Bart Nnaji And The Electricity Question
On the eve of his 66thbirthday on July 13, I quickly scribbled a tribute to Bart Nnaji, the internationally engaging engineering professor who has been, among other things, the Minister of Science & Technology as well as the Minister of Power. The article was well received by the traditional and social media but also the Nigerian public, including those in the Diaspora. I still get calls regularly based on contents in the piece, especially as regards electric power development. Even a couple of global media have reached out to me in the last few days. Two related questions have stood out from their inquiries: if over 90% of the Geometric Power 188-megawatt project in Aba is already completed, why hasn’t electricity supply in Abia State not improved dramatically since last February when Nnaji’s Geometric Power took over the Aba franchised area and what can be done urgently to remedy the current electric power crisis in the country?
The first question is much easier to deal with. The Aba Power project supplying electricity to nine out of the 17 local government areas in Abia State, is in its transition phase. The legal transfer of ownership of the Aba ringed fence area from both the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC) and Interstate Electrics to Geometric Power Ltd has taken place, but some issues are still being resolved. For instance, revenue generated from electricity consumers is still paid into the EEDC account. Almost 100% of the technical workforce was inherited from the PHCN/EEDC, and so requires a different orientation in service delivery. Electricity supplied to consumers is imported from the Niger Delta Power Holding Company (NDPHC) through the national grid, with such grave implications as being subjected to constant partial and full system collapses. The 27-kilometre natural gas pipeline from Owaza in Ukwa West Local Government Area in Abia State to the Osisioma Industrial Estate in Aba has not been completed. The four brand new power substations and the three substations inherited from the PHCN/EEDC which have been modernized and upgraded as well as the 150-kilometres of overhead power lines in the ringed fence area have not been connected. All this has to do with the nine-year hiatus which saw major work suspended on the project because of ownership issues between Geometric Power, on the one hand, and the EEDC/Interstate Electrics, on the other. The transition phase is happily coming to a close soon.
It is critical to point out a glaring difference between electric power projects and some other infrastructure projects. The public can see, experience and appreciate, say, a road even when only five per cent of it is done, but people don’t typically appreciate a power project until it is done 100%. Even if only one kilometer out of, say, a 20-kilometre road is completed, everyone will see it and can even enjoy it by driving on it. However, in respect of power, the only time most people believe that meaningful work has been done is when they switch on their bulb and it produces light. Most individuals don’t reckon with the magnitude of work done on power generation or the distribution and transmission networks or fuel to power unless work on the entire value chain is completed 100%.
Nnaji recognizes this fact, and so has been working frenetically to get the little outstanding job in the Aba Ring Fence Area done. He knows that Abia people have been waiting anxiously since 2004 for reliable, uninterrupted and affordable power supply. Not just individuals or the state government but also such businesses as the Nigerian Breweries, Guinness Breweries, Glass Force, as well as small and medium businesses like the hundreds of thousands of shoemakers and clothiers at the famous Ariaria Market. As he often notes, quoting the late Vice President Alex Ekwueme, “Nigeria is a miracle waiting to happen”. He is acutely aware that poor electric power supply is arguably the largest constraint to the occurrence of this long-awaited development miracle.
Nnaji knows very well how most Nigerians, including those in top government echelons, still speak of how the President Olusegun Obasanjo administration “wasted $16 billion on the power without generating even a megawatt”. The truth is that the Obasanjo government did a lot in the power sector, particularly in establishing and building the National Integrated Power Project (NIPP). Obasanjo built not just big and modern thermal power plants in various states but also provided a lot of facilities in the distribution and transmission networks. Still, the government did not complete the NIPP. As though to exacerbate matters, the succeeding Umaru Musa Yar’Adua administration suspended the NIPP on coming into office in 2007. In the imagination of most citizens, therefore, “President Obasanjo wasted a fortune in dollars on electricity with nothing to show for it”.
As for what can be done to quickly overcome the debilitating electricity crisis in the country, we will be oversimplifying a rather complex matter if we think we can offer the silver bullet solution in a few words in this article. The power crisis in the last 10 years is a reflection of the huge mess in the larger Nigerian society. A former Lagos State governor, on return to Nigeria in the middle of September, 2012, expressed sadness over Nnjai’s exit from the government, saying “it is a national tragedy that the most hardworking minister in the Goodluck Jonathan administration is the one who has resigned”.
Four years ago, I submitted a research paper to an American-based academic journal with a high impact factor in which I argued that the Nigerian power sector needed not just a change but a paradigm shift, that is, a transformational change. I based my paper on the latest management and leadership theoretical frameworks about transformational leadership and, of course, on anecdotes, that is, my observations about far-reaching changes unleashed in the power sector when Nnaji served as the Special Adviser to the President on Power and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Power and later the Minister of Power. The journal editors wrote back, requesting that the article be included, with fewer citations, in the forthcoming edition of The Global Encyclopedia on Leadership, Public Administration and Public Policy.
The global community was fully aware of Nnaji’s dynamic efforts and results within the one year he served as the Special Presidential Adviser on Power and another one year as Minister of Power. Even though he was just two years in government, most Nigerians have the impression he was there for up to a decade. During this brief period, power supply to homes, offices and industries almost quadrupled and, more importantly, Nnaji was able to get world-class firms like General Electric of the United States (to provide 10,000MW to the country), Siemens of Germany (to provide another 10,000MW), Petrogas of Brazil, Israeli Electricity Corporation and Esse of India to decide to invest in Nigeria’s power sector.
In fact, Nnaji brought Jeff Immet, then the global chairman of GE which is the world’s largest and oldest electricity equipment manufacturing firm, to Nigeria, his first and only visit to Africa. Representatives of such international media as The Financial Times, The Economist, New York Times and the rest were a constant presence in the Ministry of Power. But the moment Nnjai resigned all the international firms fled. Overnight local firms with neither the technical expertise nor the financial wherewithal cornered Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) successor companies under the guise of privatization. This is the big burden which the President Muhammadu Buhari government inherited and it is today a bigger burden on the Nigerian people and, what is more, the biggest hindrance to the country’s rapid economic development.
Nnaji brought his enormous social capital, foresight, dynamism, discipline, work ethic, personal integrity and international experience to bear on his leadership of the power sector. Those who can fix the problematic sector have to continue from where he stopped. There is an urgent need for a body like the Presidential Task Force on Power to support the work of the Ministry of Power. Far from being allowed to be swallowed by bureaucracy, the taskforce will consist of individuals with the finest relevant knowledge and skills as well as passion for the common good.
Adinuba is immediate past Commissioner for Information & Public Enlightenment, Anambra State.