Aba Power Project: A New Stage in National Development

Babatunde Fashola, the Minister of Power, Works and Housing, displayed uncanny leadership when on Thursday, March 31, 2016, he took the nation by surprise by getting top representatives of the two feuding parties in the provision of electric supply to the industrial city of Aba in Abia State, Geometric Power Limited and Interstate Electrics, to sign an agreement ending their almost three-year internecine war. Fashola got Interstate Electrics to pull out of Aba city and its environs, in accordance with the Federal Government’s agreement with Geometric Power since 2005 and revised the following year for the latter to build a power station in Aba and supply power to the area.  Geometric Power accepted to compensate Interstate Electrics.

The purported confusion over the right firm to supply power to Aba, often regarded as the capital of Nigeria’s indigenous technology, arose when the Goodluck Jonathan government handed over the two business units owned by the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) in the city to Interstate Electrics on November 1, 2013, as part of the geographical area covered by the Enugu Electricity Distribution Company (EEDC) in the wake of the privatization of the PHCN assets almost three years ago. The handover flabbergasted many because the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) displayed documents and published notices to prospective buyers of EEDC stating categorically that the two business units in Aba had been exercised out of the EEDC coverage area based on the 2005/6 Federal Government’s agreement with Geometric Power Ltd. Geometric Power also placed a caveat emptor notice in national newspapers.

The Jonathan’s government’s action did not come to perceptive observers as altogether surprising. The Interstate Electrics chief promoter, is Emeka Offor, a particularly close ally of both Jonathan and his vice president, Namadi Sambo. In contrast, the chief promoter of Geometric Power is Bart Nnaji, the globally recognized engineering professor who left Jonathan’s government in August 2012 following some disagreements on the way foreward for the power sector reform.

What is more, most Nigerians may not know that Sambo had previously in a handwritten directive asked the then BPE director general, Ms Bolanle Onagoruwa, to disregard the agreement with Geometric Power, to which BPE is a signatory. Ms Onagoruwa, a principled lawyer with conscience, politely called the Vice President’s attention to the existing agreement with Geometric Power, and a livid Vice President Sambo, who was statutorily the BPE chairman, fired the lady, alleging all manner of things. Geometric’s travails are illustrative of the culture of impunity under the Jonathan/Sambo leadership.

The resolution of the Aba electricity issue by Fashola who assumed office only last November as the minister in-charge of power becomes more significant against the background that the Jonathan government did set up as many as eight committees on the matter. Each of them stated in clear terms that Geometric Power should not be encumbered in the Aba project because its 2005/6 agreement with the Federal Government and its agencies are clear in making it the legitimate electricity supplier to the area. One of the committees was headed by Yunus Ustaz, a Senior Advocate of Nigeria (SAN), and Sambo’s personal lawyer and friend. Clearly, Ustaz is a man imbued with moral principles. But the Jonathan’s government was determined to nail Nnaji and his firm to the cross by all means possible even if it meant the failure of the power sector which it made the number one issue in its campaign manifesto in the 2011 presidential vote. So, the government sat on the Ustaz committee report and seven others.

While campaigning for reelection in Abia State on March 24, 2015, Jonathan was practically forced to visit the 141Megawatt Aba Power Project by the then Minister of Finance, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, as well as the then Anambra State governor, Peter Obi. Jonathan then promised to resolve the problem, stating pointedly that “it is a human error”. All the news media ran the presidential declaration prominently. As my phones buzzed ceaselessly by numerous Nigerians who were excited at the prospect of Aba becoming the model of how the electricity sector should be run in Nigeria, I informed the callers that it was not going to happen. Jonathan himself was too weak a president, a wimp so beholden to all manner of interests. He would rather allow Geometric Power, which had spent $520m on the Aba Power Project, to continue to pay $3milion monthly to banks as interest charges and eventually die under the crushing weight of debt than displease his coterie of contractor friends.

By getting the two parties in the Aba electric power supply controversy to shift ground and make reasonable concessions, Fashola has exhibited foresight, dynamism and strong leadership. Aba will in the next few months become the first city in West Africa to enjoy quality and uninterrupted power supply for decades. The facilities already put in place by Geometric Power are world class. The tubular poles, which are buried 10 metres into the soil and are 10metres above the ground, can be found in only advanced places like Japan where they are meant to withstand natural disasters like earthquakes. The company has, in addition, built a 27-kilometre natural gas pipeline from the oil-producing Owazi community in Ukwa West Local Government Area in Abia State to Osisioma on the outskirts of Aba where the plant is located. It has also built four brand new substations and refurbished three others inherited from the PHCN. Needless to add, all the poor distribution cables from the PHCN have long been replaced.

With the resolution of the dispute over electric supply to Aba, there is renewed optimism in the Southeast that with Aba about to regain its glory as the industrial hub of the zone, socioeconomic life in the area will change automatically. After all, poor electricity has consistently been identified as the most paralyzing of all problems which have over the decades been facing businesses in the area. When the then World Bank president, James Wolfensohn, visited Aba in 2004 and asked the business community to identify its greatest challenges, each person responded “Electrcicity! Electricity! Electricity!”. It was actually this encounter which led Okonjo-Iweala as Obasanjo’s finance minister to plead with Nnaji, who had already successfully built the 22Megawatt Emergency Power facility in Abuja in 2001-3, to consider building a bigger station in Aba with the sole purpose of helping to unleash the tremendous creative energy of Aba which is sometimes called the Japan of Africa on account of the people’s manufacturing ingenuity.

While it is true that the commissioning of the Aba Power Project will mark a new stage in Southeast economic development, the project’s takeoff will have a huge impact on the whole nation. It will stem the exodus of people to Lagos, Abuja and Port Harcourt, thereby controlling the overpopulation of these cities. It will also relieve the nation of the burden of having to worry about power supply to Aba, as power previously transmitted to Aba will now be given to other parts of the country. What is more, Geometric will send to the national grid any quantum which Aba is unable to absorb, thereby contributing significantly to power availability nationwide. And as already adumbrated in this article, Aba will be a model in the management of the electricity supply industry.

It is truly a pity that the Jonathan government made a mess of a boiled egg. As for Minister Fashola, history will record him as one of the most far-sighted Nigerian leaders, courageous, detribalized and driven by an acute sense of the common good. He is a minister to watch.

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