People living in the Nigerian city of Osogbo have access to constant power, but apart from lighting their bulbs, there is little else the electricity does.
In the three days I spent holidaying in Osogbo, electricity did not go off. My biggest surprise about this was that it did not surprise my hosts. For most parts of Nigeria, darkness is the usual; light bulbs only come on with the help of generators. Osogbo is one of the very few Nigerian cities with a different power tale; where generators are actually for back-up and NEPA light, as the power companies’ electricity is popularly referred to, is not an August visitor. The reason for the steady power supply, my hosts said, is because Osogbo hosts a transmission station for the electricity generated in the Jebba hydroelectric power plant located in Kwara State, with which Osun State shares a boundary. Here, my hosts told me, the battery of their generator got spoilt because it went unused for a very long time. I went to look at the machine; it’s more than a year old, I learnt, but its exhaust pipe is yet to blacken.
Osogbo is one of the least known cities in Nigeria. Dry in business activities and dull for pleasure seekers, it bears the label of city solely because it is the capital of one of Nigeria’s 36 states—Osun. Osun itself is not one of the better known states; located in the southwest, it is geographically the centre of Yorubaland, which includes all of the region plus Kwara state in the North central. Osun’s central location has not turned it into a regional hub of any sort; everything still happens in Lagos, and the remnants fall to the neighbouring Ibadan, in Oyo State.
Osogbo is also at the centre of Osun, and like the state, that factor has not turned it into a hub. This is in contrast with the city’s history. It became an economic hub in pre-colonial times due to its centrality, the father of my friends told me. Today, Ile-Ife (believed to be the cradle of the human race in Yoruba mythology) another part of Osun, is more of a hub than Osogbo, judging by business activities and liveliness. This, they said, is mainly because it hosts the renowned Obafemi Awolowo University, formerly the University of Ife. Two members of the family I stayed with finished from the institution, while another currently resides in the town. From them I learnt that apart from a more illustrious history and the university, Ife does not actually have better potentials than Osogbo. The latter is strategically located as the centre of the centre of Yorubaland, politically advantaged as the capital of Osun, safer, given the violence that Ife used to be known for, and, most especially, with a more efficient power supply.
Osogbo is actually better placed to thrive than most of the other state capitals in Nigeria. Its power supply is the envy of the two big boys of the southwest– Lagos city and Ibadan. I reside in Lagos, and there, I never put my PC on sleep, even when I’m on generator, which is often. My PC has a bad battery, so it behaves like a desktop computer, totally dependent on electricity. Convinced by my hosts in Osogbo, I neither shut down nor put the system on hibernate throughout my three day stay there, and never did it go off due to power failure. However, my hosts told me the power wasn’t perfect, “some days they take it,” said the head of the family who lives in Osogbo full time, “but the light often comes back in less than 10 minutes.” One of the neighbours of my host, who resides in Ibadan told me that 10 minutes was more or less the length of time their own power stayed on. “We no longer shout “up Nepa,” he said, referring to how Nigerians celebrate flashes of electricity from the power companies. “We just hiss and expect them to take it back like 2face,” he said, referring to a song titled Take it back by popular Nigerian musician 2face Idibia.
Osogbo’s steady power supply hasn’t had any significant impact in the life of the city, apart from saving households and the few businesses in the capital the cost of fuelling generators. The city’s electricity has not spurred the kind of development that analysts say its lack deprives the whole country of. There has been no industrial boom, businesses have not thronged to the Yoruba heartland, and even though the cost of living in the city is low, the standard of living is also poor. My friend opined that the steady power supply in the city could be because of the under-utilisation of the electricity. Apart from the absence of industries to leverage on the power supply, ordinary households are also not pulling off much power. Of the several homes I visited, only one had an air conditioner installed in the sitting room, and it was not working.
