Last December, my family gathered at my grandmother’s house for the one-year anniversary of her death. Her house in Akim Oda, a small town in southern Ghana, was filled with well-wishers. I walked into the kitchen to fetch drinks for the guests, and as I opened the fridge, the lights flickered out.
“Oooh, light off!” my aunt called out from the living room. Electricity in the entire town had gone out; it did not return until midday the next day, right before I returned to Accra, the capital. “Surely, we can’t take much more of this,” I thought on the drive back.
I was right. This month Ghana’s president, John Mahama, called the leader of the opposition, Nana Akufo-Addo, to concede defeat in the presidential election. President Mahama lost by over one million votes — a recent presidential election, in contrast, was decided by fewer than 50,000 votes. The concession marked an end to a difficult tenure: A flailing economy and numerous corruption scandals plagued Mr. Mahama’s administration.
But most fatal for his re-election campaign was an electricity crisis — the worst in recent memory — that defined his four years in office. Frequent power failures of six to 24 hours, as well as unfulfilled promises to fix the problem, earned Mr. Mahama the nickname “the power-cut president.”
The new government, which will take over in January, has a number of options. Chief among these are injecting significant capital into the electricity sector and accelerating the building of power plants. These are not quick fixes, however, and they require patience from the public — which is in short supply here.
To be sure, the country has always had unreliable electricity. But things got noticeably worse in 2012, the year Mr. Mahama was elected. That year, the West African Gas Pipeline, which carries gas from Nigeria to Ghana, was damaged by a passing ship. Frequent breakdowns and erratic shipments of oil and gas also mean that Ghana’s power plants (mostly thermal) rarely produce enough electricity. And because of climate change, there is less rainfall to produce power at the Akosombo Dam, Ghana’s largest source of power.
In response, the Electricity Company of Ghana, the primary national distributor, began an aggressive “load shedding” program: During periods of high demand, electricity to various parts of the country is shut off to avoid a nationwide blackout.
“Dumsor,” as the situation is popularly known, is a colloquialism that translates to “off-on,” a reference to the regular shut-offs. It showed up everywhere: in pop culture, on social media and, eventually, at the polls.
The effects of dumsor have been profound. Many businesses, unable to foot the cost of fueling the private generators that would allow them to continue operations during power failures, laid off workers. Others were forced to shut down. A think tank at the University of Ghana estimates that dumsor costs Ghana $320 million to $924 million every year in productivity and economic growth.
Worse, Ghanaians felt the government was indifferent to their suffering. A member of Parliament from the governing party was reported to have said that the effects of dumsor were being “exaggerated by people who cannot afford to buy fridges or air-conditioners.” During a radio interview, another legislator from the same party advised anyone unable to cope with dumsor to move to neighboring Ivory Coast. Naturally, the opposition took full advantage of the discontent over the crisis; “dumsor” appears 15 times in its 2016 election manifesto and not once in the governing party’s.
The problem is a classic one: too much demand, too little supply. Last year, Ghana’s total dependable power capacity was 2,533 megawatts, just over half of which came from hydropower. But appetite for power has been skyrocketing. Demand recently has grown more than 10 percent annually. Although it closely matched supply in 2014, Ghana now needs to find 4,000 more megawatts just to keep up. The government’s programs to expand power generation, which began in 2007, have added only 35 percent of what is expected.
Ghana’s generation infrastructure needs significant updating to reduce the amount of electricity lost during transmission and distribution. But it’s not clear where President-elect Akufo-Addo will get the money to do that. Unhelpfully, the Electricity Company of Ghana, a state-run monopoly, is comically bad at collecting money from its customers — especially from other state-run institutions like the police and the oil refinery, which are among its largest debtors. And in April 2015, Ghana had to ask the International Monetary Fund for a $900 million bailout; in return, the fund demanded an austerity program.
To meet ever rising demand, Ghana needs to get more independent power producers that use both thermal and renewable sources of energy — and fast.
This won’t be easy. Taking a power plant from project development to commercial operation requires several years. You can’t force such a task to fit within the constraints of a four-year election cycle. There is no guarantee the public will be understanding when the next general election comes around in 2020.
There are several power projects in the works that could potentially be brought up to speed within a relatively short period. However, these projects were awarded by the departing government, and the new government may be hesitant to allow them to proceed if it means enriching its political opponents.
Meanwhile, the crisis persists. Two weeks ago, my neighborhood in Accra endured a rolling blackout. Time is not on Mr. Akufo-Addo’s side. His toughest job, therefore, will be to manage expectations. He can start by clearly articulating a plan with a realistic time frame.
But his administration also must raise money and get the private sector to invest in the electricity industry. Additionally, the new government should review and hurry along existing power projects, while it phases out inefficient subsidies in the electricity sector. It also needs to make the Electricity Company of Ghana start using dynamic pricing (charging more for electricity during peak hours) to manage demand.
If Mr. Akufo-Addo fails to resolve Ghana’s power crisis by the end of his four-year term, he can expect to make a call to a replacement president very similar to the one he received this month from the out-going president.
Kwaku O. Osei is an associate at the law firm Linklaters and a member of its Africa group.