For 11 months in 2021, Borno State in north-eastern Nigeria has been without electricity due to attacks on transmission lines by terrorist groups that have been waging war against the state for more than a decade. The attacks have impacted the government and businesses in a more devastating way to the residents than the havoc of the twelve-year insurgency. This report captures the deep-seated frustration of the war-weary Borno people, business owners, humanitarian organisations and government workers who used to depend on public electricity for daily operations. It is a riveting account of how hospitals, schools, courts and other public institutions struggle to deliver public service in the midst of endless human misery without electricity supply. Ajibola AMZAT reports.
Additional report by Zainab Yetunde ADAM (Maiduguri, Borno State)
‘Dead’ vaccines for patients?
Hauwa Ahmad Dikwa, the deputy facility manager at Gamboru Primary Healthcare Centre in Maiduguri, Borno State, is a soft-spoken woman.
Yet the echo of her gentle voice was loud enough during an interview held in a small dingy room she uses as an office.
The office is quiet and dark and has been without electricity for more than 11 months, except for an hour or two, a day.
In her 20 years of working as a midwife and nurse, Dikwa said she has never been so frustrated and helpless in a workplace. That is the situation the electricity outage in Borno has foisted on her since January 2021.
Though the federal and the state governments have invested billions of naira on electricity infrastructure in the North-East within the last six years, members of Boko Haram and Islamic State of West Africa Province (ISWAP) have targeted especially those in Borno State and destroyed them.
On January 26, the terrorist group attacked a 330KVA power transmission line along Maiduguri-Damaturu road, plunging several communities in 22 local government areas among the 27 local councils in Borno State into darkness. The five local government areas that have not been affected are Hawul, Bayo, Shani, Biu and Kwaya kusar.
Though Yola Electricity Distribution Company YEDC responded quickly and restored electricity in certain parts of the state, the fix was short-lived.
On Saturday, March 27, the terrorists planted Improvised Explosive Devices and destroyed the two newly erected towers.
Six months later, they blew up other transmission lines.
The attacks have paralysed operations in hospitals, schools, markets, government offices and business centres, making the lives of residents more difficult even beyond the imagination of the terrorists, who since 2009 have waged what many people have described as ‘unjust war’ against the state known as Home of Peace.
When The ICIR visited on December 7, Gamboru Primary Healthcare Centre already had used up its one hour of electricity supply per day and would have to operate without power till the next day when the weak batteries of its two solar panels would have been re-charged.
Till then, Dikwa said there would be no electricity to handle even basic procedures in the clinic, let alone undertake child delivery.
And there are many child deliveries in that part of the town because of the displaced people who have sought refuge in Gamboru after the Nigerians soldiers had driven insurgents outside Maiduguri, the capital city, in 2012.
The health facility manager, Hajiya Zainab Bulama, estimated the average monthly deliveries at the clinic to be 30.
The clinic record showed that 358 women have delivered at the healthcare centre between January and December 2021. And most of the deliveries occurred in a poorly-lit labour room, with needless strains on midwives and women in labour.
During emergencies, nurses at Gamboru Healthcare Centre use torchlights and lanterns to find their way around the dark labour room. Many times, the nurses have to rummage through the drug shelves in the dark to fetch prescribed medicine for patients. And some of the drugs are already expired due to poor storage caused by a lack of electricity.
Sensitive drugs administered on women in labour, such as Oxytocin and Zytocin injections, are supposed to be kept between two to eight-degree temperatures, but that is practically impossible at Gamboru PHC.
The drugs are stored in a refrigerator rather too stuffy due to the implacable hot weather of Maiduguri, which was at 35 degrees Celsius in December. In April, the weather is more fierce, rising to 45 degrees Celsius.
At corners of the room where Dikwa was seated lie disused scanning and suction machines, a film of dust has settled on them. She said the hospital has stopped using the equipment since the solar energy can no longer power them because the batteries are weak.
Nurses, therefore, have instead resorted to using a manual suction machine which, according to her, may discomfort mother and child, or cause infection for both during delivery.
“But a manual suction machine is better than nothing,” she said with a sad smile.
Years back, a charity group donated generator to complement the solar power at the healthcare centre, but nobody bothers to switch it on because there is no imprest to buy fuel to operate the gen.
“Most times, we are on our own,” Dikwa said.
Bulama and Dikwa are the only two qualified midwives at Gamboru health centre; the rest are unskilled community health workers and lab attendants.
Though the government pays their salaries as at when due, but there is much less the staff could do without electricity, Bulama said.
The situation at Gamboru is similar to several other healthcare centres in many parts of Borno State.
According to a senior health official who spoke off-record, the vaccines administered to pregnant women and children in various primary health care centres in Maiduguri within the last 11 months were as good as plain water, without potency.
Vaccines and diluents lose potency and effectiveness if exposed to inappropriate temperatures – either too warm or cold. And once lost, the vaccine cannot regain potency.
“It is like we give a dead vaccine, and the patients don’t know,” the health officer said.
Her statement had the unmistakable ring of truth, and a visit to Gamboru Market Dispensary, another primary healthcare centre in Maiduguri Metropolitan Council, confirmed the truth.
Indeed, no active vaccine can be administered at several primary healthcare centres in Maiduguri, considering the poor storage of drugs due to power supply shortage.
Recall that Nigeria destroyed over a million expired Covid-19 vaccines last month because of short shelf life.
Zainab Ahmed, head of the local dispensary, painted a grim picture of her centre.
Before the power outage in January, the facility had been without electricity for years. And most treatments and deliveries that were carried out were done without electricity.
