Honourable Folks, it’s only earlier this month when I lamented the fact that Escom—a virtual monopoly in the generation and supply of electricity—and which is 100 percent state-owned and, therefore, a parastatal despite its status of a limited company—has increased tariffs by over 80 percent since JB ascended to power in April 2012.
Like a patient seeking attention by exaggerating the ailment, Escom has a litany of excuses for the increases—operational costs going up, vandalism costing it millions, siltation damaging its machines or customers not using energy server bulbs—There’s always something to say although for whatever reasons, recent hikes have been effected quietly.
And typical of the mentality of a sole provider of a vital service, the hikes are being made without any improvement at all on service quality. Power-outages (or blackouts) are still there and getting worse. Faults, which at least in Blantyre used to be attended to within an hour or so after reporting, are now taking anything between 12 and 24 hours.
Sometimes a blackout during the day is blamed on faults and if you give them a reminder in the evening, they will tell you it has coincided with load shedding which used to be every other day in my neighbourhood, but now it’s done almost daily.
But the one thing Escom doesn’t do is to blame the real culprit for its woes—politicians in government. From the days of Kamuzu Banda to-date, politicians in government have looked to Escom for much more than electricity. Escom board, just like the boards of other parastatals, is regarded as a dumping ground for cronies who can’t be accommodated in the Cabinet, diplomatic missions or other top jobs in the public service.
Of course, their stewardship has consistently been horrible and consequently, these State-owned companies have become an asset to politicians who plunder them and a liability to the tax-payer and consumer.
Take for example, the decision by Escom board (it has to be the board, right?) to make a “donation” of K35 million to the Presidential Initiative for Safe Motherhood in a year it has hiked tariffs in phases by over 80 percent so as to be able to break even; can anyone really believe that Escom has set aside the K35 million from the profit made in the year?
When Consumer Association of Malawi (Cama) executive director John Kapito rightly raised eyebrows, Escom decided to be quiet but State House spin-doctors described the so-called donation as “corporate social responsibility,” and accused Kapito in same breath of being unpatriotic, really?
No. We’ve moved as a nation to think that just because the money is for Safe Motherhood then we shouldn’t worry about how it has been sourced. It’s patriotism that makes Kapito ask how come poor Escom has suddenly raised K35 million for charity.
Escom board may authorise such a donation as a thank you to the President, their hiring authority. The President, as a candidate in the forthcoming elections, may also welcome such a donation knowing that it benefits women—who arguably make 52 percent of the electorate. In the usual Malawian style of political campaign, the incumbent builds a case on symbols of developmental projects already undertaken.
They point to roads, hospitals, bridges, markets, schools, etc. Obviously a K30 million shelter at Ntcheu Hospital is an ace in JB’s hands. But does the end justify the means? That’s the question we should be addressing in the name of patriotism.
If after its wild tariff hikes Escom was now able to realise an after-tax profit of K35 million, the most sensible thing would have been to plough that money back so it could either repair its rotten generators or extend its reach both in urban and rural areas.
In this 21st century, our mothers need electricity, so that pregnant women don’t have to travel long distances looking for firewood or swallow poisonous smoke as they cook for the family.
Women in the neighbourhoods of rural towns which were connected to the Escom grid under the Rural Electrification Programme, were relieved of the laborious pounding and grinding of maize into flour that used to be a 24-hour women-only burden. Electric mills did all that in minutes at very affordable rates.
Now those mills are gradually turning into white elephants as most of the time there’s no power in those trading centres (blame it on faults or load-shedding) and when there’s power the rates are so prohibitive for the majority of the rural women-folks.
If Escom does not bring efficiency into its operations and squander its monetary resources for political causes, more women will go back to kukonola (maize pounding) nkhuni (firewood) and chikoloboyi (improvised paraffin lump). It’s my contention that whoever causes that to happen, not Kapito, is unpatriotic.