Dumsor Struggles: Light-off and Petrol Shortages in West Africa’s Newest Oil Capital

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On July 20th, I emerged from my hotel/apartment to find something for dinner, and I was confronted with total darkness. The electricity in my temporary home was provided by a generator, which guaranteed uninterrupted access to light, electrical outlets, air conditioning, wireless internet, and satellite TV—all of the comforts of upper middle-class and elite existence in the continent’s newest oil capital. My hotel was one of the more recent examples of construction in the capital. And I paid dearly for the comfort and efficiency of electricity, particularly compared to the much more basic conditions of longer-term housing that shaped my experience of dissertation research in 2009, when electricity provision was much less of a concern than access to water.

I knew where I was going, but I also knew that I would be unable to find my way through the winding streets of Osu in complete darkness, so I hailed a taxi. As we made our way to the other side of Osu, the streets got darker. “It’s good that you took a car,” the driver said. “You should not walk in this area at night, especially when there is light-off.” Darkness, it seemed, redefined the safety of urban life in multiple ways. Streets that I ordinarily walked freely during the daytime took on a sinister tone, even for Ghanaian residents who saw the dark corners as prime hiding places for thieves and other criminals. People, who would ordinarily be engaged in various forms of commerce or entertainment, slept on stoops, sidewalks, and benches in order to escape the heat and stagnant air inside, to protect businesses, and to pass the time. They could not—or could no longer—afford to run a generator in the face of persistent electricity shortages. Even the glow of coal fires and paraffin lamps, which had long been a familiar sight in Accra’s poorer neighborhoods, were missing. The generator-fuelled restaurant blasted light into the enveloping darkness. Inside, business continued much as usual. A large birthday party took up the main dining room. Other guests were taken to back rooms where they were served freshly prepared Indian dishes and cold beverages.

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“Light-off” is not new in Ghana. The country was periodically subject to load-shedding throughout the 20th century. Kwame Nkrumah’s Akosombo Dam, which promised to electrify the country, spur the growth of industrial manufacturing, and export hydro-electricity to its neighbors in the 1960s, was significantly hobbled by the early 2000s. Several of the turbines were reportedly no longer fully operational in 2007—the year of Ghana’s 50th anniversary of independence. In the midst of the Ghana @ 50 celebrations, the entire country experienced persistent load-shedding, due (as government officials explained on the news) to persistent lack of maintenance and low-levels of rainfall and consequent low water levels in the Volta River. As we approached the major independence celebrations on March 6, 1957, government rhetoric about the country’s progress rang hollow for many Ghanaians, who pointed to electricity shortages as a sign of governmental failure. Many criticized then-President J.A. Kufuor’s image presented side-by-side with that of Kwame Nkrumah on celebratory billboards. When the lights went off at night, the young men living in the dorms of Commonwealth Hall, where our flat was also located, began to chant “Ghana at 50” as a sarcastic commentary on the promise of independence and the failures of government policy. When water levels rose, more regular electricity resumed. But for some communities—neighborhoods in Accra and communities outside of the capital—electricity outages were ongoing realities regardless of water levels, the result of poor electricity infrastructure and unregulated building.

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This most recent round of “light-off”, however, was different. It was a full-fledged energy crisis, which began in 2012 when President Mahama’s administration announced that a ship’s anchor had severed the West Africa Gas Pipeline and forced the country’s gas turbines to shut down for lack of fuel. Shortages seem to have further increased in severity since December 2014, when load-shedding shifted from 24 hours on/12 hours off to 12 hours on/24 hours off in some areas. The Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG) published schedules for shortages, organized by region, district, and community. Ghana’s electricity generating capacity is currently 400-600 megawatts less than its demand; capacity has clearly failed to keep up with the increase in refrigerators, air conditioners, cellphones, televisions, and other electricity-consuming products popular among upwardly-mobile or aspirational Ghanaians.

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The crisis spawned the creation of new words—“dumsor”, which means “off-and-on” in Twi—and new tools inspired by the frustrations produced by dumsor. A flashlight app for Android was named “dumsor”. Popular Ghanaian artists like Sarkodie and Wanlov the Kubolor produced songs inspired by dumsor and criticized the inability of the government to address the crisis—connecting the failure to address electricity shortages with broader social, political, and economic concerns in Ghana. Ghanaians took to social media to complain about the crisis and criticize the government, producing short videos and cartoons that were posted and circulated on Instagram and Facebook. #dumsormuststop trended on Twitter

By early 2015, the complaints and criticisms of social media spilled onto the streets. On February 18th, 2015, the opposition National Patriotic Party and its leader Akuffo Addo staged a demonstration protesting the energy crisis. The Women’s Organizer of the NPP, Otiko Afisa Djaba, encouraged women to go on a sex strike to protest the crisis. Pres. Mahama took responsibility for the crisis and the Ghanaian radio station CITI FM reported that protest inspired Mahama to provide a long-standing solution to the crisis. However, any efforts failed to expeditiously halt the crisis. On May 16th, Ghanaians took the streets again, inspired by the #dumsormuststop campaign led by popular Ghanaian celebrities like Yvonne Nelson, Sarkodie, Lydia Forson, Efya, DKB, Sydney, and Van Vicker.

