Dear President Mahama,

lightoffI typically do not reach out to specific government officials in my “The Letter Writing Project” series, but in this case, I’m making an exception. During your swearing in on January 7, you pledged to not let Ghanaians down. In turn, we Ghanaians pledged – as citizens – to hold you and the entire government accountable. More importantly, you emphasized the effect that the life of one ordinary citizen can have on an entire nation. You, Mr. President, are no ordinary citizen.

It seems a given that for whatever reason, the name “John” has a presidential air to it. Many presidents aspire to do great things. I believe that the president who tackles Ghana’s energy/electricity issues head on will go down as one of the best – if not the best – in Ghana’s history. At the very least, he/she will earn the title of ‘most proactive president’ in my book.

From what I understand, the notion of power outages might have a distant familiarity to some Ghanaian leaders. Why? Because they might not have to experience it given the fact that there are generators available for use. It comforts me that, thanks to generators, government doesn’t shut down completely when the Electricity Corporation of Ghana (ECG) strikes. But from what I gather, this might make the notion of “lights out” a distant memory to many of Ghana’s leaders and hence, take the edge off the urgency. Kindly indulge me as I outline what it means to live in darkness, something we have learned to do all too well in over a decade.

Food: Our farmers/fishermen spend hours a day in the burning heat to cajole the earth/sea into giving up their fruit. Once harvest is done, the produce is sent to the markets. I am certain a bulk of it doesn’t make it all the way – primarily because our preservation options are limited with incessant lights off. The result? Hardwork with no pay. Appliances: People’s fridges, TVs, radios, etc, get damaged due to the unannounced power cuts. As we both know, the majority of Ghanaians probably save for months to purchase these appliances, only to have to spend more non-existent money to repair them and keep them in functioning order. Education: My siblings and many students in SSS and beyond – actually, even primary school – have a tough time studying or doing their homework. With all the traffic in Accra, they get home late from school and just as they are about to do their work — lights off.

Lighting_Africa_Home_550x410I dare not imagine the effect it has on their eyes – reading by candlelight/lantern as they do – but it’s very obvious that the notion of using a computer (if they have access to one) and the internet to do their own research and come up with their own ideas about what they are studying is quite limited. Health: Anytime the lights go off I find myself wondering what the doctors and nurses who prepped for surgery or are in the middle of surgery do. What about the patients who have very uncomfortable ailments and have to deal with the heat and mosquitoes for lack of a working fan? Employment: Those who work aren’t spared either. They have to sit in hot offices, waiting for the lights to come on so they can continue working on their computer. Those who work in electricity-heavy industries – like processing – well, I guess everything shuts down for them too.Lights off is wrecking havoc on our productivity and to some extent, on our patience.

Mr. President, I will stop there. From all indications, this electricity issue is not only a nuisance, but is literally damaging our economy and human capital – present and future – as well as our opportunities in turning Ghana around. WE have to do something. But I’m sure you are already aware of that.

“We need to look beyond temporary fixes to find lasting solutions for the complications we’ve experienced with power, water and sanitation.”

That is what you said during your inaugural address. I agree with you. We cannot keep living in darkness, especially when we have what we need to change things around. I lived and worked in Senegal for sometime in 2010. Did you know that they rely on oil to power their nation like the Nigerians do? It made me realize that we are really blessed to have hydro-electricity and the Akosombo Dam to serve our energy needs. Imagine having to purchase oil at the ever-fluctuating world prices in order to have electricity! That said, we have a long way to go. The Akosombo Dam that Kwame Nkrumah spearheaded was not built for our current population of 24million AND for our fellow West Africans in Togo, Burkina Faso, and Benin. After Burkina Faso beat Ghana, some people joked that we should terminate our energy supply to them. Given that we are a country of (some) honor, I’m sure we’ll keep those commitments. However the fact remains: our current situation is unsustainable.

I have heard that work is underway to construct the Bui Dam as a supplement to the Akosombo Dam. That is heartwarming. I only wish we had regular updates on the issue so we don’t keep thinking ‘government is not doing anything’. Public opinion of ECG is another matter altogether. What else can we do? Privatize the sector? Some years back I would not have mentioned the word “privatize” in a post, except to denounce it. From my graduate studies, I have a better appreciation for the challenges and decisions that go into delivering services in developing countries. So yes,  I think the government needs to explore additional areas to not only improve upon our electricity production and distribution, but also, to diversify it. We need to explore our options – and that includes privatization or private management of our electricity. That said, government must ensure that whatever decision we take is reasonable for the average Ghanaian. Perhaps a tiered tariff structure to take into account the fact that many of us cannot afford to pay for electricity on our own? More importantly, we need to involve Ghanaians throughout the process. By not informing us about what is going on, you give us a free pass to be indifferent…and to lay all the blame on you and the government. That has to change. Just as the average Ghanaian is part of the problem, so are we part of the solution.

Mr. President, you might wonder why Ghanaians hold you – more than any other government official – responsible for what happens in our current electricity crisis. It’s simple. You made promises to us. You issued statements saying the power cuts would stop by November, then December last year. You even said ECG was under investigation. Of course, you are not the one pulling the switch and despite what you might have hoped our power base cannot allow for constant electricity supply everywhere. I can understand that. However, the fact that you made those promises now means that you need to take personal charge of the issue in order to find the lasting solutions you spoke about in your inaugural address. Naturally, we – Ghanaian citizens – are also to blame. We have stood by for years, complaining up until the moment the lights come back on. We have simply been bystanders in our own lives. So now, we have to work. If the past is any indication, there is the sore issue of lack of political will. From what I gather from an evaluation of Ghana’s poverty reduction strategy credits,  past governments only started paying attention to the energy issue upon the insistence of the World Bank. The Bank made it a condition for our Poverty Reduction Strategy Credits. Why do we have to wait for outsiders to tell us – correction, demand – that we must fix our electricity problems, before we do so? Already, we have had at least two national blackouts in the past year. When is enough, enough?

I think a first step would be following up on Anas Armeyaw’s investigation on ECG, dubbed “The President’s Assignment” and bringing people to the book. The corruption in that institution is wrecking havoc on our economy. Furthermore, many corporations and public institutions – including the office you now occupy – weren’t paying their arrears to ECG. It’s encouraging that the government settled its arrears in August 2012, but many others are outstanding. Those funds could go a long way in making needed investments in our energy sector. Which brings me to the future. Some time back there was a BBC article about Germany seeking to generate solar energy from the Sahara Desert. That article made me upset – not at Germany, but rather at we Africans for not taking the initiative. It’s no secret we have plenty of sun. So now I ask, do we have any plans on the alternative energy front? It’s inevitable that we will have to explore those options, can we at least start some serious research on it? Maybe we can use some of the arrears that corporate Ghana pays back to fund research and innovative energy products? I’m sure there are some inventions out there looking for light of day.

Mr. President, you must have a very busy day – even more so with the growing discontent among Ghanaians on this energy issue – and so, I will end here. Thank you for taking the time to hear me out, I have hope that many other Ghanaians will be speaking up on this issue and maybe even take a strong stand to demand some answers. Having read this letter, I hope that you will be open to listening to our grievances and moving forward together towards (a start to) lasting solutions.

Living in Darkness,