Nigeria’s Minister of Power Professor Bart Nnaji’s resignation from President Goodluck Jonathan’s cabinet left stakeholders with mixed feelings as they ponder the future of the ongoing reforms in the power sector.
It is not usual for a Nigerian minister to resign from office over a matter of principle. It is therefore against this background that the resignation of Nigeria’s Power Minister, Prof Bart Nnaji, elicited so much interest.
While some hailed Nnaji for quitting the President Goodluck Jonathan government ostensibly to protect his integrity, which was at stake following allegations that he had compromised the Federal Government’s privatisation programme in the power sector by reportedly being on the board of some companies with interests in the exercise, others believed that he was guilty as charged.
But almost everyone seems to agree that Nnaji has set a high standard in the industry that will be difficult to surpass. He is believed to have brought professionalism and verve into the ongoing power sector reforms, which he launched a little over two years ago. This has won him many foes who want the status quo to remain, and few friends that admire his courage in spearheading the crusade with uncommon passion. It was therefore not altogether surprising that he was eventually forced to resign (See African Business July 2012). His exit came at a time President Goodluck Jonathan tried to keep his ministers on their toes by compelling them to sign a performance contract.
Fears over continuity
Apparently mindful of the implications of Nnaji’s exit, the Minister of Information, Labaran Maku, quickly allayed fears that it could have an adverse effect on the reforms in the industry. In a chat with journalists in Abuja shortly after the announcement was made, Maku, who believes the resignation would strengthen investors’ confidence in the exercise, said, “Nnaji resigned to give credibility to the power sector privatisation process. I do not see it in any way hampering the process. Rather, it would assure investors worldwide that Nigeria, and all of us in government, are prepared to do everything possible to ensure the credibility of the process.”
Expressing the confidence that the Federal Government and the Ministry of Power will strive even harder in the months ahead to bring the reforms to a logical conclusion, he gave assurances that the current stable power supply experienced in recent weeks in many parts of the country would be sustained, adding, “We are going to see from next year more proficient management of the power sector and more consistency in terms of response to citizens’ need for power and influx of investments.”
A delegation from the government comprising top management of the power ministry held a meeting with international development partners shortly afterwards to reassure them that the power reforms would not be aborted, following Nnaji’s unceremonious exit. The former minister himself also gave the same assurance to development partners when he met with them just before his final departure.
But for the electricity workers who had largely opposed the reforms of the former minister, it was a moment for sober reflection, as the initial euphoria that greeted his resignation gave way to gloom. Indeed, many credit Nnaji with repositioning the Ministry of Power for greater efficiency that has seen the level of power generation rise from less than 4,000 megawatts to an all-time high of 4,400 megawatts.
Conflict of interest
Nnaji had resigned following allegations that he has a direct interest in one of the consortia that bid for the Afam power plant located in Rivers State. It was also alleged that he did not declare his interest in the firm publicly, raising questions on the transparency of the process, among other issues.
But the former minister defended himself, explaining that he had established a blind trust to manage his interest in the consortium and that he had no direct dealings with the firm in question, as insinuated.
In a statement signed by his Special Adviser on Media, Ogbuagu Anikwe, Nnaji said he was proud that his exit came at a time that the Jonathan administration has been able to generate and supply an unprecedented quantum of steady, reliable electric power in the history of the nation. He recalled his track record as Minister of State for Science and Technology and later Adviser on Power to the President, before his latest appointment, and said history and indeed Nigerians would judge how he discharged his duties as power minister.
Nnaji said: “I voluntarily resigned the office of minister to retain my integrity, which has come under scurrilous attacks by powerful vested interests that are hell bent on besmirching the integrity and reputation that I have painstakingly built over the years.” He reiterated that before he accepted to serve as minister, he resigned his directorship of all companies that he had interest in and put his shares in those companies in a blind trust. This, he added, effectively meant that he was not privy to the day-to-day business decisions of those who ran this trust.
In addition, Nnaji said he publicly declared the participation in the privatisation process of a foreign company that did business with a company that he had interests in. According to him, this fact came to his knowledge only during the course of evaluating the consortia that were bidding for PHCN successor companies. Consequently, he said he also voluntarily withdrew from participating in the selection process.
He said: “These actions, I should think, are in line with the finest traditions of transparency and accountability in governance.”
Some analysts believe the National Council of Privatisation (NCP), the apex body in charge of privatisation matters, was quite professional in its handling of the matter, which they noted was the result of the technical evaluation it carried out for the 25 bids for the six generation companies created from the unbundling of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN).
NCP had faulted the bids for Afam plant and the Enugu Distribution Company based on its findings. Nnaji is allegedly linked to both entities.
But a cross section of other stakeholders believed that this disclosure should not warrant Nnaji’s resignation. For instance, the Lagos League of Political Parties (LLPP) in a statement issued by its Chairman, Udoka Udeogaranya, said it was wrong to “sacrifice a performer on the altar of technicalities.”
Yet others argued further that Jonathan should have persuaded Nnaji to stay, particularly now that the reform is gathering momentum, in view of his achievements so far. They believe Nnaji’s exit was the consequence of high-level intrigues in the power sector. They recalled how the former Chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Power, Ndudi Elumelu, whose committee was mandated to probe the rot in the power sector, was accused of accepting bribes from the indicted firms and was subsequently picked up by the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC). His committee’s report has since been confined to the dustbin.
They believe Nnaji may have inadvertently stepped on the toes of some powerful Nigerians in both government and business circles by insisting on professionalism, which proved to be his undoing.
Nnaji chalked up a number of achievements during his short stint as Minister. Apart from being instrumental in the increase in electricity supply currently being enjoyed across the country, he will be remembered for ensuring efficiency in the operations of PHCN by weeding out redundant workers. This development did not go down well with the unions, which called for him to be sacked. But Nnaji stuck to his guns, insisting on probity and accountability. It was also during his tenure that Nigeria launched a new electricity tariff regime expected to attract much-needed investments in power. His track record in the power sector can be attributed to familiarity with the terrain, having established Geometric Power, the first indigenous private sector power company in Nigeria, with a capacity of 140 megawatts, a few years ago. It is not unlikely that he will go back and manage his company after calling it quits with the Jonathan administration.
Nnaji, a Professor of Computer Integrated Manufacturing and Robotics in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, in the US, had demonstrated that it is no longer business as usual in the electricity sector when he gave three top shots of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) the boot earlier in the year over what he perceived to be below average performance.
His sudden exit is no doubt a big loss for a power sector that he had tried to reposition for greater competitiveness. Speculations had been rife that Jonathan might take charge of the Ministry, after Nnaji’s resignation. But the Presidency has debunked the rumour. The Minister of State for Power, Darius Ishaku, has since stepped into Nnaji’s shoes and he has assured stakeholders in the industry of his preparedness to pursue the reforms to a logical conclusion.
One thing is clear – Nnaji’s contribution to power reform in Nigeria cannot be overlooked by even his staunchest critics. As the dust settles over his exit, all eyes will be on Darius Ishaku, his successor, who is expected to carry on with the same zeal.