Zainab recalled how health workers had to contribute money from their meagre salary to buy fuel so that they could attend to patients in distress. Some of these staff received as low as N6,000 salaries per month.
With a salary of less than N100,000 per month, Zainab bought a small generator, the type called I better pass my neighbour in local parlance, so that she could generate electricity for the clinic. That way, the dispensary was able to produce ice packs for the cold box used in preserving vaccines administered to pregnant women who come for antenatal care. But some youths in the community stole it, and now the dispensary is without electricity and in dire straits.
Yet the precarious condition of the dispensary has never prevented patients from thronging in for treatment. People, mostly IDPs, visit the dispensary to treat ailments such as malaria, typhoid, and even serious diseases like tuberculosis, hypertension, diabetes and HIV.
“Many, including expectant mothers, prefer to come here because the service is free.”
The dispensary refers patients to bigger hospitals for critical cases, said the senior nurse. But the majority of the patients often refuse the referral option because they cannot afford the bill, and some, for the simple reason that, secondary and tertiary hospitals already are also overwhelmed with sick patients.
Yet these hospitals, like the PHCs, also struggle with an energy crisis that has dogged the state for nearly 11 months. University of Maiduguri Teaching Hospital, UMTH, a tertiary hospital, is the worst hit.
The human cost
UMTH has a total of 530 bed-capacity, 17 clinical and 14 non-clinical departments, and serves over 25 million people in the North East, comprising Borno, Yobe, Adamawa, Taraba, Bauchi, and Gombe states.
The hospital also receives patients from across the Cameroun, Niger and Chad Republic borders.
Since the electricity shut down early in the year, the hospital has cut down on the number of patients it receives.
Professor Mala Bukar Sandabe, Chairman Medical Advisory Committee at UMTH, said the number of patients the teaching hospital could take at once has reduced by more than 70 per cent.
“Before, we used to operate ten patients in a day, and now we only operate two or three. We used to do 100 ultra-scan with electricity, and now we barely do 15 per day since the power outage. Also, we used to analyse 500 blood samples daily; now we analyse only between 70 and 80 blood samples.”
Despite scaling down its operations, the monthly expenses on energy are almost unbearable, said Sandabe, a professor of Otolaryngology.
“Before the shutdown, the hospital used to spend N18 million per month on electricity generated via the national grid. Now it spends nearly as much on a weekly basis only to buy fuel, no thanks to the hiked price of diesel from N270 to N380 per litre.”
But the hospital could not afford to stop using the diesel even for a day because “ninety-nine per cent of our work requires electricity,” said Sandabe.
“Without electricity, the work suffers”.
On December 2, the hospital operations were paralysed because diesel contractors stopped supplying fuel due to the accumulated debt of N400 million. It took the intervention of the North East Development Commission to get the hospital running again, Sandabe said.
Health is not the only sector paralysed by the effect of power outages in Borno. Schools also are affected.
How power outage affects water supply, food provision in schools
In 2019, President Muhammadu Buhari commissioned a state-of-the-art primary school named after Vice President Yemi Osinbajo in Bolori. The school has 60 air-conditioned classrooms, dining facilities, among others, and serve food twice a day to IDP and other vulnerable children in the state. Operating such a school is a boost in the region, where the out-of-school children are estimated at 10.5 million.
The same year, Borno State Government launched an education enrolment initiative – Better Education Service Delivery for All (BESDA) – to enhance access to quality education. BESDA provides support to schools such as Osinbajo Primary School.
But when the insurgents attacked the electricity facility in January, most schools in Maiduguri were also affected, including the school named after the vice president.
Children and teachers who thought they had finally escaped the onslaught of Boko Haram realised that the long arm of the terrorist group could reach them even at the comfort of their classrooms.
The school’s assistant headmaster, Mohammed Auwal Sani, said it has become more expensive to provide food and water for the pupils who look forward to having daily meals at the school.
There is no electricity to pump water from the borehole, he said.
“With NEPA, we can easily get light to get water on a daily basis. But without it, we can’t get water.”
Though the government provides solar energy as an alternative for power supply, Sani said the capacity of the solar panel is inadequate.
About ten solar panels were damaged last year by the wind and kept in the store unrepaired because there was no budgetary resource for it.
And since the school cannot do without water, the principal and his deputy decided to buy fuel weekly to power a small generator, even though there is no imprest to cover such expenses.
“We spend about N800 to buy five litres of fuel every day and N700 to buy one litre of engine oil every week,” Sani said, noting that they have to do that to run the daily two-shift classes and keep providing two free meals for children per day.
Even the air conditioners and fans in classes and offices are now mere decorations; they are no longer in use because the solar panel cannot power them.
So in the dry season, both teachers and pupils sweat it out in the classrooms under the scorching Maiduguri weather.
The senior teacher said the school management has written to BESDA for assistance, but they are still awaiting a response.
Schools, like Government Day Secondary School, Zajeri, was lucky, though. The school is not affected by the electricity outage because it has never been connected to the national grid.
The principal, Usman Mansur Kyari, said the school relies 100 per cent on solar energy, which allows them to power fans and lightning devices. But to run a school with solar energy is more expensive, he said.
The ICIR finds out that most government agencies, humanitarian agencies and private businesses in Borno are also going through a hard time worsened by the protracted electricity shutdown. The energy cost of running the government and private businesses in the state has put an enormous strain on public service delivery.
(To be continued)
This report is produced in partnership with the Centre for Democracy and Development (CDD).