Ours is a country of thieves; that’s why we have many power outages

Kenya Power's Kiambere -Embakasi highway voltage transmission powerline that collapsed last week. [David Gichuru, Standard]

Kenyans who were affected by the power outage in the middle of the week might have thought that it was the first major blackout in Kenya. A few years ago, there was a similar case and it was reportedly caused by a monkey, a narrative Kenyans refused to buy because power outages have become the norm in the country's recent history of corruption and rampant thievery.

Blackouts aside, there is the ever rising cost of electricity and the billing problems whereby certain households are presented with monthly bills running in to tens if not hundreds of thousands of shillings. The bigger problem is that the utility firm seldom listens to the cries of consumers about the abnormal bills or frequent power outages.

Also, in the cases of scheduled interruption of supply because of maintenance, it does not keep its word and power can be restored several hours past the time it was announced normal services would resume. During the olden days when it is said things used to work in Kenya, power outages were rare, but as Kenyans became hungrier and corruption became legal tender, things started changing.

One night in the mid-1980s, there was what was described as a national power outage. Some people, who are young enough to have experienced it, invariably say it was Kenya’s first major power outage.

To illustrate how rare, scarce or even non-existent power outages were — save for the scheduled switching off for maintenance purposes — many establishments connected to the national grid did not have battery-powered or rechargeable emergency lights, or even candles and lantern lamps.

On that night, people got scared since they thought that the country was under attack. Some thought that a senior politician had died. So many yarns were spun and that is proof that Kenyans did not start peddling conspiracy theories in the Internet age. Nairobi residents had reason to be scared considering that it was just a few years after the failed 1982 coup attempt and some people had not healed from the trauma they suffered.

Since it was at night, a few factories were operating but patrons were still in eateries, pubs and other entertainment joints whose owners ended up being the losers after being caught unawares by the thieving ways of the Kenyan patrons.

Upfront payment

For a start, that power outage changed the way Kenyans drink alcohol. It made publicans wiser. Previously, almost all establishments used to give clients their bills which they would clear before staggering out. But after the outage, many smaller establishments would ask patrons to pay upfront because people sneaked out under the cover of darkness without clearing their bills.

It is not clear how the power distributor explained away the outage those many years ago, but vandalism of electricity transmission equipment was not on the cards. But in the latest case of power outage, vandalism was mentioned as the reason. It has been blamed before, and that is how the phrase mulika mwizi entered the lexicon when the utility firm ran a campaign asking Kenyans to expose the vandals.

Away from the vandals, things have not been great in the offices of the sole power utility firm. Reports of crookedness by company employees from the top downwards have been rampant.

Cooking of books, embezzlement of funds, procuring poor quality equipment or tampering with them and cutting deals for kickbacks, all by staff, has seen the company’s fortunes dwindle instead of growing as its customer base increases.

Ideally, and logically, it should be improving its services and acquiring more and better equipment since consumers pay upfront for new connections, and also settle their monthly bills promptly when they are not abnormally high.

Sadly, because of the thieving ways of Kenyans at all levels and in any establishment, the company cannot meet its obligations and is often in the red. Like the drinkers who slithered away with the bills those many years ago when there was an outage, the company’s staff at all levels use every opportunity to pilfer, and many have been hauled to court over that.

As a matter of fact, the firm is a cash cow, and it has been whispered several times that its top management does the bidding of political godfathers, then pass the cost to consumers through abnormally high bills which cannot be explained. Then there are also consumers with illegal connections, and vandals who see the power lines and other electricity distribution equipment as sources of income.

It might not be safe to tell an angry people that we are experiencing long bouts of darkness because ours is a society of big and small thieves in government offices, in Parliament, in the estates, on the streets and at every corner, but it is true.

Our politicians steal from public coffers or have their cronies in utility firms do that on their behalf; we, the voters steal from each other, vandalise public utilities or cut corners so we do not pay for what we consume, and at the end of the day, we are left without electricity, then we get furious. Who are we really mad at?