“What I Did As Minister of Power and Energy under President Jonathan”— Prof Barth Nnaji
In August 2012, Nigerians were taken by surprise when the country’s Power Minister, Professor Barth Nnaji resigned voluntarily from the Jonathan cabinet amid reports that he was linked to a company bidding for a lucrative electricity contract. This was almost unbelievable in a country like Nigerians where politicians rarely resign over speculations of wrongdoing.
The government was privatising state-run companies in an attempt to end Nigeria’s chronic power shortages at the time.
IFN TV sat down with him to hear how he served as a minister in one of Nigeria’s most complex ministries.
IFN TV: What would you consider as your general concept about life?
Nnaji: That’s a wonderful question. General concept about life. I believe in honesty and integrity. I believe in seeing others succeed as you do and being able to treat others as you would have them treat you.
IFN TV: As Minister under President Jonathan, you occupied what was one of the most strategic positions in that administration, Minister of Power. How were you able to fuse that with family life?
Nnaji: During the time I was minister, I would just get to have maybe a meal with my family in the morning and where possible when I returned in the evening, my wife always waited for me to have dinner with her. It was quite a difficult job to do because that job totally consumes one’s time. And whenever I am around, I make sure that I am with them. On weekends I try to find some time to be with my family but very difficult because, Saturdays, Sundays, everyday is work for that kind of ministry.
IFN TV: You played a key role in the privatisation of the power sector in Nigeria. Do you think this is a solution to the persistent power challenge in Africa?
Nnaji: First, the government of the various countries need to recognize that the governments don’t have the resources to provide adequate power to the various populations, even though the country is so tiny. But even at that you still need private sector participation. So there needs to be an understanding that government playing its role is important, private sector playing its own role is important; which means government needs to let go the grip they tend to have and provide an enabling environment for private sector participation. This is very important. If the private sector has an enabling environment to come to invest, and the tariff is appropriate then power is going to grow. It happens not to be something that you just pluck off the shelf and put down. It takes some years to grow power; because industrial power can take anywhere from 30 months to 4 years, to 5 years even if it is Coal fire or hydropower. So this is something that we must do.
Secondly, the regulatory agencies of various countries, some countries may not even have regulators, Nigeria happens to be one that has regulator. The regulatory commission needs to be stable, consistent, and predicable. There needs to be opportunity for the people who are doing investment to be able to say that 5 years, ten years down the line this is what could be happening in terms of revenue. Without which, it’s difficult. You can’t invest in an opaque environment.
IFN TV: Do you think solar energy could be a very convenient source of alternative energy on the continent, looking at the amount of sun we have here?
Nnaji: It just turns out that the sun is available everywhere in the world. So it may look like the countries that are cold countries don’t have sunlight. They do have and in fact they have solar power. They have a lot of solar power in Europe, china and America. Now in Africa we do have opportunity for that as well. It’s an area where we can jump technology and really get mileage on the provision of electricity. And it’s beginning to happen. I must say that the price of per a kilowatt for solar installation is going down; and therefore, there is beginning to have more and more investment in solar and this is also going to be happening in a country like Nigeria. I was in a conference in Washington and renewable energy was dominating the discussion and the prime for renewable energy is solar.
IFN TV: As a former Minister of Technology, do you think there is something we need to do more to quickly facilitate the development of technology on the continent? Or you think this is more of a government responsibility?
Nnaji: The African universities; well I will say the sub-Saharan African universities are not really taking advantage of the human capacity available to it. In that, we have a lot of high intellectual people. No difference between them and their counterparts in Europe and America and other places. But it is being able to one, Focus on research, being able to invest in it by the government because the investors in research tend to be number one government, then number two the private sector, where rather the industries and industries invest in research for their own interest; whether it is in pharmaceutical research, whether it is in medicine, whatever it is, it’s usually is about the progress of that industry. But governments invest in research and development in general.
