Zanzibar: Can someone please end the prolonged power blackouts?

Jan 16, 2010 01:00 AM

by Halal Al-Tayyab

For the second time in less than 18 months, Zanzibar is suffering an unprecedented continuous power blackout lasting more than four weeks. The first time it occurred was in May 2008, when the ageing undersea cable that is the sole supply of electricity from mainland Tanzania was damaged. It then took engineers from the Zanzibar Electricity Company working alongside some "foreign experts" 28 days to restore electricity to the Isles.
How the power supply to a population of 1 mm people could be held hostage to a single submarine cable past its useful life was a question no one wanted to answer. And why the government failed to deploy short-term emergency power generating solutions also remains a mystery.

Nevertheless, Zanzibaris were hopeful that the government would act to ensure that such a disaster never occurred again. The measures envisaged included the laying of new submarine cables, the adoption of a contingency power plan and the launch of a long-term master plan for new sources of power including wind and solar energy.
Sadly, even something as serious as the 28-day blackout did not awaken the government out of its lethargy. An equal share of the blame lies with the Tanzanian government that made not the slightest attempt at remedying the situation.

It was also not lost on Zanzibaris how the media became complicit in their suffering by ignoring the blackout for the most part, only reporting sporadically on developments as expressed in government bulletins. There were no hard questions asked, no realistic analyses commissioned, no expert opinions sought and no editorials exhorting the governments to end the crisis quickly.
The foreign media, which likes to publish romantically and historically-themed stories about Zanzibar also found the story distasteful and eschewed it. The only brave souls who were saying anything were the few foreign investors who had sunk their capital in the seductive dream of the "Spice Islands," which had now turned into a nightmare.

Zanzibar's economy is primarily supported by agriculture and tourism, and during the 2008 crisis, mid-size hotels were spending on average of $ 1,000 per day to offset the adverse effects of the power blackout. Larger hotels spent $ 5,000-$ 10,000 per day. To compound our collective misery, the government called in "experts" from the UN to assess the losses caused by the blackout. Their report, if any was issued, has never been published.
Then a year and a half later (on December 10, last year), with our heads stuck in the sand, we "learnt" (painfully again) that inertia is no substitute for progress. The undersea cable blew up when Zeco "engineers," were fixing some technical faults. The minister in charge was quoted as saying they were in the process of acquiring a spare part called a "splitter," which would fix the problem, and that it was expected in a month's time. No word was uttered on why such a critical spare was not held in stock, why it should take so long to arrive and why the lessons of 2008 were ignored.

This being an election year in both Tanzania and Zanzibar, Zanzibaris were confident that the authorities would move fast to resolve the crisis. The initial rumour was that the blackout would end before Christmas, which promised record arrivals. When that deadline passed, like junkies we shifted to the next sexy date, the New Year.
No show. So, we said, the leader of Zanzibar will not dare soil his late father's legacy by letting the 46th anniversary of the Zanzibar Revolution pass in darkness on January 12. But we were wrong again. It is a supreme irony that the first African country to install electricity is also the first one to get by twice without electricity for 28 days.

In a developed economy or a mature democracy, there would have been public demonstrations, taking to task the government and censure of the line minister, and greater activism by the private sector in safeguarding access to its lifeline.
Whilst there exists a vibrant grassroots political opposition In Zanzibar, the heavy handed treatment always meted out to any whiff of a threat to the comfort of those in power has long restrained the public from acting in its own interest. While the ruling elite sit back itself in diesel-generated comfort paid for with taxpayer shillings, the public suffers innumerable problems from the blackout.

Zanzibar is now importing an average of 500 small generators daily, the majority of which are substandard Chinese-made jobs that often break down within a few hours. Many low-income households have lost small fortunes buying (then repairing) these generators.
The safety compliance of the low-end generators is often very poor and quite a few fires have been caused by them. Public illiteracy, especially in English has also resulted in people operating the generators in a sub-optimal manner. Many Zanzibaris now also face the loss of their jobs as hotels close down and industries suspend operations.

Electricity is no longer a luxury, it is a critical economic factor withoutwhich everything else grinds to a halt. No government, especially one that claims to have been elected democratically, has a right to monopolise the production and distribution of electricity if it cannot supply such a crucial commodity for 28 days continuously.
The only honourable thing to do, short of resigning, is to privatise the industry so that the private sector, which always delivers better results, can solve the problem.

Source / The East African
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