The current widespread electricity blackouts in the Greater Banjul Area are merely the latest in a long line of electricity crises caused by electricity non-privatisation and deregulation. Blackouts have been experienced from Banjul to Koina. They have been experienced in almost all parts of the country. Government bailouts of electricity companies have been necessary in the world. So why are governments around the world ignoring public opinion? How have governments been persuaded that electricity is just a commodity that should be traded in the market place like Serekunda Market, Brikama and all the other big markets in the country, rather than an essential service that needs to be controlled and supplied by governments to ensure its availability, reliability and affordability?
Dozens of governments have embarked on the pathway to electricity deregulation and privatisation since the mid-1990s. It has become the accepted wisdom among governments and opinion leaders. It is referred to as ‘liberalisation’ by its advocates who use the term to disguise what is in essence a massive shift of ownership and control of electricity from public to private hands, in the name of economic efficiency and in the cause of private profits. However, there are disadvantanges and negative impacts in privatising electiricity companies.
The privatisation of electricity is not something that citizens have demanded nor wanted. In general, there has been very little public participation in electricity reform decisions and as the consequences are observed, there have been many bitter protests against electricity privatisation. Popular uprisings have occurred in Senegal, India and Ghana. Protests have halted privatisation proposals in many different countries in the world. People were killed during protests against blackouts imposed by private companies. In South Africa, thousands marched during a two-day general strike to protest privatisation,which they labelled “born-again apartheid”.
Public enterprises have consistently provided electricity at no greater cost than privately-owned enterprises and often for prices that were far less than those charged by private companies. Electricity privatisation and deregulation have all the elements of a successful confidence trick. The deception or trick has involved persuading the public and the politicians who represent them that a dramatic alteration in the governance of their electricity systems would be in the public interest. Electricity consumers were promised electricity rate cuts, better service and ‘consumer choice’ as a result of the competition that deregulation would foster. Governments were promised reduced budget deficits and less responsibility for an increasingly complex and capital-intensive service sector. As a result there has been a massive transfer of ownership and control over electricity assets worldwide from the public to private companies. The companies that have taken over electricity provision in most countries are multinational companies with little interest in the welfare of local citizens. Increasingly these companies are congealing—through mergers and acquisitions—into a small group of very large conglomerates that dominate national and international electricity provision.
It is clear that the vast majority of people in each country where the great electric confidence trick has been played are its victims rather than its beneficiaries. Jobs have been lost, electricity prices have risen, service and reliability has fallen, pollution has increased, and taxpayers have had to bail out private electricity companies in bad times without receiving any dividends in good times.