Where you have governments not investing enough or at all, then there cannot be stimulation of the academicians in universities to do research and that’s a real problem. You have in Nigeria for example national laboratories and these national laboratories do research with the bare minimum of what they have; but they are not able to transfer the products that they invent to commerce, to commercial use. That’s a very serious challenge. So, and this is why you have like in Nigeria where the Nigerian institute for Oil Palm Research, having been leading in oil palm plantations—they were the ones who gave to the Asian countries this product, but those countries have far advanced in the product and meanwhile we diminished from where we used to be in the sixties in the same product. That is not how it is done. You are supposed to be improving and making progress. So the Ministry of Science and Technology has a responsibility. When I came on board there was no ministry of science and technology because it has been abolished few years before because the people who were in government did not understand what that ministry was to do. So, but, perhaps a later government realised, ok, some people do have ministry of science and technology so we should have. So I was invited reset it up. I started it in from hotel room in Hilton. And my primary objective was to bring it to the level where everybody will know the value of science and technology and should be able to say this is not a ministry we should be abolishing at will. So since I reset it up, it has remained and seems to be doing well.
We have to appreciate the value of technology in Africa. We have opportunity like any other place but we have to focus, we have to invest and we have to be dedicated. The rigour of research is what is required. Some of us who had the opportunity to do this in America know the details. You have to really rigorously research and do body of work to make impact. If you are writing a proposal for a research the basic question is how does it impact society, what is it that you are trying to do? What would be that benefit to humanity? How does it impact specific area that you want to pursue? If the answer is not what it should be you are not going to get the grant. But if it is clear with your method that you are going to advance society then that’s what you get and you are going to be giving report and showing that actually you are doing this work the way it is supposed to be done.
IFN TV: What are some of those key innovations you could point and say you made as a minister of power to improve the sector before leaving office?
Nnaji: Very good question. When we came on board power was at 2800 megawatts. By the time we left we had reached almost 4500 megawatts with spinning reserve which we would say could put power at 4700 mega wax but the useable power was about 4,500 thereabout and now power of course has grow to 5000 megawatts. What are those things? Well, Power reform. There was an act of Parliament that was made in 2005 but it was really just a piece of document put on shelve, it was not practicalized. So in 2010 when I came on board as chairman of presidential tax force and special adviser to the president, this was prior to my being minister we set about developing the power reform programme. So what we did was, we set about with the act of parliament, to practicalize the act of parliament by doing the power reform roadmap which was launched by the president in August of 2010. That road map provided the entire pathway for ensuring that we grow power in Nigeria. For example you have to have pillars of reform, things that will, institution that will sustain the reform because after we are gone some other people just like now will take over, and you needed institutions, regulatory commission needed to be strong, the bulk trader needs to be established, the debt manager needs to be established, the rural electrification agency needed to be reinstated because it was scrapped, just about to be scrapped before and yet that was the instrument to reach through rural communities in the country. The names are (i.e.) the national Electricity Management Services Agency – the organisation that will host all the other national issues pertaining to power would have to be established. So power training institutes needed to be established.
Those institutions we established, all of them and to sustain the power reform. Then we set about same, ok, there are three key aspects to power: The generation of it, the transmission of it and the distribution of power. There was a lot of corruption in the sector and the corruption rested so much in the distribution. Let’s privatise all the distribution companies; by privatising them/putting them in private hands you significantly reduce corruption in the sector.
Also generation needed to be privatise because it wasn’t clear to Nigerians that generation by the government was just a portion of the total generation that is government power plants and that generation by the government power plants amounted to 2500 megawatts. So if we continued to have that and have thousands and thousands of workers that say they are manning those power plants then we are deceiving ourselves. Let us sell them off and allow private sector to manger them, to begin to operate them.
More importantly, we had power plants that had, like a power plant that had capacity of 900 megawatts installed capacity, but it will be generating about 100 or 200 megawatts and the reason is that they couldn’t repair the various units when the units will breakdown because government just didn’t have the money to do it. There was a need to have private sector take them over, raise the available capacity from say 200 megawatts to the installed capacity of 900 megawatts.
