Hope was rekindled for the Power Sector when President Goodluck Jonathan appointed an electricity expert, Professor Barth Nnaji as the Minister of Power in 2011. Barely 13 months after, the Minister resigned his appointment in an extreme controversial circumstance.
Hailed from Enugu State, Professor Nnaji holds a Doctorate degree in Industrial and Systems Engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the United States. He is also a tenured professor of Computer Integrated Manufacturing and Robotics in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, also in the United States.
In 2003, Nnaji began traveling back and forth to Nigeria to build a world-class, indigenous power company. He is currently Chairman and CEO of the company, Geometric Power Limited, or GPL, a US$250 million, 140 MW, integrated generation and distribution power plant.
Nnaji built upon his previous experience in Nigeria’s power sector to create his company. In 1993, he served as Nigeria’s Federal Minister of Science and Technology. In 2000, along with his joint venture partner Renatech International Limited, Nnaji built and managed a successful 15MW emergency power station in Abuja.
Now, what does his exit portend for the future of Nigeria amidst the divided opinions expressed by Nigerians?
Though the Nigerian Presidency seems to be momentarily basking in the euphoria of an apparent stout move to stem the tide of corruption and inject sanity into the social system, views upheld by some Nigerians are that such moves must not be cosmetic and selective
That was precisely the advice of Chief Chekwas Okorie, the founding National Chairman of All Progressive Grand Alliance, APGA to President Goodluck Jonathan on the heels of the resignation of the nation’s former Power Minister, Professor Barth Nnaji.
Okorie's words: “I am saying that if the Presidency knew, to come to the campaign of propaganda, to demand for his resignation, it is all well and good, as long as the Presidency will reflect the same attitude to all those in government because we are aware of people in government that have interest all over the place, even people who are close to the President. So, it must go the entire hub if that is his own way of fighting corruption within the system. It must not be selective”.
This Wednesday, country woke up to be greeted with the news that Professor Barth Nnaji, who had recently exuded hope of achieving an unprecedented feat in electricity by October this year, has resigned his appointment.
“We said that by October this year, Privatization will be concluded and it is a certainty”, Nnaji was quoted as saying in a recent function.
In a two-paragraph statement issued by the Special Adviser to the President on Media and Publicity, Dr Reuben Abati, in Abuja penultimate Tuesday night, President Jonathan accepted the resignation of Professor Nnaji and wished the ex-minister well in his future endeavour.
But since the news broke, tongues have been wagging on the manner of resignation. Besides, Nigerians are divided on the exit of a man whose expertise and mien in the Power sector has remain the panacea to the challenges of electricity in the country.
Chief Chekwas Okorie said: “My own take on it is that Professor Nnaji brought value to the power Ministry. He achieved result that was unprecedented in terms of stepping power generation from 2.8 mgwts to 4. 2 mw and laid the foundation that guaranteed that up to 6000 mw by December in an unprecedented progress.
“We (...) can tell the story of power here. Now, having said that, the manner he left office has generated mixed feelings because the issue of people having interests in companies and going into government has been provided for by the relevant laws where such people are expected to resign upon assumption of office to the public.
“And he also disqualified himself from belonging to the panel that considered the privatization process in the power sector and he was the one that disclosed to the panel that he had interest in the past, and it was not his direct company, Geometric, that bided, but a company that Geometric had dealings with in the past. So, I think as a gentleman, he has done what he was supposed to do.
“The Presidency actually engaged his services based on his experience. After all, he didn’t read Electricity. He is a Professor of Robotics Engineering. But he has been involved in Electricity/Power business, and successfully, here in Nigeria, he was involved in generating electricity in Abuja and Abia and so, the Presidency knew”.
The former Minister of Federal Capital Territory, FCT, Malam Nasir El-Rufia, said: “His resignation is a set-back for the power sector reforms. He is one of the few ministers in GEJ’s cabinet who knows what is to be done in his area of ministerial responsibility. The whole thing was clearly avoidable.
“There are many ministers far less competent than Barth and under whose watch massive fraud, corruption and more serious crimes have been committed. Yet, they continue to sit pretty and not asked to resign. Perhaps, there is more to this than this ethical infraction. I do not know, but if what we read is all there is, both the ex-minister and his employer could have handled it better and in a more orderly manner”.
Yet, the Presidency was the first to steer up the controversy. Dr. Abati, who spoke on the behalf of President Jonathan, didn’t immediately tell Nigerians why Nnaji resigned, thereby leaving conjectures and heresies to thrive.
The least Nigerians heard was the statement credited to Professor Nnaji himself that “it is a huge conspiracy to scuttle the programme, but rather than drag the president and the programme down, I decided to tender my resignation.”
In a statement by his spokesman Ogbuagu Anikwe, Nnaji said he was happy he was leaving when the power situation was improving.
The statement said, “He (Nnaji) explained that he had to voluntarily resign the office of minister to retain his integrity which has in recent days come under scurrilous attacks by powerful vested interests that were hell bent on besmirching the integrity and reputation he has painstakingly built over the years. This resignation is also to ensure that there is no spillover of these attacks to the President who is working very hard to transform the nation.”
