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The politics of our solar lights

By James Tamba Lebbie

A recent press release from the Ministry of Energy says a solar street light pilot project comprising about 9,000 solar poles “is being implemented nationwide in all the four regions of Sierra Leone. This means, the North, South, East and Western Region in all the 14 Districts in Sierra Leone. Added to the 14 District Headquarter Towns, the facility is currently extended to other urban towns like Lungi, Lunsar, Koindu, etc. which are also benefiting from the solar street lights.”

According to press release, the Indian company, Angelique International Limited is working with local consulting engineers, WAPCOS Limited to carry out the pilot project. The release is, however, silent on who is paying for this project and/or whether the funding is through a loan or a grant agreement.

No doubt, the project has been hailed generally, especially by people in the provinces as a development stride by the government. And the people’s euphoria should be understood against the backdrop of the fact that they are only seeing (not getting) light in some strategic public places, especially in many district headquarter towns, for the first time in decades. For instance, the installation of solar lights in hospitals and peripheral health units among other public facilities is bound to delight at the initial stage workers and beneficiaries of those services. Even if with the passage of time many will begin to comprehend the limitations of those solar lights given the manner in which they are being installed.

In addition, light from solar is considered clean and renewable as opposed to light from fossil fuel, especially when it is considered against the backdrop of carbon footprints and its consequent depletion of the ozone layer, according to scientists. Solar energy is also said to be comparatively cheaper to that of fossil fuel energy.

Notwithstanding these advantages, there are clearly some misgivings about the potential pitfalls of solar panels as well as the manner in which the project is being implemented. First, according to experts in the field, the efficiency of a solar light is determined by the quality of not only the solar panel but also the nature of its installation. And, with the non-existence of the culture of maintenance, coupled with the obnoxious practice of stealing public property in our society, expressing scepticism over the durability of the project cannot be said to be misplaced.

But the greatest apprehension is over the political decisions – both at the macro and micro levels – that informed the distribution of those solar panels and the poles. At the macro level, some observers including those within opposition circles believe that the northern region which comprises five districts has more than its fair share of solar lights at the expense of the southeast which has a total of seven districts. They believe the ministry of energy has influenced that outcome to appease the power base in the north. A counter argument by pro-government people, though, is that the north is larger in space than the south and the east combined and should therefore get the lion’s share.

At the micro level, the problem goes beyond apprehension to that of concrete evidences on ground that the distribution of the solar lights has been marred by political interference both at the regional and district levels. Recently, a local radio in Freetown named and shamed some government and public officials for allegedly influencing the installation of those solar lights in their private homes at the expense of public places. The broadcast, no doubt, sparked some debate of at least two dimensions. First, opinions were divided over the appropriateness or otherwise of government and other public officials personally benefiting from the solar lights. And what was apparently evident about these arguments is that the reaction of the people was largely determined not by an objective assessment of the merits or otherwise of the action but by people’s political inclination and association.

The other dimension of the argument which in my view is less significant to the overall object of this piece, concerns the handling of the story by the said radio station. In this regard, opinions were also divided over whether or not a comprehensive picture of the scale of political interference in the distribution of those solar lights was portrayed by those who broke the news. In other words, why did the radio programme name and shame some government and public officials for stealing public resources while others that are equally culpable of the same act in the same locality were ignored? Was it a case of a politically-motivated witch-hunt? The answer is not for me to determine.

Meanwhile, the minister of energy is said to have come out with a public statement that it is government policy, for government officials to benefit from the solar lights. What is not clear though is whether the policy covers government officials living in their private homes. Making this distinction is informed by my knowledge that the resident minister in Kenema for instance, has solar lights installed on the road to his private residence which is not a main street in Kenema. Not only that they are also within the confines of the said residence. And this therefore begs the question as to what will happen to those concerned government officials that would be eventually fired from their jobs? Will the ministry of energy relocate those facilities to the private homes of their successors?

And with this question in mind, the central arguments of my piece are that first, as good as the intention may be behind that project, the manner in which the solar lights were distributed and installed is both a shambolic and cosmetic attempt at addressing the country’s energy needs. This is because while the lights are installed on few major streets, the bulk of the people who really need the facility ironically continue to live in pitch darkness in the inner parts of towns and cities. In essence, only the relatively affluent who were privileged to construct houses along the main roads and who in most cases can also afford electricity in their homes will benefit from the light.

But let us also look at the controversy sparked by the distribution of the solar lights from another perspective. From the literal point of view, people raised eyebrows over the special favours granted to some government and public officials because it is visible for everybody to see. In other words, such a resource cannot be hidden from the people when it is siphoned by public officials since the majority of people live and sleep in darkness.

Paradoxically, the solar light also brought to light the unjust way and manner other less visible public resources and facilities have been distributed among the rich and powerful.

(C) Politico 25/07/13