These were the reasons for privatization and the distribution is to reduce loses, introduce efficiency and ensure that the system will operate like any first world country. So that was how it was done. So that privatization was important part of power reform. Private sector support is also very important, creating enabling environment, making it possible for private sector to begin to invest in generation of electricity and obviously in distribution. The transmitting was left to government because of the issue of open access. That’s if you are a power producer and you generate electricity and you want to transmit the electricity to whoever is buying the electricity from you, assuming you have bi-lateral trade, that it would be important to have the transmission company be able to will your power without having issue about well, I don’t want to will your power because I don’t like your face. So that’s the issue of open access, so that everybody will have it. So, but government would then need to invest to ensure that the transmission company was healthy and really capable of doing it. And its gradual and we have a lot of constraints in the transmission company now but its improving.
IFN TV: You established the first Independent Power Company in Nigeria at a very critical period of our power history. Tell us how you got into this.
Nnaji: Geometric power is the first independent power company to be set up in Nigerian in 2000. So it’s the forerunner to even the power reform. Now, why? When I was minister of science and technology I realised that the major constraint for setting up industries was electricity. And so while I was going back to America I said one day I would like to come and contribute my small quota to improving power supply in Nigeria and that opportunity came in the year 2000 right after President Obasanjo took office.
There was shortage of power supply in Abuja here and they were building a power line, a 330kv line from Shiroro which is a new power plant, hydro power plant to Abuja here. But that line would have not been completed and there was need to have emergency power to supplement the power that’s available in Abuja. So the government advertised to have power providers come to set up power. So my company, Geometric Power, it’s actually incorporated in America, came and bided with some American firm and after much effort, we won and so we built a small power plant here in Abuja to supply to NEPA at the time (Nigerian Electric Power Authority).
That project lead to an understanding of a lot of things, in that the power was just by coincidence domiciled in the Central Area of Abuja, it was not put on the national grid as such, it was domiciled here in the central area of Abuja. But it provided the power situative 24/7 for the period that it ran no interruption. So as long as you have the fuel, power was available. So we said Oh! This is very interesting. We can do this for a larger area. So we approached the government, the president to give us Aba which is an industrial metropolis and that we will not ask for sovereign guarantee, very important because all you need to do is to give us concession, we collect directly from the consumers and we build power and wouldn’t charge more than the normal tariff. So government agreed, gave us concession and off we went and began to develop Aba Integrated Power project. And this project, we had built a 141 megawatts power plant embedded; it doesn’t serve the national grid even though excess power goes to the national grid, it serves only that metropolis.
When we came into Aba, we found 3 sub-stations, each one 2 by 15MVA which means total capacity 90MVA and it was dilapidated too. So we had to build 4 brand new ones, each 2 by 15MVA again, and refurbished the existing one, thereby more than doubling the capacity of the power absorption capacity there. Then we began to rebuild the over headlines, we built over 105 kilometres of over headlines at 33kb level and 20 kilometres at 11kb. To ensure that gas supply is reliable to the plant, we built a 27kilometer gas pipeline. So all in all, you have an integrated power project to provide reliable electricity to the city of Aba.
So that’s what we built. Now during the privatization, the Bureau of Public Enterprises went and sold that of Aba along with Enugu Disco (distribution company), thereby just introducing a big mess into the whole thing. But we thank God that the new government is resolving the matter. So that it’s really just untangling the mess made by that cell, because we have a licence for Aba metropolis, then they gave a licence for Enugu distribution to overlap the same Aba, so it’s not something that works.
IFN TV: Give us a full narrative of your origin: where you were born, growing up.
Nnaji: Ok. I was born in a town of Orukwu in Enugu State. Now the town now has two autonomous communities, you have Orukwu and you have Umude and I’m part of Umude now. So Umude autonomous community is where I come from. I did my elementary school in that town. Well actually not all of my elementary school, just small part, up to elementary 1 and then off I went with my family to other places where I finished my primary school. Then I went to go to Government College in Port Harcourt just before the war, but I was too young so they wouldn’t send me. Then after the war, I started my secondary school, and then I had to go to secondary school very close to my home, which is St Patricks College Emene in Enugu and that’s where I did my secondary school after which I went to America.
