US Ambassador McCarthy’s Call for Halt to LEC Power Theft in Retrospect

US Ambassador Michael McCarthy

In retrospect, recent remarks by US Ambassador McCarthy threatening a withdrawal of support from the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) if it fails to curb power theft should claim the urgent attention of the Liberian government. Power theft, according to sources, is said to be on the increase daily. 

Several individuals around Monrovia are reported to have been electrocuted while trying to illegally connect themselves to the power grid. Since the completion of the Mount Coffee hydroelectric dam, the LEC has been generating enough power to serve the needs of Monrovia and surrounding areas.

According to a USAID report, all four units in the Mt. Coffee hydro have since been commissioned following rehabilitation. This, according to the report, has provided the LEC with an additional 88 megawatts (MW) of electricity. 

Prior to this development, the power needs of Monrovia and surrounding areas depended on the generation of power from a 23 MW diesel plant. The output of the plant was however insufficient to meet the needs of large power consuming entities such as hospitals, restaurants, hotels and offices. 

The situation compelled those large entities to generate their own power at much higher cost than it would be otherwise if connected to the national power grid.

But the problem, according to some employees of the corporation, is that the LEC is hamstrung by distribution problems. Yes, it is producing enough electricity to serve Monrovia but only a small fraction of its residents enjoy access to electricity.

Currently, according to USAID, Liberia has one of the lowest electricity access rates in the world with only about 12% of the population enjoying access to electricity. In the capital city of Monrovia, host to over one million persons, less than 20% of the population has access to electricity. 

In rural areas, for example, only about 3% of the population has access to electricity while the national average for urban areas is a little over 16 percent, except for Monrovia which stands at 20 percent. 

But the Government of Liberia (GoL) has plans to produce by 2030, enough power to meet a peak demand of 300 MW of electricity, serving 1 million customers, thereby increasing access to 70% of the population in Monrovia and providing access to 35% of the rest of Liberia.

But 2030 is still a long way off, relatively speaking. And there are critical issues which, if not addressed, could serve to undermine GoL’s stated ambition. Some of those issues, according to a USAID report, have been identified as: 

  1. Weak and underdeveloped enabling environment, meaning as some experts suggest, the lack of sufficient participation by the private sector including the lack of a framework for private sector participation. There were however attempts by the former government to privatize the LEC, although it remains unclear to what extent this objective was successfully achieved under the past government. 

Funding for the rehabilitation of the Mount Coffee dam was made possible through an agreement between the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) and the Government of Liberia. The US$257 million agreement called for the rehabilitation of the Mount Coffee dam, the development of a training center for electricity technicians and support for the creation of an independent sector regulator and support for the development of a nationwide road maintenance framework. 

  1. Weak public utility that is not commercially viable, with high tariff and high commercial losses, is another key issue identified by the USAID report. Currently the cost per kilowatt hour of electricity in Liberia is US$0.54(fifty-four cents), which ranks amongst the highest in the entire world. This could probably explain why power theft is so high and virtually rampant. 

As electricity is a highly desired and needed commodity, people will generally tend to go out of their way to source electric power, even if it means having to steal it. Although several individuals have been electrocuted while attempting to “steal power”, however, such incidents/accidents have not had the desired deterrent effect. Some LEC staff, according to reports, are deeply involved in the theft and illegal sale of power.

Several communities have complained about the lack of electricity supply in their communities and have resorted to staging public protests against what they consider a denial of their rights. And they have also complained about the corruption and bureaucratic red-tape involved in getting connected to the grid.

  1. Delayed expansion of transmission and distribution network is another key issue identified in the USAID report. For reasons that remain unclear, LEC, it appears, lacks the capacity to distribute the power it produces. 

The institution has also been accused of the illegal sale of meters and transformers, some of which are reportedly taken away from registered customers by LEC staff, allegedly for sale to the highest bidder. Some analysts attribute the alleged involvement of LEC staff in power theft to low salaries, as compared to expatriates and the lack of incentives to enhance job performance.

In addition to all the above, the management of the LEC appears to operate under a virtual cloak of secrecy. As a public utility facility/enterprise, the LEC is required by law to submit annual reports to the National Legislature. As such, it becomes difficult to actually determine the accuracy and veracity of such allegations. 

At this juncture, we would be remiss if we did not reflect, in this editorial, the sentiments of many concerned Liberians, wishing for the no-nonsense leadership of Madam Mary Taryonnoh Broh at the helm of LEC. Her track record of restoring efficiency, transparency, and professional decency to the Monrovia City Corporation, the Passport Section of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the National Port Authority and (currently) the General Services Agency, will (and must) never be forgotten. 

The LEC must also open its books for public scrutiny in keeping with its legal obligation to do so. Perhaps this could help reduce the general perception that the institution is corrupt. US Ambassador McCarthy could perhaps be of help in this regard by calling on the LEC management, including the ESB International Engineering and Facilities Management to become more transparent and accountable if indeed it is to manage the institution towards commercial viability.

In this regard, the lessons of Afghanistan must not be lost on us. Corrupt and unaccountable leadership fueled a disconnect between the Afghan people and their government and led to one of the greatest US debacles in recent history.