Every modern society needs constant electricity. It’s a necessity, not a luxury. Electricity drives development. If you run a photocopying business, without power you can’t feed your kids. If you are a student at a boarding school you can’t study in the evening. If you are a midwife at a health center you can’t delivery a baby at night. Labour waits on no woman.
Gulu is the biggest town in Northern Uganda. It is a hub serving a wider population of over a million people. Gulu has been powerless for 5 out of the last 10 days. This is an unmitigated disaster for business, education, health and anyone who wants to use a computer, a phone or a light. I write this from the lap of luxury, in a solar powered super-hut which keeps my computer running despite almost 72 hours without mainline electricity.
Today was hot and I wanted my daily cold soda (#confessions). No chance! Power cuts cause first world problems here, as well as serious ones. Brian the soda seller thought that sinister forces were behind the power cut…
“They are ruining our children’s future. Last week our students were sitting senior exams, and the government turned power off. This week the primary final exams are on, and they want our students to fail. How can they study minus light?”
Brian believes there is a conspiracy against the North. He thinks the government has cut power to the North to prevent kids studying at night, so they will perform poorly in their exams. They are trying to further weaken a traditional area of political opposition, which has already been developmentally delayed by war and economic stagnation. I’m not sure if this conspiracy is true, but when Brian is running a shop selling warm sodas in 30 degree heat, who am I to argue?
Power in Uganda is a ridiculous monopoly, run by one company called “Umeme”. Since 2004 they have build infrastructure, repair the lines, manage distribution, everything. But from the beginning Umeme has been plagued with problems. With constant power cuts around the country, rife electricity theft and extremely poor service, it’s hard to call their time in ‘power’ anything other than a failure. The situation is exacerbated as the government saving scheme NSSF owns 23% of the company This means that the government is in bed with the company, so is unlikely to pull the plug or they will also suffer. In 2011 the Ugandan electricity authority did consider throwing them out, but corruption, poor decision making, an unfavourable contract or a combination of all these factors led the electricity authority to renew the contract, facilitating another 10 years of Umeme failure.
Conspiracy or not, the problem is especially bad in Gulu and the people aren’t happy. A year ago hundreds of businessmen and local politicians protested in the streets and brought the central city to a standstill.
Just a couple of hours ago, some local residents decided to burn an Umeme truck, probably out of frustration at the ongoing power cut. Burning a truck which may have been on its way to repair a pole may not be the wisest decision, but you can understand the anger. If Umeme don’t sort this power cut soon, I’m sure the unrest will worsen.
For the moment, there is no obvious solution. We remain underpowered, and overfrustrated. Until Solar batteries become cheaper, some genius cracks cold fusion or Bill Gates’ funding produces a magical new energy generation method, Gulu’s development is at the mercy of an incompetent business, and the way forward isn’t clear! “Umeme peke!” (Power is not there).
If you can think of a better way to power Gulu, let us know and become both a saviour and a millionaire!