Massive Blackout Hits Freetown as Gov’t Fails to Settle Backlog Arrears

By Amin Kef (Ranger)

A very reliable source yesterday authoritatively intimated this medium that Karpowership, a subsidiary of the Karadeniz Energy Group that entered into agreements, in 2018 and 2020, with the SLPP led Government, headed by President Julius Maada Bio, to supply electricity to Sierra Leone’s State power utility, decided to turn off its engines at 12:00 midnight, 13th February, 2024. This decision, taken by the Management of the electricity generating entity came after several failed promises made by the Ministry of Finance to offset or settle overdue arrears, amounting to over $30 Million owed to the company. Though Karpowership will be turning off its engines, Management is magnanimous to supply 5MW for the security forces and hospitals.

It must be noted that the Ministry of Finance has recently come under criticism for its perceived laxity in honoring payments to contractors and service providers, potentially impeding ongoing projects. Obviously, the strain on these entities, facing delayed or unpaid invoices, jeopardizes project continuity and exacerbates frustrations.

This latest unsavoury posture by the Ministry of Finance has led to the soaring of a once healthy relationship or agreement between the Government and the major electricity provider, Karpowership. As stated it is as a result of the overdue payment on the part of the Government, amounting to over Thirty Million Dollars ($30M), that led to the strain in the relationship. Despite assurances, the government’s failure to settle these arrears finally culminated to the Tuesday midnight shutdown of operations by Karpowership. Indeed, it is an undeniable truth that reliable and constant electricity supply is indispensable for any form of development to flourish. Such a fundamental necessity is not merely a theoretical concept but a concrete reality essential for the functioning of modern States and democracies. Undoubtedly, sustainable electricity provision stands as a cornerstone of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), emphasizing its critical role in societal progress. This imperative has been underscored in political manifestos, including the 2018 and 2023 SLPP Manifestoes championed by the current President of Sierra Leone, Rtd. Brigadier Julius Maada Bio.

For a considerable period, Sierra Leone has grappled with erratic power supply despite efforts to address the challenges, such as refurbishing the Bumbuna Electric Dam and bolstering thermal stations in Freetown and the provinces. Regrettably, achieving adequate power supply has remained elusive.

Upon assuming office, President Bio’s administration embarked on commendable efforts to revitalize the energy sector, aligning with his manifesto pledges. Significant reforms were instituted to enhance electricity generation and distribution. Notably, the government, through the Fiscal Risks Division of the Ministry of Finance, successfully renegotiated several Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs), mitigating potential financial losses. Renegotiating the Karpowership Agreement alone yielded substantial savings of US$20 million over two years.

Further strides included substantial subsidies to maintain affordable tariffs, infrastructure upgrades such as transformer replacements and cable repairs, aimed at ensuring reliable and accessible electricity for Sierra Leoneans. The administration’s endeavors led to a notable increase in energy access from 16% to 32% within five years, with renewable energy utilization surging from under 35% in 2018 to over 75% by 2022. Off-grid solar electricity was extended to 97 towns and villages across all districts, with plans for grid extensions underway.

With this latest unpalatable situation that has set in all those admirable gains may seem to fade in insignificance with dire repercussions manifesting in widespread power outages that are bound to profoundly and negatively impact lives and economic activities in Freetown. Against such a backdrop, urgent action is imperative to safeguard the looming crisis in order to restore the continuity of electricity supply.

Government must be aware that addressing the backlog of payments to contractors and service providers should not merely be a financial obligation but a prerequisite for sustaining the provision of works, services and fostering national development.

The blackout that has now set in serves as a stark reminder of the critical nexus between fiscal responsibility and essential public services and Government is urged to expedite payment settlements to avert impending crisis and uphold its commitment to advancing Sierra Leone’s development agenda.


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