Barth Nnaji’s tortuous journey to lighting up Aba explains, most graphically, why the rest of the country will remain in darkness for a long time.

By Ikechukwu Amaechi

As Vice President Kashim Shettima, on Monday, commissioned the Aba Power project on behalf of President Bola Tinubu at the Osisioma Industrial Layout in Aba, Abia State, what came to my mind was an interview I had with the promoter of the project, Prof Barth Nnaji, in Porto-Novo, Benin Republic in 2014.

TheNiche newspaper was coming on stream that year when Ndigbo Lagos, a socio-cultural organisation representing the Igbo community in Lagos State, under the leadership of Prof Anya O. Anya organised a retreat at the sustainable zero-waste farm, called Songhai, which was set up in 1984 by a Nigerian, Rev. Fr. Godfrey Nzamujo, to mimic natural ecosystem.

As the 2015 elections were approaching, the idea of the retreat in the port city of Porto-Novo, capital of Benin, was to brainstorm on the way forward for Nigeria.

Prof Anya was meticulous in assembling the attendees that included Prof Nnaji, Dr Paschal Dozie, founder of Diamond Bank and former chairman of MTN; Prof Osita Ogbu, former Minister of National Planning and Chief Economic Adviser to President Olusegun Obasanjo; late Chidi Izuwa, who was director-general of the Infrastructure Concession Regulatory Commission (ICRC); Dave Nwachukwu, Prof Chidi Odinkalu, my humble self, etc. Our host, Fr. Nzamujo, who holds multiple doctorate degrees in Electronics, Microbiology and Developmental Science, and had been admitted to the rank of “Grand Officer of the Order of Benin” the previous year presented one of the several papers at the retreat.  

It was an intellectually stimulating outing where scenarios were created and projections made. I had exclusive interviews with Fr. Nzamuzo and Prof Nnaji for the maiden edition of TheNiche on April 20, 2014.

The interview with Prof Nnaji was particularly revealing. His pet project, the Geometric Power, had stalled at the time.

Nnaji, who holds a doctorate in Industrial and Systems Engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the United States, a professor of Computer Integrated Manufacturing and Robotics in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, who received his dual MSc and PhD degrees in physics from St. John’s University in New York, US, returned to Nigeria in 1993 to serve as the Minister of Science and Technology.

Thereafter, he founded the Geometric Power Limited (GPL), Nigeria’s first indigenous power development company in 2000.

In 2001 when the power line from Shiroro to Abuja was being completed, and Abuja needed supplementary power, GPL and an Irish company called Agreco were contracted to build power plants that would guarantee 15 megawatts each. The contract was for two years though it was eventually extended for another four months.

“So, we built our own and it taught us some very important positive lessons that if you ring fence power, you will get more reliable electricity. It is quite intuitive. That was why we went to do it in Aba, finding that Aba people needed power,” he explained.

And how did he find out the needs of Aba residents? Sometime around 2003, the Minister of Finance at the time, Dr Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, went with then President of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn, to Aba and they invited Nnaji. He recalls that when the people at Ariaria Market were asked what they needed most, they chorused power.

There and then, Nnaji was inspired to initiate the Aba Integrated Power, a distribution project with an embedded generation company, which enables it to generate and distribute its power, separating it from other electricity companies.

The electricity generation company in the Geometric Power Group (GP) is Geometric Power Aba Ltd, (GPAL), while the distribution company is Aba Power Limited Electrical (APLE), which services nine of the 17 local government areas in Abia State – Aba South, Aba North, Osisioma Ngwa, Obingwa, Ugwunagbo, Ukwa East, Ukwa West, Isiala-Ngwa South and Isiala-Ngwa North. They collectively make up the Aba Ring-fenced Area where GPAL is in charge of producing and distributing electricity.

All these were done before President Goodluck Jonathan appointed him Minister of Power in 2011, a position he left barely one year later in circumstances that were not particularly flattering because in 2004, Geometric Power Limited signed a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Government to build a power plant in Aba, and in April 2005, the company signed the Aba concession agreement, also with the Federal Government, which gave it the right to distribute power to Aba.

The idea of the project as Nnaji stated was to “ensure that Aba residents enjoy a 24-hour power supply” but he didn’t reckon with the challenges, one of which was the financial meltdown of the period. When he assumed they were on a home stretch and needed about $100 million more to finish the project and already had commitments from banks for the disbursement of the fund, the financial meltdown hit. Their international investors withdrew their commitments and the banks also, stalling the project for more than two years.

There was also the issue of militancy and kidnapping which had reared its ugly head in the Southeast. One of their expatriate workers was kidnapped and as soon as they got him released, he fled the country.

But the worst problem was the ignominious roles played by vested interests. As a former minister in President Goodluck Jonathan’s government, the circumstances of his exit from the cabinet notwithstanding, it was expected that Nnaji would have Jonathan’s back.

That didn’t happen. Instead, the government threw him under the rapacious bus of predators and buccaneers in government and their friends outside.  

Nnaji lamented the betrayal thus: “We had the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) that took the Aba project that is actually ring-fenced in an agreement, and sold it to a company that was a distribution company in spite of every clear indication that this agreement is there, they still went ahead to sell the place without taking out Aba – something that no organisation that is looking for the success of the power project in Nigeria will do.”

His plea that the Jonathan administration should resolve the matter fell on deaf ears and time was running out.

As at 2014, the project was already 10 years old and he was aware of the expectations of the people.

“I agree that it has been there for some time but I am happy to say that it is pretty much completed. The power plant, sub stations, and power lines are all done basically, just awaiting commissioning. Within the next one month, we should be able to do the commissioning of the power plant,” he said.

That was not to be as the one month stretched to another ten years.

That explains why Prof Nnaji is beside himself with joy right now.

And why not?

He has done what no other Nigerian has been able to do. And in trying to help solve the electricity needs of his country, he has been through hell.

It is a measure of his grit that the man is still able to look into a fire and smile, as he did on Monday.

This weekend, the Aba Power Limited will start supplying power from one of its three turbines to consumers in the Aba Ring-fenced Area. This is coming two weeks earlier than originally scheduled.

The company had scheduled supplies to commercial customers 13 days after commissioning in line with technical protocols but an apparently impatient Nnaji directed the utility’s engineers to provide “power to the people without fail this weekend.”

I can understand why he cannot wait for another two weeks. He waited almost forever to get to this point where the $800 million integrated power project, which also includes the building of a 27-kilometre natural gas pipeline from Owaza in Ukwa West LGA in Abia to the Osisioma industrial layout, the single largest investment in the Southeast, can deliver on its promise.

But while he deserves all the accolades, the question still needs to be asked: why did the system subject a citizen who was just desirous of contributing his quota to national development at no cost whatsoever to the Nigerian state to such trauma for so long?

Barth Nnaji’s tortuous journey to lighting up Aba explains, most graphically, why the rest of the country wi

ll remain in darkness for a long time.