Up NEPA! Nigeria’s Metaphor for 60 Years of Unchanging Change
Up NEPA!’ squeaked Emma, the one-year old son of the couple occupying my
parents’ boys’ quarters excited the lights had come back on again.
He, my mum and I were seated on the veranda, relishing the soothing Oguta
breeze, the sun sinking steadily into its cloudy hideaway. If we were lucky, unadulterated
silence would accompany the stars rather than the discordant sounds of groaning generators.
But each one of us knew not to hold on to that hope because at various points in our lives, we
had all been hard done by the National Electric Power Authority, a notoriously faithless
heartbreaker. So legendary is its fickleness that generations of Nigerians, including my
mother’s, grew up screaming Up NEPA! a triple-combo compliment that not only seeks to
thank and praise the government agency for restoring power to their homes, but wheedle
them into keeping it on. While the chant’s origins are unclear, what is evident is it has yet to
win NEPA’s fidelity since the entity’s inception in 1972.
Up NEPA reflects the nation’s negligible progress since gaining independence from Britain
on 1 October 1960. Every couple of years, a new administration promises to improve power
generation and supply across the country before inevitably sinking millions of naira into
power projects that can only be described as black holes, which fails to engender hope.
According to a 2019 report by the African Development Bank, Nigerians spend $14 billion
on generators and fuel yearly to light up their homes and businesses.
My parents’ trusty, sound-proof, made-in-Germany diesel generator, purchased in the
early 1990s, now has a supporting cast: two toy-like engines that run on petrol to
power light appliances like blenders, phones, fridges, and TVs for afternoons
football matches. And the noise, oh the noise, burrows deep into sleep and
contemplation, hampering the sustainability of either activity for extended periods. Worse
still, neighbours often recreate the deafening cacophony at varying intervals.
While the affordability of these diminutive generators has meant more Nigerians can generate
their own electricity, there is a bittersweet quality to their ubiquity. On the one hand, small
barbershops no longer lose revenue waiting in vain for electricity. On the other, road-side
churches now keep whole neighbourhoods awake in the name of hosting so-called night
vigils, singing and preaching into microphones powered by the smallest but loudest of these
Despite their corrosive toll on mental and physical health, the noise and air pollution wrought
by generators generally go unremarked. Rather, it is the impact of irregular power supply on
the cost of goods and services that elicits the most complaints. For instance, a salon may
charge extra money because the lights went out midway into a haircut, necessitating the use
of the generator. Other times, the generator surcharge is automatically built into one’s
expenses regardless of usage.
To function safely and optimally, hospitals in cities across Nigeria are compelled to own at
least two generators (extra for backup or when power outages stretch on for weeks), an
unavoidable but necessary additional expenditure that is passed on to patients. And yet, 60
years after independence, no Nigerian ruler has succeeded in ending the power cuts as a
means of encouraging growth in the private sector, which will diversify an economy heavily
dependent on crude oil revenue.
Beginning in 2001, Nigeria’s power sector underwent significant changes, spinning
NEPA off into various entities with corresponding acronyms. In 2005, NEPA became
Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), which then split into one transmission
company (TCN), six generation companies (GenCos) and 11 DisCos or distribution
companies. But because privatization of the GenCos and DisCos have not yielded any
marked improvements, Nigerians have little incentive to drop NEPA from their parlance.
Hence, it is not uncommon to hear them curse and hiss at ‘these stupid NEPA people’ when
the lights go out.
It is in this vein that NEPA became the poster child for unchanging change, a metaphor for
the numerous transitions that have brought trifling development at best and regression at
worst. Towns and villages that boasted running tap water in the early years of independence
can barely make those claims in 2020. Roads and railways built during the colonial era have
fallen into disrepair, so have the once prestigious schools that educated Wole Soyinka, Flora
Nwapa, Chinua Achebe and Bennet Omalu (the medical doctor portrayed by Will Smith in
the 2015 movie, Concussion).
NEPA is the state of Nigeria’s dominant political parties to date. They split, merge, rebrand
and rename, but without a guiding ideology remain blind and primeval. NEPA is also the
Nigerian Police Force's resistance to reform. Created in 1930 by the exploitative colonial
administration to enforce draconian laws and crush dissent, the police continues to operate
under its old orders, with arguably greater impunity. Its Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS),
for instance, shares similar characteristics to the ‘marauding beast’ described in Oswald
Mbuyiseni Mtshali’s apartheid-era poem ‘Nightfall in Soweto’, attacking young, innocent
women and men like a ‘dreaded disease seeping through the pores of a healthy body and
ravaging it beyond repair.’ So far, calls to disband the murderous unit have gone unanswered.
wenty-one years after Nigeria exchanged its military garbs for civilian clothing, general
elections have been held every four years to give the impression of change. If this
streak continues but the nation’s politics remains unchanged, 60 years from today
another generation of children will learn to yell Up NEPA! like one-year-old Emma.