, my dear readers, into the fray so you can share your insights and experiences. The argument is about electricity, or actually the lack of it. It is like this: for the past five weeks, my estate which is in the Spintex area in Accra has been receiving even more foul treatment from Ghana's illustrious power company, the venerable Electricity Company of Ghana. Every night, we are deprived of power for up to five hours, which is a substantial increase from the two hours to which we had grown accustomed. sa

I have to explain that these power cuts disappear entirely from the end of June to the middle of September every year and start again once the cool season is over. You don't have to be a genius to work out that there is a direct correlation between the increase in temperature and the intensity and length of power cuts. I believe that we are the victims of power rationing by stealth and the ECG authorities have neither an answer to the problem nor to our questions. They are counting on our usual "give-it-to-God" approach to ride this out till next June.

My friend who lives in Kumasi says that the area where he lives experiences an average of five power cuts everyday as opposed to "my" one every evening. The argument that is threatening years of friendship is about who is "enjoying" the "better" service. In any normal society, we would both simply accept that we were victims of a clueless and uncaring state institution that has seen its most productive years behind it. But Ghana is not that normal society; there are too many situations that mark us out as unique or even eccentric and one of them is our enduring willingness to accept ill treatment as an Act of God. I think that somewhere in the inner recesses of our being is hidden a programme that enjoins us to enjoy being denied what is ours by right. Let us take street lights as an example.

I cannot ever understand why we have no street lights in most parts of Accra, the nation's capital, when we the residents pay for such a service in our bills every month. It would be comforting if there were light poles along our streets, for then we could hope that light bulbs would be attachedŠ someday. But the pole-less status of our streets indicate that whoever has this responsibility has no intention of fulfilling it. And yet every analysis of the effects of street lights leads to the overwhelming conclusion that their presence reduces accidents, especially those involving vehicles and pedestrians, leads to greater security, less crime, less antisocial behaviour and encourages good sanitation practices. Cities need street lights, the same way our bodies need air, to survive and function effectively.

But back to the argument: my friend says that in their part of Kumasi, there are at least five power cuts every day and I tell him that we have at least one every evening. So far, so bad for both of us, you would say, but the argument is in the detail. According to my friend, the five daily average Kumasi power cuts last for about 15 minutes each and come at any and all times of the day but hardly in the evening. However, the Spintex Road cuts, of which I am a prime victim, come at all times of day but the most virulent ones are reserved for evenings usually just before the 7 O'clock News, and especially on European Champions League nights.

There are three different types of Spintex Area power cuts: the short, medium and long cuts. The short are brief interruptions that resemble the Kumasi "shorts", except they come in rapid successions so that you can have ten shorts during one morning spell. Medium cuts last up to 30 minutes and usually occur during important national moments such as the President's speech at the Independence Day Parade. They are usually restored after the speech. The long ones are the ones we are experiencing at the moment - up to five hours every night has been the average since the beginning of November, which is a marked increase in the previous "longs" that lasted up to two hours nightly.

My friend argues that my type of power cut is preferable because the long, predictable ones have settled into a pattern, and like any old friend you get to know and accept them as they are. I, on the other hand insist that I would prefer the Kumasi "shorts" because 15 minutes of misery is a drop in the general scheme of suffering to which Adam's original sin has condemned humankind, whereas three hours every night is beginning to sound like the makings of a mini purgatory designed by ECG. Now then, the argument is between Kumasi "shorts", unpredictable but short and Spintex "longs" predictable but interminable.

This dilemma is the same as that which confronts drivers on the "new road" that links the Achimota-Legon road to Dome in Accra. This road is no more than three years old, and I understand it was constructed by a well known contractor who must have been paid good money for his effort. However, it is now an obstacle course that tests not only your driving skills but strength of character and judgement. This is how it works: there are so many potholes strung across the road in so many parts that when you get to each set, you stop, survey all the potholes and then decide which one is the best to fall into. My favourite set of potholes is right smack in the middle of the stretch. The pothole on the left looks okay until your front tyres fall in together with the entire front undercarriage.

Now that we have come to a point where we have to select the best pothole to fall into and argue about which power cut is better, I think we can agree that we are on a veritable race to the bottom, except we don't know how far we still have to fall. Two years ago, our power cuts used to last up to one hour at a time and happened, on average every other evening. Last year, the government predicted an increase in our per capita income and the length of our power cuts responded accordingly, except this was not an estimate but the real thing. This year, the government told us we were even getting better and the per capita was going up. Well, the length of our power cuts raced ahead.

I am writing this column by candlelight, and in the encircling gloom outside I can hear a few generators disturbing the otherwise still and airless night with their thudding din. In all of this, I think I can glimpse the future and it is called Victoria Island in Lagos. There, a huge generator is de rigueur for every home and as a result, the streets are full of black effluents spewing from the motors while the night air is fouled by the pong of powerful half-burnt hydrocarbon mixtures. When I glimpse the future I can only see us sliding down into a bottomless pit of abject public services, and leading this downward race is our electricity supplier.

The erratic management of electricity supply is a symptom of the lack of efficiency in our public services and without an efficient public service regime, Ghana's claim to be the Gateway to Africa rings hollow. Managing public services is not rocket science; it is done very well in many countries in the world and we can do it too. But it cannot be done with an apathetic public that accepts to choose which pothole is the best to fall into and which pattern of power cuts to accept. Neither can it be done with a public service management that rides on the public's seeming acceptance of the lowest standards of delivery.
As to the argument between my Kumasi friend and me, the solution is simple: we, alongside all the victims of ECG, must adopt the Zambian approach, which calls for cheated and irate customers to go and dump the rotten stuff in our fridges and freezers at the door of the ECG managing director and his senior "managers". In order not to waste fuel on the undeserving, regional and district ECG victims can dump their stuff at their local ECG offices but for the Christmas protest we need dumpers to come from across the country to dump in Accra.

The Mirror