As I look at it, I suppose so because I spent nearly, almost 28 years in America. By the time I came back, which was when I was 50 years old, the greater part of my life had been spent in America.
IFN TV: Why did you come back home? We have millions of people like you who would rather decide to just stay far away from the many troubles here and remain in an already established society like America. What is your advice to them?
Nnaji: I made a decision, actually let me say that when one has spent so much time abroad, it’s difficult to come home, unless you are determined to come home. First, you have to ask yourself a few questions. What would be your contribution in life when you are done? Is that contribution not better given to the people who need that contribution the most which happens to be your people, because we are still developing?
For me, I came to realization that, yes I held very good position there in America doing research in universities and I was a distinguished professor of engineering and I was head of US National Science Foundation Centre of Excellent in Designs. A lot of the technologies where they used to design the machines, robots, we developed the basis of those technologies. But I had to ask myself if I don’t do it, is it that somebody else won’t do it? And the answer is no, somebody else would surely come up on it because America is a very aggressive research society. But in Nigeria, I can use what I have learnt to impact society here. And so I made a decision that I must come back to Nigeria before am 50 years old and that’s what I did; because I want to come back at a period that I would be actually able to impact my society here with whatever I might have learnt aboard. Two, you have to not expect perfection when you come back: you know the water is running, electricity is on, the roads are wonderful, etc. Come back and be part of getting the water to run, get electricity to be on, get the road to be as good as where you are coming from, etc. So you have to make that decision.
For many people who come back, one of the first things that will happen is that they get frustrated and want to run back. If you run back, chances are you may never come back again because to find the courage to come back again, that takes a lot more. Secondly, many people say I want a job, soft landing. I didn’t come back for soft landing. When I came back there was no job waiting for me. i came back to develop my own. Entrepreneurship is something that our people are not used to. Its possible for you to come back and set up something, there must be something you learned abroad. So you can come here and do it. I see opportunities abound here in Africa, too many. Just pick and work hard and focus. Some say no money, you know, I need money. You have to have good idea first before money can come and if you have good idea, you will be surprised, people will come to support you. But more importantly, you need to have honesty and integrity in doing what you do, not today you are here, tomorrow you are found there. Be focused, be reliable. Let people count on your word, let it mean something. That’s my advice.
IFN TV: You almost gave an answer for my next question which I will still ask. What is your advice to young people across Africa who have the conclusion that wealth creation is a craft you learn overnight?
Nnaji: You will notice that the answer I gave to the diasporaian is not going to be very different from what I tell youths; because the government can’t even provide all the jobs, government can’t provide all the support you need, government will try. If you are lucky enough to get education, that’s if you are lucky enough make very good use of it, think. If you don’t have the fortune of finding a job where you work, create your own. There are so many things you can do. And sometimes when you are doing those things, somebody will find you and give you support. But over reliance on government for everything is not correct. Where is the private sector going to be? You know that in America a very large proportion of American GDP comes from the small and medium scale industries. Who is it that creates small and medium scale industries? Its young people or people who are just creating jobs. And these days’ things can be done even better with the computer. Computer has revolutionalized the world and you don’t even need to be an office to do your work . There are things you can do from home and you set yourself up and you have a company going. So there things that you can do, of course if you happen to find a job, go there and do well, do not go there to be a place where you just sit around and try to leave before time. You know some people want to leave by 3 o’clock or 4 o’clock or they are just deceiving the employer. Go there, make a difference, find a niche, show that you matter, that you are somebody and that’s how people begin to trust you. You will be amazed at how people grow where they work; it’s by making themselves relevant. That’s very important for young people.
IFN TV: Been a pleasure speaking to you sir.
Nnaji: Thank you, Green.