/ 26 August 2022

Nigerian hospitals are operating in the dark amid chronic blackouts

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Powerless: Midwife Gloria Garbor with a baby delivered at a clinic in Banki, Nigeria. The country’s power crisis puts vulnerable patients, such as premature babies, at risk. Photo: Lynsey Addario/Getty Images

It was 10 o’clock at night at Cottage Hospital in Adamawa, in the northeast of Nigeria. Doctor Tella Quadri was notified of an emergency – a woman was having difficulty giving birth. A caesarean section would be needed. By midnight, he was operating. But then everything turned off and he found himself in the dark.

The hospital doesn’t have much in the way of formal power supply, so it relies on generators. These can shut down abruptly, leading to a total blackout in the hospital.

While non-medical staff fought with the generators, Quadri kept operating with the aid of lamps and torches. Shortly after, the cry of a newborn echoed around the theatre.

This challenge is not unique to Adamawa. Nigeria has 28 working power plants, the majority of which are powered by gas. In theory, these give the country 16 000 megawatts of installed energy capacity. That’s about a third as much as South Africa, the next-largest economy on the continent. But South Africa only has a third of Nigeria’s 200-million people.

On a normal day, only 4 000MW is functional. That’s equivalent to Senegal, with a population of just over 16-million people.

And even this is precarious. The Transmission Company of Nigeria says the grid has collapsed 146 times in the last 12 years.

A 2017 study on “energy policy for low-carbon development in Nigeria” estimated that the country needs up to 12 times more energy than is supplied. In addition, The World Bank estimates 85-million Nigerians don’t have access to electricity from the national grid, making it the country with the largest energy access deficit in the world.

In the last few months, 14 power plants have ceased to work, dropping capacity to 2 000MW. A fifth of the energy generated is also lost in old and faulty transmission lines before it can be used.

For places that need a stable supply of electricity, such as hospitals, this is a life- threatening problem.

In Ibadan, Nigeria’s second-biggest city, the University College Hospital uses 75 generators to do its work. The head of the country’s Federal Medical Centre, Abeokuta Adewale Musa, last month said the hospital spends $105 000 a month on diesel.

In Adamawa, Quadri said the incessant power failures put patients’ lives at risk. This is particularly true for people on life-support machines  and premature babies. 

Anaesthetic, dialysis and incubation machines all need electricity, as do the myriad other pieces of technology needed in a modern hospital. At best, people’s conditions worsen. At worst, they die. When the power goes out, Quadri said, everyone has to act, running up and down “because a patient could die before we switch to another power source”.

A longer stay in hospital also increases the cost. With a stuttering economy, where inflation is near 20% and employment at around 10%, this is a cost people cannot afford.

For hospitals, extra costs are incurred in buying new generators, maintaining them and feeding them with diesel and petrol. Both of those have got more expensive this year on the back of global price hikes. While Nigeria is a big fossil-fuel exporter, little of that is refined, so the country has to import fuel.

For doctors, this pressure is an added incentive to move. 

A paediatrician said: “When Nigerian doctors migrate to other countries, we do not do so solely because of the money but also because of the burden of working in an unconducive environment.”

This was made all the worse by the constant power outages.

The Nigerian Medical Association estimates 9 000 doctors have left the country in the past two years alone.  

This article first appeared in The Continent, the pan-African weekly newspaper produced in partnership with the Mail & Guardian. It’s designed to be read and shared on WhatsApp. Download your free copy here