Hurdles In-plant

August 30, 2012

A Bartholomew who planted mines in the field and walked himself into them

Nigeria’s internetwork of corruption, poor public power system, unemployment and insecurity has manifestly overwhelmed present leadership and the recent disengagement of a federal Minister is a reminder that all will not be well until fundamental changes are made in the polity.

That reads like talking in parables.

Prof Barth Nnaji is a brilliant guy.  Why he has aggressively presented himself for public office is one puzzle I have failed to resolve in all of 13 years of reading him. And that also puts to question what qualifies people for public appointment in our land.

But before we go on, regardless that Prof Barth Nnaji has thrown in the towel, it is important we draw attention to the substantive issue of the impending waste which spending $23.5million to hire 8 persons under the MANITOBA contract for Power Transmission maintenance is  bound to land us in the same station that PENTASCOPE landed us on NITEL a few years back. Correct me if I am right.

The first time we trained the radar on Prof Barth Nnaji was in 1999 when words sneaked out that the famous professor of robotics was scheming that President Obasanjo gave him one of either the energy sector or telecommunications sector to manage as Federal Minister.

As we opened a dossier on him, words came also that President Obasanjo had said matter-of-factly that he would not use him. The reasons adduced by General Obasanjo were vintage the old man and it was clear he would truly not use the applicant. So we closed the book.

All we knew after that was that the Professor returned to his base in USA only to return shortly to chair a company called Geometric Power Ltd. That gave him a chance to show Obasanjo that what he was not allowed to do for the public sector he could do in the private sector.

In 2007 when Obasanjo vacated government, the Prof was back to Yar Adua’s handlers to tell them he was still available. This time all he wanted was to be Minister of Power so that Nigeria would end years of chaotic power supply. The information then was that President Yar Adua initially laughed him off saying his Geometric Power Ltd spent close to 8 years without producing any kilowatt of electricity for anybody anywhere. The President was however ready to do something for him in lieu of being Minister. And he did.

Speaking to Aba Business community on June 19, 2008, Prof Barth Nnaji told them in an Enyimba Lecture that ‘The Aba IPP (i.e. the Geometric Power Ltd Project) is galloping to completion. In roughly 10 months time, the entire project will be commissioned and it will herald a new era for Aba which it(sic) will have reliable electric power like any other city in the developed world’.

It never did.

In that same lecture, he recounted his frustration to the Aba businessmen thus:

‘We began the journey to build a power project unlike any other in sub-Saharan Africa. It’s a project that required the construction of 188 MW power plant, over 110km overhead lines, 4 brand new substations, a 27km gas pipeline, an estate to accommodate up to 250 workers, 5 access roads to the power stations and sub stations, and a 4 story office block at the total cost of approximately $385 million or N42.6 billion. 

We cannot say that this project has been easy. We have had to contend with the challenges of being a pioneer sector power developer in Nigeria. We have had to withstand so many due diligences by lenders, some of whom did not see the value in investing in Aba. We have had to present Aba to the international community as a “diamond in the rough” and the adequate electricity supply will put a smile to this great entrepreneurial city. Many have wondered how we can mitigate the risk of building a power plant in the Niger-Delta region and we have explained that Aba is not in the Niger-Delta region. At the same time, we have had to contend with threats of youths and traditional rulers who have brought the negative aspects of the Niger-Delta conundrum to Aba. We have had to spend tremendous amount of time and resources on getting the youths and some of these traditional rulers to appreciate the fact that Geometric Power is bringing money from outside to build facilities that will add value to their business and their lives rather than the situation in the Niger-Delta where oil is exploited and taken away from the soil of the Niger-Delta region’.

 

We were not really keen on him any longer since he was not considering telecommunications (our own area of interest) for his experiment. But his file left an open end which was a good document to complete even if only for posterity. Besides, power was also central to our problems in Telecommunications sector so a cursory interest in a continued profile of him might not be out of place.

