Some federal universities have suffered have been thrown into blackouts due to their failure to settle outstanding bills in favour of electricity distribution companies, investigations have revealed.
The blackouts, our correspondent learned, continued to linger despite efforts to ensure that the ivory towers benefit from uninterrupted power supply to ease learning for students.
Blackouts have remained a major problem, not just in universities, but across the entire Nigerian society, leaving in its trail unnecessary difficulties in the execution of simple tasks and grounding economic activities.
However, experts say electricity blackouts in institutions of higher learning pose greater challenges as they have stood in the way of learning, the conduct of groundbreaking research and the smooth running of all activities.
This has also led students to resort to unhealthy alternatives just to get by.
In 2021, in a move to sort out the lingering problem, the Federal Government introduced the Energising Education Programme to provide sustainable and clean power supply to 37 federal universities and seven university teaching hospitals across the country.
The project includes the provision of independent power plants, upgrading existing distribution infrastructure, street lighting to improve security within the campuses, as well as the development of a world class training centre on renewable energy for each university.
Being implemented by the Rural Electrification Agency and developed in phases, the first phase is expected to deliver 28.5 megawatts to nine federal universities and one university teaching hospital, using solar hybrid and/or gas-fired captive power plants.
According to the government, the first phase of the EEP will benefit 127,000 students and 28,000 staff members of universities, 4,700 staff members in teaching hospitals (including 819 doctors), power 2,850 streetlights, and result in the decommissioning of hundreds of generators.
Our correspondent’s findings revealed that the project had yet to bear fruits as universities are still battling with interrupted power supply.
A former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Lagos, Prof Toyin Ogundipe, towards the end of 2021, warned of possible blackouts in many of the higher institutions over the hike in electricity tariff by the power distribution companies.
Ogundipe said UNILAG used to pay monthly electricity charges of N61m when academic and non-academic activities were in full capacity and paid N62m for November 2020.
“During the total lockdown when there were no activities apart from the home use for workers living on campus, we were paying N32m on a monthly basis. But now without the students on campus, we were charged N62m for November. This implies that the amount may double when students are back on campus and activities resume fully. How can we afford that?,” he had stated.
The then vice-chancellor said he checked other universities and found out that the situation was the same, adding that there was hardly any university in the country that could afford to pay such exorbitant charges.
“And to complement this, we spent N45m on diesel in three months. What is our subvention? How much do we generate? What is our personnel cost? This is a peep into the challenges confronting the Nigerian university system, yet we have to compete with institutions where basic amenities and workers’ welfare are necessities and not luxury,” Ogundipe added.
Disconnection in varsities
Investigations by our correspondent revealed that failure to pay the high tariffs by federal universities from 2021 had led to disconnections by the Discos.
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A notice of disconnection sent to the Ahmadu Bello University by the Kaduna Electricity Distribution Company on April 4, 2023 revealed that the institution owed a total of N931,479,317.84.
The notice, which was addressed to the office of the vice-chancellor, urged the university to “please settle your bills.”
Our correspondent also learnt that the disconnection notice was followed by a total blackout, which lasted some days until the intervention of the Kaduna State Government.
Similarly, the University of Maiduguri also suffered an outage. Information gathered by our correspondent from reliable sources in the institution revealed that the outage was due to the fact that the university could not afford to pay the new rate introduced by the power provider.
Though our correspondent could not get details of the amount owed, it was gathered that plans were being made to meet with the Yola Electricity Distribution Company over the issue.
In November 2021, medical students of the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, protested the two-month outage and urged the institution to find a lasting solution to the power issue.
In January 2021, the Obafemi Awolowo University was plunged into darkness over outstanding electricity bills. The Ibadan Electricity Distribution Company noted that the institution owed N43m.
Fuel, electricity bills
Investigation revealed that due to blackouts over outstanding bills and other factors, most universities had to either partly or wholly depend on generators to power their libraries and laboratories, and as expected, this exacts a huge cost on the institutions’ meagre resources, accompanied with the hazards posed by harmful emissions.
Analysis of the 2023 appropriation document revealed that the federal universities would spend about N6.5bn on electricity charges and fuel for generators. In the document, the University of Lagos is to spend N1.4bn on electricity charges; ABU, N104m; and UI, N60m.
The Nigerian Maritime University also received N80m for plant/generator fuel; and Bayero University, Kano, N89,104,802 for the same purpose.
An ex-Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Uyo, Prof Ini Uko, told our correspondent that the cost of running universities ranked high hence the need for the government and stakeholders to hold a dialogue on the issue.
Uko, a professor of engineering said, “This is among the several issues plaguing the universities. The cost of running the universities is very high. The government needs to discuss with stakeholders on the way forward. The problem is that Nigerians believe that there is free lunch. There is nothing like that. We live in our homes and we all know the amount we pay as bills.
“The meagre fees paid by students are not enough to cater for the needs of the universities. Some of us lecturers have to go to the universities with projectors and even fuel generators ourselves.”
The Chairman, Academic Staff Union of Universities, Federal University of Technology, Minna branch, Prof Gbolahan Bolarin, said, “The issue is this, the budget approved for most universities under recurrent expenditure is barely enough. Take for example, some universities have N1.6m per month as approved budget, but the monthly expenditure on power is as high as N20m.
“Some of them don’t even have enough IGRs to settle their power bills, talk less of buying diesel. Until funding is improved, we will continue to have this kind of situation.”