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In the face of repeated difficulties around the supply of energy in Tanzania, Chambi Chachage writes that problems around power are as much about powerlessness as they are about a power crisis. If power cuts essentially mean the majority of Tanzanians remain a powerless people, it is time for power – energy and political – to be more fairly distributed, the author concludes.

It has become so predictable, this thing we call ‘power rationing’. We in Tanzania had it in 2006, 2007 and 2008. It is here in 2009. If the yearly trend continues then we shall surely experience it in 2010.

If we have forgotten the past then we only have to glance at the dates of the following front-page news stories from The Citizen to get a glimpse of how this power rationing is such a vicious cycle: '"Tanzania 2006: Power" crisis dominated headlines' (29 December 2006); 'Another power crisis as Songas turbines collapse' (25 September 2008); 'Power crisis: Tough times ahead – No solution in sight as sabotage suggestions angers Tanesco boss' (13 October 2009).

For some strange reasons the major power crises tend to emerge toward the end of the year. Some claim it is because of delayed rains. The moment you blame it on ‘Mother Nature’ you let humans off the hook. But isn’t being human all about taming nature? And, as experts of climate change insist, aren’t we the ones who affect those rain seasons with environmental degradation?

From what has been going on there is no way we can claim human agency is not behind this power tragedy. When we survey more cover stories from The Citizen this is what we get as evidence of why this is a manmade problem that needs humans to take responsibility: 'Business want power shedding compensation' (19 March 2007); 'Tanesco ordered to pay Sh190.8m to paper mill' (12 September 2007); 'Emergency power supply contract that never was' (19 March 2008); 'Rationing ends as power supply normalises' (The Citizen, 20 September 2008).

Humans, as a restaurant owner plighted with power cuts told me the other day, never get used to problems. We are not used to the power rationing problem. At the individual level we might have devised coping mechanism to partially deal with it but that does not mean we are really used to it. Every time we experience power cuts we suffer and complain. We also try to offer solutions.

When such a crisis occurred, or rather was made to occur, in October 2006, a concerned citizen wrote an open letter to President Jakaya Kikwete. He told him how the crisis was affecting his attempt at self-employment. His hope was that such a leader who was/is committed to creating a million jobs for (young) Tanzanians would/will take note of how the power crisis was/is a setback to that goal.

Three years down the line, self-employees are still bearing the brunt of the on and off blackouts. For instance, in the beginning of the year the parliamentary committee responsible for public investments accounts found out that a salon could incur a cost of up to an additional TSh 60,000 (Tanzanian shillings) per day during rationing. According its chair, Zitto Kabwe, in his press statement on the current crisis, the rationing curtails the capital of small-scale entrepreneurs and thus impoverishes them.

Companies also suffer: 'Power woes: Cement firm incurs over Sh2bn loss' (2 February 2007). The national economy as whole has been suffering: 'Revealed: Power crisis to cost nation Sh815 billion' (30 November 2006); 'Power disconnection cost Govt, firm Sh 540m a day' (22 November 2007). Even Tanesco is losing out: ‘Tsh 2 million or so per day’ says POAC’s chair!

Over the years, however, we have been coming up with ‘Band-Aid’ solutions. We can also see this reflected in The Citizen’s cover stories: 'New power tariff soon' (29 December 2006); '40 percent power rise will kill industries' (23 September 2007); 'Consumer body says Tanesco’s new connections charges are illegal' (19 November 2007); 'Govt is rattled as MPs reject power bill again' (20 March 2008); 'Power sector for partial liberalisation' (19 April 2008).

A survey of The Citizen’s headlines on the IPTL, Richmond and Dowans solutions is also self-revealing: 'Richmond says power equipment "in flight"' (21 October 2006); 'Tanesco: Dowans yet to commission 20MW' (19 January 2007); 'Dowans: Dr. Rashid throws in the towel' (7 March 2008); 'Ex-Richmond power deal may be extended to 2012'; 'Tanesco now halts Dowans contract' (1 July 2008); 'Court blocks sale of Dowans plant' (20 December 2008); 'Switch on Dowans, IPTL now, businesses tell govt (21 October 2009).

As I am writing this article the power cuts seems to have eased. Perhaps this is because of 'Kikwete’s order on IPTL' (22 October 2009). This order, depending on how you view it, came in the wake, or as a result of, the businesses’ call and Zitto Kabwe’s statement referred to above. I want to be so happy that the power cuts have been cut regardless of who has done it. But can I?

Politically speaking, is it possible to happily enjoy this power when a permanent solution to the recurring crisis has not yet been found? Economically speaking, is it possible to be happy about it even though it will cost us a lot in the long run? Morally speaking, how can it be possible to enjoy this power when there seems to be a shady cloud around it as the court process indicates?

These are the kinds of questions that make me think that perhaps there is more in the word ‘power’ than we use interchangeably with ‘electricity’. No wonder the veteran journo, Karl Lyimo, thus rhetorically admits: 'It seems I’ll never understand this even if I live to know the difference between power, energy and electricity!' Power cuts means we are a powerless people.

In my physics class I was taught that power is defined as energy over time. I was also taught that the law of conservation of energy states that you can neither create nor destroy energy. What you can only do is transform it from one form to another. And that is indeed what we have been doing since Uhuru: transforming mechanical energy from moving water into electrical energy.

Human agency is what has done this transformation. It is this same agency that has transformed fuel energy from generators to produce electrical energy. Surely the same agency has the power to harness the heat from the sun and force from the winds and turn them into electrical energy.

With all these forms of energy in our country, how can we afford to be powerless? Why can’t we have the same kind of belief that inspired Barack Obama to powerfully declare: 'We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories'? What is stopping us from being powerful enough to also conclude: 'All this we can do. All this we will do.'?

Power is about the distribution of resources. Let’s redistribute our energy resources. Yes, we can.


* Chambi Chachage is an independent researcher, newspaper columnist and policy analyst based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.
* 'Nyerere's Legacy', edited by Chambi Chachage and Annar Cassam, is coming soon from Pambazuka Press.
* © Chambi Chachage.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.