• Thursday, November 30, 2023
businessday logo

BusinessDay

Bart Nnaji versus revisionists

the-sun

C. Don Adinuba

If there have been appointments which President Goodluck Jonathan has made based purely on merit and a deep concern for Nigeria’s future, they are the choice of Attahiru Jega as the chairman of the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) and the choice of Bart Nnaji as the Special Presidential Adviser on Power. Though appointed at different times, both professors were interestingly sworn in on the same occasion on July 1, 2010. Theirs are the most difficult jobs in the country today, according to President Jonathan. Out of the two, Nnaji’s appears more challenging not just because electricity forms the fulcrum of modern development or that the Nigerian electricity infrastructure has for decades been a shambles but also because to get the country cracking in the right direction entails, perforce, dismantling entrenched interests in the system. These forces cannot realistically be expected to go down without a fight. They have been fighting. It is a no-holds barred fight, ugly.

It predated Nnaji’s emergence as presidential adviser and chairman of the Task Force on Power Reforms. It even predated his appointment as the alternate chairman of the Presidential Committee on the Implementation of the Power Reforms. The moment Nnaji– Distinguished Professor of Engineering at the University of Massachusetts and William Whiteford Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Pittsburgh as well as chairman of the Geometric Power Corporation– was named a member of the Presidential Advisory Council (PAC), the invested interests recognized it would no longer be business as usual; they quickly went to town, throwing mud with energetic abandon. The public face of the vested interests is the workers union led by one Joe Ajaero, who ironically has never worked in the electricity sector but is a professional unionist, a practitioner of agitation and propaganda (agitprop). Their dedicated blitzkrieg against Nnaji has, however, had no effect. Both the message and the messenger suffer a severe credibility crisis.

Apparently aware of the fruitlessness of using the electricity workers union to advance their private and parochial agenda, the vested interests are now resorting to what they call in a section of the media “conflict of interests”. They canvass the view that it would amount to conflict of interests if Nnaji, head of an independent power project, now supervises the power sector as a top government functionary. It is truly fascinating how private financial interests are cleverly masked by some Nigerians as public interest. Do not be surprised if very soon these people audaciously equate their pecuniary interests to national security!

The appropriate thing everywhere in the world is for people to be appointed into posts where they have demonstrable expertise or competence. The appointment of Bola Ige, Liyel Imoke, Balarabe at different times as the minister in charge of power has been criticised scathingly as putting a square peg in a round hole, all the more so at a time of national emergency in the electricity sector. The same thing cannot be said about Nnaji because he is arguably the very best in this field in Nigeria. He combines stupendous theoretical and experiential knowledge with patriotic zeal and high moral capital. He knows how business is conducted in the world and deals on first name basis with key officers of the World Bank, European Investment Bank, etc.

The notion that Nnaji could use his new position to advance the interest of his Geometric Company to the detriment of national interests or at the expense of other electricity operators is cheap. Henry Paulson was the chief executive of Goldman Sachs when he was nominated to be the American Treasury Secretary. No one in the senate or elsewhere raised the question of conflict of interest when he was chosen. Similar examples are legion in the developed world. Even here in Nigeria people were delighted when President Umaru Musa Yar’Adua appointed Emmanuel Egbogah his Special Adviser on Petroleum Resources. Egbogah played a critical role in the emergence of Malaysia’s state-owned oil giant Petronas as a rewarding study in the rapid growth of Third World companies into world class enterprises. He returned to Nigeria a couple of years ago and established Emerald Energy Ltd, a very successful operator in the upstream sector. Believing Nigeria needed to tap from his rich global experience, Yar’Adua asked Egbogah to join his government as a special adviser.

Admittedly, “conflict of interests” is a relatively new weapon used by a few vested interests in the Nigerian energy industry. It came to the fore some two months ago when Deziani Alison-Madueke was made the Petroleum Resources minister, as the vested interests alleged that she would be beholden to interests of the Royal Dutch oil giant, Shell, where she worked till 2007. Yet before her was another former Shell employee, Edmund Daukoro, who served as Petroleum Resources minister, to say nothing about Tony Chukwueke who came from the Shell office in London to become the chief executive of the Department of Petroleum Resources, the regulator of the petroleum industry. No cases of conflict of interest were ever made against them.

President Jonathan did the right thing by choosing to work with Nnaji for the full implementation of the 2005 Electricity Power Reform Sector Act which will see the Power Holding Company of Nigeria replaced by 18 companies which will themselves be privatized in the overriding national interest. Nnaji has constantly made it clear that there will be no disengagement of the PHCN staff since the successor companies will not hire their employees from Mars; the companies will work with the existing PHCN staff. Much as the PHCN has an unenviable image, it has produced some of the best and most hardworking engineers in the world such as Ben Caven, erstwhile executive director who headed engineering, transmission and generation divisions. It is a pity that some labour leaders are making all the PHCN staff members look like some unemployable workers in the defunct Nigeria Telecommunications Ltd and Nigeria Airways Ltd, who viciously opposed the liberalisation of the telecoms and aviation sectors, respectively.

The Nigerian electricity infrastructure is in dire stress. Nnaji will address the challenge successfully. His Geometric Power Company in 2001 built the 22 Megawatts Emergency Power Station in Abuja in record time and supplied power to the Central Area of Abuja, including State House, the International Conference Centre and the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation for three years without blinking for a second before starting the 188mw Geometric Power Company in Aba, which is now 75% completed. He deserves the unflinching support of all Nigerians.