In 2008 when I was Vice-President of Council for the Regulation of Engineering in Nigeria, COREN and Chairman of the Council’s Technical Committee, the Council invited Prof Barth Nnaji to address us on his concept of a Future of Reliable Power in Nigeria. By that I mean he was to present a paper at COREN’s Annual Engineering Assembly while we would take it up from there by picking his brain and supporting him to help Nigeria with his plans.

The three months leading to the Assembly was harrowing to get the Professor to come and talk to us. He was so ‘busy’ he did not read letters, emails, and could not be spoken to on telephone. Yet he did not answer Yes or No to our request. It was an experience in tracking down a naturally aloof personality who, strangely, also wanted to be a public servant. His Aides were particularly spectacular. It was like you needed to have the Barth Nnaji DNA in you to qualify to work around him. And all of them were homogeneously arrogant. One week to the event we had to, in frustration, step his name down for another speaker.

Two days to the event a telephone call came from one of his assistants who wanted to know if his principal could still be our Guest Speaker and we politely turned the offer down.

Shortly after, Dr Goodluck Jonathan became Acting President, Prof Bath Nnaji also became Special Adviser to the Acting President, and Chairman, Presidential Task Force on Power (PTFP). That was to later convert him to Minister of Power when President Goodluck Jonathan became real.

The greatest surprise came when at his screening in the Senate mid-2011, he told those 109 distinguished Senators that it would take 4 years for any noticeable change to be felt in power supply under his watch and they went ahead to  pass him as Minister of Power. It was at that point some of us gave up hope that Nigeria would ever get it right on power under this government.

In February 2012, the Nigerian Society of Engineers invited Prof Barth Nnaji to be the Distinguished Guest Speaker at the Inauguration of the Association’s 26th President in Abuja but the famous Professor did not show up. And no explanation was given for his absence. That did not prevent the brand new President of the nation’s body of engineers from saying the power reform in Nigeria was on course.

All efforts to make this famous professor share his mind with industry professionals with whom he could fine-tune his thoughts and plans have, to the best of my knowledge, not yielded any result. Yet many who are familiar with the subject did not quite believe he has much valuable solution which he has used his robotic credentials to sell to many uninformed analysts, especially the media.

His grand design for Power reform in Nigeria is largely the privatisation of operating entities of PHCN and in particular a photocopy of the PENTASCOPE Agenda which BPE used to send NITEL to sleep permanently. His concept of liberalisation is at best feeble and his model of deregulation needed substantial modification which only a listening ear can earn him. And above all, his Geometric interest (Blind Trust or not) makes the field a mine for him to implement the model which makes service providers depend on public money in any manner. Surprisingly all Nigerians are just looking like what Hubert Ogunde, of blessed memory, called ‘Won j’oko s’ile regede bi aguntan ti abore mu b’orisha odo’ meaning ‘everybody sitting in helplessness similar to the goat which the Chief Priest is about to present to the goddess of the river’.

Public service cannot be given to those who have no nerve to tolerate the public. It is not about being brilliant but about making things work using people. You don’t do engineering management and spend all your time quarrelling with your tools. If it is not good for Geometric Power Ltd., it certainly cannot be good for the country called Nigeria. If you hire 8 persons from wherever in the world for $23.5million (N3.8billion) and you frustrate the workers who those 8 persons must use to deliver the goods, you might just not get there no matter how brilliant you might have been. BPE took us through the PENTASCOPE journey and it is again taking us through this Manitoba pilgrimage. This is a BPE whose ‘track record’ we know very well.

And in any case how can the Manitoba Model solve Nigeria’s power Transmission problem except that it may at best help Geometric to reduce its burden – a gameplan which has now stalled at least temporarily, if not, very unfortunately, permanently.

It is a pity we are passing through this moment of our life, the worst in the history of Nigeria that we have PhD’s everywhere and on every subject and yet we cannot provide electricity for our citizens. And one of our best brains has been consumed simply because we mis-deploy him.

Who should bury his head in shame?

All of us?, some of us?, or just one of us? Certainly not Prof Barth Nnaji.

 

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