Referring to the allegations of conflict of interest, Nnaji said, “I would like to reiterate that before I accepted to serve as minister, I resigned my directorship of all companies that I had interest in and put my shares in those companies in a blind trust; this means that I was not privy to the day-to-day business decisions of those who ran this trust.
"In addition, I publicly declared the participation in the privatization process of a foreign company that did business with a company that I had interest in.
"This fact came to my knowledge only during the course of evaluating the consortia that were bidding for PHCN successor companies. Consequently, I also voluntarily recused myself from participating in the selection process. These actions, I should think, are in line with the finest traditions of transparency and accountability in governance.”
Further window on his abrupt departure was to be opened thereafter by the nation’s Information Minister, Mr. Labaran Maku. He said that Professor Nnaji resigned his appointment over conflict of interest in his handling of the ongoing privatization of the power sector.
The allegation leveled against Nnaji was that he invested interests in the acquisition of Afam Power Station via his company as against the spirit and laws of Public service. Rather than sounding plausible, the allegation has rather opened a flood of arguments.
Professor Barth Nnaji’s background shows that he had hitherto his Ministerial appointment served as Special Adviser to the President on Power between 2010 and 2011. Earlier in 2003, he successfully built a gas plant in Abuja which also stepped up electricity generation within the area.
Many analysts believe that Nnaji’s exit will slow down the pace of improvement in the power sector.
In fact, since the return of democracy in 1999, when the then President Olusegun Obasanjo government found it very imperative to fix the Power sector using hands like the late Bola Ige, Nnaji’s tenure, many agreed, witnessed an appreciable, lofty improvement in the power generation.
Even Obasanjo confessed recently that he has achieved everything for Nigeria except taking power to where he had wanted it.
Dr. Lawal Oladimeji of the Department of Public Administration, Gombe State University, said: “The problem we have with power is not different form the problems we have with our education system, health sector and in fact all our aspects of our economy.
"And what is the problem? The problem is just one thing: insincerity on the part of our leadership. With sincerity, there is no problem that can not be fixed. It is insincerity that brings about corruption. Because there is corruption everywhere, it looks as if our problems are insurmountable.
“And the only condition that has to be met before we can deal with our problem is for our leaders to be sincere. Again, it is not all about being an expert in the power sector or in the health sector that will help us in resolving our problem. As a public officer, all you need to do is to be honest. You must note that this revelation of his resignation was not because the present administration is the best we have had.
"To my mind, it is not because President Goodluck Jonathan is more sincere than all other presidents we have had. No. it is not also because Professor Barth Nnaji is more honorable than other Ministers, but because of a clash of vested interests within the elites, because it is not only Professor Nnaji who is interested in buying over this thing.
“There are people who are more of political party financiers than Nnaji. That is why Professor Nnaji was asked to throw in the towel. This is my honest opinion”.
His colleague, Dr. Saidu, also said “The Minister is more interested in acquiring Afam Gas station. This man may be an expert but from all indications, he is an interested party in the business.
The President was misled about this man’s ability just as President Obasanjo was misled because the man may have all the paper qualifications but obviously, Nnaji has shown that he is more interested in himself than fixing PHCN. That is what I am saying”.
Even though, some analysts disagree on the finesse of Nnaji, many obviously adopted it as what has helped to move Nigeria from where it was to where it is now. For instance, Labaru Maku, the Minister of Information acknowleged the intellectual exploits of the former Power Minister.
Maku said: “We would have loved that Prof. Nnaji who has put in a lot of effort, would have been the one to complete the process”.
Nnaji had once said ““I have a fundamental belief that there is nowhere that it is written ‘on the forehead of Nigeria’ that ‘thou shall not have reliable quality and affordable electricity’. Our goal is to build Power projects that make economic sense and at the same time have social value that can lift the quality of life of our customers and the community.”
Obviously, Professor Nnaji is the first Minister to go in the cabinet of President Goodluck Jonathan. Though his exit sparked off many controversies, some people see his exit as more honourable, advancing that it takes his like to resign.
It would be recalled that a similar situation happened in Obasanjo’s era when Mrs. Ngozi Okonjo Iweala was transferred from Ministry of Finance to Foreign Affairs. Speculations were rife that she resigned because of the change. To jealously guard her integrity, competence and reputation, she resigned her position.
Asked if Nnaji’s exit will not affect the privatization process, the Information Minister said: “It will not hamper the process but reassure investors all over the world. This is the intention of the minister following conflict of interest. It will reinforce confidence in the process.
"The power road map is the major engine, propeller for the president power reform. There will be more consistency in the management of the power sector from next year and it will soon be clear that Mr. President means well for the sector”.
To this ends, analysts are of the view that if truly powerful interests have succeeded in moving the hands of the Presidency against an electricity expert, then it may well be deduced that the power and energy empasse that bedevil the country might be far from being over.
Indeed, if there is any major improvement that Nigerians seriously yearn for from any government in the country, it is the stability of power and energy which many believe will extricate the present economic from doldrums.
Billions have been heard spent on the sector by different governments, policies have been formulated just as promises have been made, but obviously, the sector has remained in sheer comatose. In their view, President Jonathan is yet to show Nigerians the road ahead.