DAKAR, 17 March (IRIN) - Senegal residents are thinking twice before buying anything that needs to be kept cold these days, and many hesitate to leave their homes after sundown. With mass power cuts suddenly the rule rather than the exception, refrigeration, streetlights and all things electrical, are now touch and go.
"With these power cuts, I'm asking myself, what do we dare put in the refrigerator?" says Bator Sall, as he plugs in a mobile phone charger at the office, the battery fully drained after an all-night power cut at home.
Reliable energy is rare in West African capital cities, but in Senegal, which experiences seasonal glitches at the height of the hot season when air conditioners are running on full, cuts as serious as those of recent weeks have not been seen in decades. "We've not seen anything like this in 30 years," said Samuel Diadhiou, an athletics coach who returned from Europe to live in his native land in 1976.
So for the businesses and international organisations that chose to set up their West Africa headquarters in Dakar because of reliable electricity, water and phones, life has become a nightmare of computer crashes and candlelight showers as outages hit even the central business district and black out some neighbourhoods for up to 20 hours at a time.
"A country out of cash," screamed a front-page headline in the Le Quotidien tabloid on Friday. An editorial in the paper carried the headline "In 2006 Dakar is like Conakry", the Guinean capital where students can be found most evenings studying on the grounds of the airport - the only place that has light every night.
As it faces growing anger from a public unaccustomed to being blacked out, Senegal's state-owned electricity utility Senelec blames the cuts mainly on the breakdown last December of an aging 50-megawatt power station, and on the main oil refinery's failure to supply diesel oil to several production facilities.
The privately-owned refinery, in which the government has a stake, says it is owed some 30 billion CFA francs (US $55 million) for electricity and other sectors. Senelec disputes the debt claims.
As the bickering goes on, Senelec's output has plunged by 150 megawatts, or about half of overall demand, Senelec director general Samuel Sarr told reporters this week. "The only alternative is to reduce customer demand in order to strike a balance between demand and available production," he said.
But a fall in demand is all but impossible, as according to the power regulatory commission, demand in Senegal rises by an average of nearly 10 percent per year. The surge in demand meanwhile puts extra strain on installations that for the most part date back 20 to 40 years, though the most recent power station in Senegal was installed in the 1990s.
Meanwhile, as the government builds big new wide freeways and overpasses, Dakar city authorities are working to spruce up the seaside capital with new plants and lampposts to light up the often dim streets. But the brand-new fixtures, left standing with their plastic wrapping flapping in the wind, may well remain inoperative in the foreseeable future.
As a quarter-page notice from Senelec in local newspapers this week apologised "for the inconveniences experienced and promises to do its utmost so the situation returns to normal", company officials said the cuts would continue. The "Suxali Senelec" project - named for the Wolof word for 'revitalise' - would being an end to outages, the company said, by late 2006.
But increasingly frustrated residents - concerned about personal safety in dark streets, food spoiling in freezers and lost business - want a fix now. A worker at a Dakar food shop, who asked not to be named, said people would not put up with such cuts for long. "If this continues like this, we could see people take to the streets."
It was becoming impossible to properly manage goods at the shop, he said, which has several refrigerators carrying dairy products and meat. "This severely disrupts our work. We can't buy products just to have them spoil."
Mor Mbaye, who manages a tailor shop in Pikine, home to one million people just outside Dakar, said security was fast turning into a major concern. "Never mind all the forced work stoppages and the risk that our machines will be damaged," he said. "The darkness at night here in Pikine has caused a huge rise in physical assaults."
Meanwhile the cuts are upping costs across the economy. A number of local newspapers did not publish on time on Thursday due to power cuts, and offices with generators are seeing their expenses rise. One enterprise downtown spent as much in the last three weeks on diesel fuel for its generator as in the previous six months.
Amadou Abdoulaye Aidara, president of the consumer defense association ADEETELS, said residents had thought the era of frequent, drawn-out power cuts was over. When similar problems arose years ago, Senelec installed a new power station and pledged huge improvements. "They made so many promises…They are no longer credible," he said.
For Aidara the solution is to privatise the electricity utility. Electricity was privatised in Senegal for a period in the late 1990s but later returned to state hands. Faced nowadays with obsolete equipment, a funding shortfall and increasing demand, Senelec's new strategy includes a plan for increased private investment.
But observers have their doubts. The World Bank in Senegal said in a recent statement that while it recognises the need for Senelec to restructure its financing, the plan must be carried out with a considerable measure of prudence "because it presents risks for the finances and the reputation of the State and Senelec."
The World Bank also said that before any such move, the state needed to take decisions on its own disengagement and that Senelec for its part needed to show potential investors that it could run at a satisfactory profit.