Governmental response to the “Dumsor Must Stop” Vigil reflected the highly politicized nature of the energy crisis. Members of the ruling party National Democratic Congress (NDC) like Alhaji Halidu Haruna called female celebrities like Yvonne Nelson and Lydia Forson “unmarried prostitutes”. When floods devastated the capital, Ga traditional leaders argued that the dumsor protests had upset the gods, violating bans on drumming during the harvest festival of homowo in Accra. Other government officials, like NDC MP for Lower Manya Krobo, Ebenezer Teye Larbi, complained that the effects of dumsor were “exaggerated by people who cannot afford fridges or air conditions [sic] in their homes.” A number of NDC officials promised that the crisis would be alleviated by August, as the government was working assiduously on addressing the crisis and had plans in the works that would soon be revealed to the public.

And yet, the consequences of dumsor were undeniable to anyone who lived in the southern half of the country. Colleagues reported that power outages made it almost impossible to meet deadlines. Both international and local businesses shed jobs at an alarming rate or closed altogether as they were unable to maintain the regular expenses associated with running generators. It is estimated that the country’s economy lost as much as $1 billion in the last year. All of this seems ironic and tragic in light of the promises of oil discovery that dominated national conversations in 2009. As multinational corporations collected oil from offshore deposits, the country itself suffered from petrol and gas shortages, increased prices, and subsidy elimination. The country’s external debt increased to 90 billion cedis, as the government took out yet another large IMF loan to stabilize the national currency. The economic crisis caused by dumsor meant that people struggled more than ever before. On Wednesday, July 22nd, even Parliament was subject to the effects of dumsor, as the power shut off in the midst of a debate about a loan agreement. The Ghana Broadcasting Corporation announced in May that the electricity shortages would force them to end broadcasting at midnight and resume in the morning. The country’s largest private media corporation, which includes Joy FM, has taken similar actions. Hospitals struggled with the lack of light, and nurses were said to be delivering babies by flashlight and mobile phone lights.

For people on the streets, the realities of dumsor also took on political overtones. My taxi driver was not alone in condemning the President in strong language that accused Mahama and the NDC government of corruption and ineptness and cast doubt on the intelligence of the country’s ruling elite. For some NDC elites, including my research assistant, the party’s promise that a plan was in the works was supported by examples of villages, districts, and regions, throughout the country that had consistent electricity. But for many, the ongoing crisis was simply too much. Dumsor was a constant topic of conversation. All government officials are useless liars, they argued. It was time for a change.

It is unclear what that change will mean. August has come and gone and dumsor continues. Many people have said that they will not even vote in the next election as an expression of their discontent with the state of politics in the country. External observers have encouraged the government to provide loans for solar panels and those with means have purchased their own. Solar panel companies report that their business is booming. Barclay’s Bank continues to provide one of the only sources of loans for solar panels, advertised on signs outside of all major bank locations, though those loans are likely inaccessible to the majority of the Ghanaian population who do not have access to collateral or the means to repay loans with high interest rates.

What is clear is that the promise of mobility implicit in Nkrumah’s slogan “Forward Ever, Backward Never” is no longer guaranteed for Ghanaians. The problems may now be too big for the country to tackle. Development and investment promises—like the $400m solar power plant to be built by the British company Blue Energy, which was announced in 2012—are not yet completed. And, as the largest solar power plant in Africa and the 4th largest in the world, the 155 megawatts of power that it would provide would still not meet the country’s demand. Those who continued to succeed and create and innovate in such circumstances highlight the ingenuity of Ghanaian citizens and their ability to survive in the context of scarcity—something they have demonstrated over and over again.

The experience of dumsor in Ghana suggests that the material symbols and practical tools of socioeconomic and physical mobility–the objects of mass consumption that circulate through networks of global capitalism–remain inaccessible for Africans, even as wealth on the continent increases (at least for some).  The need for increased energy capacity leads African governments to look toward multinational corporations, foreign governments, and international financial institutions to secure financing and technology, further entrenching relations of dependency and economic vulnerability.  In a privatized energy economy, Africans are subject both to the costs of energy production as well as the profits of private companies and the demands of foreign loan providers and construction companies.  But it also provides a powerful demonstration of the consequences of globalized economies of consumption.  Dumsor, in other words, highlights the uncomfortable tension between aspirations for African development and the realities and limitations of energy access in a world that (at least currently) relies on fossil fuels.  And African countries are not alone in their resistance (or inability) to fund the infrastructure of new energy sources, even if they seem to suffer the most severe and immediate consequences.

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