Environmentalists in petroleum rich Nigeria, West Africa's economic giant, should be bracing themselves for a major war of words with their radical counterparts from the developed world.

In a surprising sign of defiance to the long-standing conservation tradition, environmental experts have called on the President Umaru Yar'Adua government to reintroduce coal mining to end the country's current energy crunch. The environmentalists are not only concerned about Nigeria's power generation problems, but say the move will help slow down forest losses and desertification. 

Nigeria, Africa's most populous country with 140 million people, is facing an acute power shortage that throws the majority of its inhabitants into darkness for weeks or at times months, forcing hundreds of businesses to shut down. Current power demand stands at 20,000 megawatts, but Nigeria can only generate 3,000 megawatts.

Nigeria is Africa's largest oil producer, but violent militant activities in the country's Niger Delta region in the past two years have cut its production by a quarter resulting in disruptions of gas supplies to thermal power stations.

A 1996 Food and Agriculture Organisation study, nevertheless, spelt doom to the country's forestry outlook, warning that by 2020 all the forests in Nigeria would disappear if nothing was done to control deforestation.

Last week, President Yar'Adua - responding to concerns expressed by prospective French investors over current power supply problems in Nigeria - said his government would declare a state of emergency in the country's power sector next month. 

Describing the oil rich country's energy infrastructure as being ‘so decrepit', Yar'Adua said under the emergency - which would be in force for three years - the government would set aside US$5 billion for the rehabilitation and expansion of Nigeria's power generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure. 

But the environmental experts argue that the state of emergency can be avoided was the government to once again prioritise investment in the country's coal mining sector, according to a report by UN news agency, IRIN this week.

Despite having huge oil resources, the environmentalists are arguing that domestically refined oil products are too expensive for most Nigerians, and that investment in this area would do little to stop deforestation, as most people would still burn cheaper wood and charcoal.

Coal provides one of the best alternative sources of energy for Nigeria due to its availability, easy usage and high heat emission, Kabiru Yammama, head of Nigerian environmental NGO Green Shield of Nations, is quoted by IRIN as saying. 

He added that forests in northern Nigeria have almost all but vanished, and lumberjacks are now moving towards the rain forests in the south, felling and burning trees for firewood and charcoal.

IRIN quotes Yammama as saying that 35% of arable land in the north has been overrun by the desert, which he said is encroaching at a rate of between eight and 30 hectares annually, affecting the livelihoods of over 55 million people.

Nevertheless, Nigeria has proven coal reserves totalling about 639 million metric tons while the inferred reserves have been summed up to 2.75 billion metric tons - possibly the biggest in Africa and reported to be sufficiently low in sulphur, thus making it environmentally acceptable (at least relatively).

Coal exploration in the country started as far back as 1916, with the commodity's occurrences having been indicated in more than 22 coalfields spread over 13 States of the Federation.

While coal gave rise to Nigeria's industry, its leading role started to decline with the discovery of oil in commercial quantity in the late 1950s and was hastened by the Nigerian civil war, which took place between 1967 and 1970, during which all the coal mines in the country were abandoned.

The rapid development of the oil industry resulted in successive governments over relying on oil for revenue and energy, and neglect of the solid fuel, which is fast turning out to be an alternative to oil whose prices have gone haywire. 

Coal production dropped sharply from 77,000 tons per year in 1990 to around 6,000 tons in 2004, also due to obsolete equipment and the move by the government to withdraw all coal-mining licences to make way for a privatisation process. 

The government has since issued dozens of licenses to foreign and local companies to construct private power plants and 11 thermal stations, as it moves to boost the country's power generation capacity to 6,000 megawatts in two years.