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Electricity Theft in Liberia

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By S. Karweaye

On Thursday, August 26, 2021, the United States Ambassador, Michael McCarthy conducted a press conference in Monrovia, Liberia. During the press conference, he revealed that the US Government and other partners have contributed US$257 million to Liberia’s Energy Sector to rehabilitate the Mount Coffee Dam and restore power, but “If power theft and corruption continues in Liberia, the country will lose donors’ support.”  According to him, the Liberia Electricity Corporation (LEC) has lost US$220 million to technical and commercial losses and unpaid bills.  He lamented “Nowhere in the world is electricity-free. I pay an electric bill at my home in the United States.” Ambassador Michael McCarthy’s revelation is evidence that the horrendous energy sector in Liberia has become a source of national embarrassment and is arguably the most debilitated sector of the Liberian economy.

The first electricity generating plant, Walter F. Walker Hydro Dam (famously known as Mount Coffee Hydro-power Dam) was built in White Plain, Montserrado County around 1966. It was not until 1973 the Liberian government passed the Public Authority Law which resulted in the establishment of the Liberia Electricity Cooperation; the statutory body responsible for the generation, transmission, distribution, and sale of electricity in Liberia. After the Liberian civil wars, an Act to amend Chapter 85 of the 1973 Public Authority Law which created the LEC was approved in 2015 and led to the formation of the Liberia Electricity Regulatory Commission (LERC) with the mandates to oversee and regulate the power sector.

 On October 4, 2019, Liberia’s President George Manneh Weah signed the Power Theft Act, following its passage into law by the Legislature. The Act amends Chapter 15 of the Penal Law, repealing the 2015 Electricity Law of Liberia and adding Section 15.88, which establishes a system to stop power theft and stipulates penalties to deal with stealing electricity. It defines the crime of staling electricity as “illegal connections, tampering with meters, transmission, and distribution of line and theft of assets including light poles, wires and transformers” something the law says “remain the most singular challenge to the operations and maintenance of an effective public utility system in Liberia.”  According to the new Law, Power theft is considered a Second-Degree Felony and violators shall be subjected to tough penalties, which range from no less than 2 years with a maximum of ten in prison and fines ranging from US400.00 to up to US10, 000.00 depending on the gravity of the offense.

Forty-Eight years of formalizing the structure for energy management and supply in the country, have there been significant improvements? With the continuous promises from the government about power outages becoming a thing of the past, how is it that the electricity supply situation has only gotten worse? What is happening to the continuous budgetary allocations to the energy and environment sector and the numerous projects undertaken by the US government and other donors? How is it that countries like Ivory Coast and Ghana have been able to provide cheaper, steady, and improved power supplies while Liberians constantly hear fables? Most adults who have spent a great portion of their lives in Liberia have probably never experienced constant 24hours of government-supplied electricity without breaks between. In Liberia, No one is immune to the power outages so much so that the Legislative, Executive, and Judiciary’s offices are all powered by standby generators.

The importance of a reliable power supply in Liberia cannot be overemphasized. For there to be a major boost in the economy and the diversification away from dependence on raw natural resources for export, the power sector must be given utmost priority in budgetary spending and implementation. The benefits of having a steady power supply will impact tremendously manufacturing, create employment, attract foreign investment, and boosting business in general.

Is the government of Liberia relying wholly on the United States government and other donors to shoulder the investments in the energy and environment sector? In the 2019/2020 budget, the total allocation to the energy & environment sector was US$11.2M, a measly 2% of the total budget. For a sector in dire need of rehabilitation and resuscitation, these figures are not indicative of any sense of prioritization leading to improvements anytime soon.

Could it be that successive governments are simply uninterested in fixing the energy & environmental sector? It is disheartening that a nation with a population of nearly 4.6 million, generating capacity connection is only 126 megawatts with less than 20% of its population having access to electricity while Côte d’Ivoire’s, our neighbor with its population of 23.7 million, generating capacity connection is 2,178 megawatts. In the wake of the post-electoral crisis of 2011, only 34% of the Ivorians had access to electricity. According to the World Bank (WB), today, close to 94% of Ivorians are connected to the power grid. Unlike many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Côte d’Ivoire has a reliable power supply. It exports electricity to neighbors Ghana, Burkina Faso, Benin, Togo, and Mali, and plans to extend its grid to Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone this year. The Ivorian government has committed to meeting demand growth by increasing installed generation capacity by approximately 150 MW each year. It is not difficult to understand why Côte d’Ivoire surpasses Liberia on major development indicators despite the latter’s potentials. According to the World Bank, Ivory Coast has recorded success in its power sector by its “decision to privatize a portion of its electricity sector paved the way for one of the continent’s most robust energy systems that continues to expand and innovate with clean energy solutions.” It did not rely solely on the private sector or donor solution. Instead, it invested in making available resources both in the public and private sectors.

Until this government or any other government for that matter can tackle the energy supply problem in the country, it would not be taken seriously because this is one area where it is easiest to prove that a government is indeed working for the benefit of the people. Corruption and impunity which are the major culprits for the chaos in the sector must be dealt with as Ambassador Michael McCarthy mentioned. No doubt, with an order of magnitude of deficiency and inefficiency in the energy and environment sector caused by historical neglect, it will require an associated order of magnitude of investment, commitment, focus, and patience, for its turnaround. A good starting point – a massive national signal – would be for all government facilities (including the Executive Mansion, the Capitol Building, and Supreme Court) to stop forthwith the use of generators to supply electricity for their day-to-day activities both at work and home as well as payment of monthly arrears to the LEC in a timely fashion. Such a signal will not only compel the LEC to sit up and get better but will encourage policymakers to experience some of the pain that ordinary Liberians feel every day. Hopefully, this will engender change in official attitudes – and perhaps raise the budget for the energy sector from the pathetic amount provided for in 2020!

Ambassador Michael McCarthy is right on the energy theft issues. The challenge of energy theft is so daunting to the extent that such theft of electricity and associated loss of revenue to the tune of US$220 million is shocking. The sector cannot continue like this. There is no sector in the world where criminal acts affecting critical sectors are not given special treatment. Until people know that there are penalties for the specific crime of energy theft, this is not going to stop. There is a mindset that stealing electricity is okay and that needs to be corrected through rigorous enforcement. The Liberia Electricity Regulatory Commission and the Liberia Electricity Corporation must collaborate with security agencies and the judiciary in enforcing the Power Theft Act and deter energy theft.  The LERC and the LEC must acquire and install an Integrated Commercial Management System (If they don’t have)) to check repeated theft of electricity by consumers within its network coverage or to a more sophisticated system to check constant power theft. Liberians are desirous of growth in the power sector. Such growth or progression, hopefully, is to be predicated on regular power supply, and efficient service delivery by the LEC who is at the end of the power sector value chain. We as citizens must also frown on power consumers who bypassed meters and also vandalized transformers and feeder pillars, among others. If we fail to act decisively in correcting the ills of the energy sector, the opportunity for the country to recover could be lost.https://thenewdawnliberia.com/gol-businesses-and-cartel-milk-lec/

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