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Most of Osogbo’s youths and job seekers, like the friends I was visiting, have left the city to seek greener pastures elsewhere, particularly Lagos. “Osogbo is a retirement town,” the head of the family told me. “I moved here after I retired because it’s peaceful and quiet”. His son, the friend who invited me for the trip, substituted the quiet for dull. Nothing happens here, he added. He would later take me out at night to show me how quickly dark the city with so much light gets. Only the security lights of shut retail stores convinced that there was actually light at the heart of the town. We hung out at one of the most popular bars in the city, it was lively and bubbly. Almost everyone, including myself, were on their feet dancing to the DJs music the whole time. However, the bar also bore the distinguishing mark of a low-disposable income society. There were a few cars parked outside, which when compared with the people inside, it was obvious that an overwhelming population came by foot. I could hardly see any kind of wine there, as is very common in Lagos. Most of the tables had bottles of Orijin on them. Orijin is a very popular low-cost Guinness manufactured local herb flavoured liquor. I also noticed that a lot of the young men settled for just cigarettes.
“There’s a lot the light could bring to the state,” my friend said, as we discussed Osogbo’s potentials the day after our night hangout. “It could help revive our moribund textile industry,” he added. His dad picked on it and told us tales of how his mother and several other women of her time made a fortune from traditional tie and dye. “That is how Osogbo got the name “Ilu Aro,” that is, the home of dyeing,” the septuagenarian reminisced. Called Àdìre in Yourba language, tie and dye is a technique that developed in Yorubaland for making clothes tying designs on locally-woven, hand-spun cotton cloth. Once a booming trade in the 1960s, tie and dye, textile making and cotton farming now belong to the lamb tales of Osogbo. According to an article in the Economist, the lack of power was one of the principal reasons for the death of Nigeria’s once booming textile industry. “Power has been constant in Osogbo since the 80s, but textile did not live with it,” my friend’s dad said. My friend reeled out other things that power did not bring to Osogbo: industrialisation, jobs, investments… “How can those things come when we don’t have good roads?” his neighbour asked rhetorically, obstructing his listings.
Osogbo has many bad roads, and a lot of them are in crucial areas. For example, a segment of the road into the capital, coming from Lagos, has been under construction for the past four years, my hosts told me. Called the Osogbo Gbogan road, it is off the Ibadan-Ife-Ilesha Expressway and connects the Osogbo-Lagos Support Road. My friend says the construction work has worsened the road. It’s now a mile of red sand dust, no one dares drive through without windows shut, even if there is no air conditioning in the car. A signpost in the road said “under construction,” but what I saw on ground looked like abandoned. That, my friend said, was the main problem. “There’s too much neglect, he said,” as we travelled back to our base in Lagos the next day. “The state government is not harnessing our state’s opportunities; they are just leaving everything to itself.”
“We only have this kind of power because the wires coincidentally passed through here,” his older brother, who was travelling with us, told me, “there was no conscious effort to bring it, and there is also no conscious effort to harness it.” “I for one don’t like Lagos, it’s too rough and jam-packed” he said. “I would prefer to relocate my printing business to Osogbo. It would help me cut off the excruciating burden of diesel costs, since there is constant power here. But I can’t try it, he said, shaking his head. I would lose my clients in Lagos, because the poor road situation and stonewall traffic will hurt back and forth movements. And there are not enough clients in Osogbo, and Osun State as a whole, to keep my business afloat, except I want to start begging for government contracts, which is still mostly carried out by the various printing presses in Lagos.
I was pained to leave Osogbo’s lights and return to the darkness of Lagos. However, at the same time I was happy to leave, the city was just too boring and dull. I told the family of my friend that I would love to live there. In actuality I would. I am also not a fan of Lagos’s combustible nature, and I hate the amount I have to spend fuelling my generator. But I know that until Osogbo’s light translates into industries, investments and jobs, I have no business relocating there. If it does, I’ll be the first to relocate, and many residents of Lagos will contest that position with me.