Abdoulaye W Dukulé
We were all glued to the television set, anxiously awaiting the outcome of a foul on the field. The referee had pointed to the penalty spot. And then the light went off. The entire room stood up yelling “hey LEC mehn…” I had walked to an entertainment spot to watch a World Cup game. And the light going off in the middle of the game at a critical moment was really a minor nuisance compared to what we were experiencing with the Liberia Electricity Corporation, or LEC. Current goes and comes like Christmas lights but with no prediction and never any logical explanation. You never know when the lights would go off and for how long.
Dealing with LEC for any reason is a nightmare. In 2015, when I wrote the first draft of this short article, we had faced an almost deadly situation with current. Light had gone out one day and then when it returned, we were sent high voltage, about four times the level of voltage for domestic use. Our refrigerators, television sets and other household appliances were shattered, and one of the apartments caught fire. It took LEC 2 weeks to correct the situation. We had just experienced a month of outage because of a storm. I had gone to LEC to complain several times; just as other tenants did. It still took them a full month.
One day, two weeks ago I was at the Ministry of Commerce and the lights went off. My friend said, “oh LEC.” Then the official we were meeting said: “We have not had LEC for more than three weeks, all the neighborhood…” A transformer had blown off and business people had even proposed to pay for a new one, but they were still waiting. Ironic that for a business entity, losing thousands of dollars on a daily was not a concern to LEC, but again, it stopped being a business long again.
In early June, a storm broke one of the wires in our neighborhood. This plunged us in darkness. It’s a busy corridor, three gas stations, a hotel, two restaurants, a bank, a pharmacy and at least four apartment buildings. All were in darkness. LEC came and picked-up the wire and went. After two weeks, they reconnected the line, but it took them another week to send current. When current came, we realized that our area, with the bank, the pharmacy and another apartment building were not connected. When we finally got current, it was with an extremely low voltage and nothing functioned. Someone went to LEC. A group of 5 young guys showed up, claiming to be have been sent by someone at LEC to take care of our problem. They said they were contractors and needed to get paid. So, someone at LEC is employing people to do the job that LEC can’t do. They fixed the voltage and left. No paperwork.
The problem of a possible criminal syndicate at LEC is the direct result of what the state-owned enterprise has morphed into. The bicephalic leadership at the entity epitomizes what one may term as dysfunctionality at its best. LEC is led by two managers, one political, appointed by the President of the Republic or the Board and the other, the international consultant, hired by donors. The Liberians oversee the day-to-day operation of the entity while the international consulting managers oversee everything else. Liberians are not in control when it comes to major decisions and the international consultants have no control of what goes on daily on the ground, with customers. This has created a situation of Laissez-Faire were everyone works in silo and a big vacuum where criminals thrive.
Liberians spend more per kilowatt-hour than in other country in the region. Customers line up everyday to buy pre-paid tokens. LEC now produces more electricity than it can distribute. The dysfunctionality can only be attributed to the lack of real leadership. Nobody is accountable. The Liberian managers blame the international manager, “they are just here making big money and they don’t care about LEC or Liberia and they have no respect for us…” The international managers blame Liberians for the problems of the ground, “we provide all the logistics they need, we don’t need to go on the field to verify that things are working, that’s their job and we are a very small unit…” Therefore, nobody is accountable for the dismal state of LEC. Nobody is responsible. Customers pay for services that the company should be providing to its customers. The managers at every level may be good but the structure they work in is not conducive to productivity.
I once asked an international manager why they couldn’t send text messages to their customers for power disruption or on the radio… He said that was a good idea and added: “But then we will spend our time just sending text messages because power goes off like that… (he snapped his fingers.) As we used to say, “Mehn, we insigh…”
LEC provides a good case for privatization or full autonomy. The current situation where donors provide funding conveyed through and managed by consultants is not sustainable. As the customer base gets larger, LEC should be returned to its rightful state of commercial entity, providing electricity and being accountable to customers and government as it once did. This also epitomizes the infectiveness and negative impact of aid when not carefully planned and executed.
Beyond LEC, there is the larger question of the state owning and operating business entities. State-owned enterprises often stifle the growth of the private sector, because of their quasi-monopoly in spheres where they operate, and they enjoy facilitations because they belong to the state. They rarely report profits. Most often, they are cash-cows handed as rewards to political loyalists.
A responsible commercial service has the obligation to ensure that it can provide adequate support to its customers. What’s the logic of connecting one million people when you cannot provide service to more than 10,000 customers? LEC is now a shadow of what it should be.
Honorable Taylor Major would be shedding tears if he were to see what PUA has turned into.