By OCHEREOME NNANNA
Since he replaced Professor Barth Nnaji as Minister of Power, Professor Chinedu Nebo has struggled to reassure Nigerians that the steady march to stable electricity in the country will not be truncated. As a high performing university administrator, having risen to the top of the ladder in the academia, Professor Nebo affirms he is equal to the task. In this interview, he paints an inspiring picture of a seamless transfer of the power business to the private sector within the next one month. Here are the excerpts of the very exciting interview:
We heard so much about what you were able to achieve as the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Nigeria, my alma mater…
Are you a Lion? Wonderful.
So, what has it been like, transforming from an academic and university administrator to a federal cabinet minister? Can you describe the atmosphere in the two worlds?
Of course, initially it appeared to be very daunting, simply because they are two different terrains. The ivory tower has its own norms and idiosyncrasies. But the world of politics is totally different. The language is different. The aspirations are different, and the people are totally different. To come in from the academia to the cabinet, I wouldn’t say it is a cup of tea.
The good thing is that the academia prepares people for the position of leadership and that is the critical role that I have to play in the Power sector. The leadership training that I got starting from when I was a lecturer, became a professor, became a dean, became a deputy vice-chancellor and then vice-chancellor two times over. Really, it prepared me for the role of a federal level cabinet minister.
It has been okay, even though one had to learn how to talk as a politician, and when you have facts to give, you have to give them in a politically correct manner so that you will not offend people you are not supposed to offend.
So, one can say that the chair has turned the other way. As an academic, you were fond of blaming people in government and now you will be blamed?
That is correct. That’s very true.
People have complained that since you took over as Minister of Power, the power supply situation has worsened. Do you think that is correct?
That is a total misconception. One thing you need to know is that every year between March and May, we have the lowest water level in our rivers due to the weather situation and that reduces power delivery from the hydros. There are a lot of system collapses. At that time when the rains come and vegetation follows, there are a lot of disruption of transmission activities, and that affects the amount of power distributed. If there is any slippage, there will be interruptions in power interfaces.
There were many challenges and they are being surmounted. You can see that there already is an improvement in power supply. It is really picking up now and many cities in the country can testify that power supply is actually picking up. There are many testimonies. The most recent was in Awka. People have been jubilating that for a couple of weeks now, Awka of all places, has experienced uninterrupted power supply.
Kaduna is also experiencing that. The minimum in Abuja is about 18 hours a day. Some places in Abuja are getting 22 hours a day. We are passing through a cycle that is caused by natural phenomena, and we are coming close to the end of that cycle. Power supply improvement is actually happening nationally.
That cycle you referred to is a vicious one. It happens every year. March, April and May are about the hottest months of the year. When people need light that is when it is at the lowest. When are we going to break that vicious cycle?
Actually, it will soon happen. It is something that is not far-fetched. It is a question of planning and doing the right thing. I believe that very soon, that will be a thing of the past. With more power generation coming on and the strengthening of our transmission interface, there will be a lot more dependable power supply to the citizenry.
The reason why people are so uptight at such periods is because a lot of people need air conditioning. When they go to their offices and they cannot get it because power is not available, they will be quite uncomfortable. But with more power generation, I am anticipating from the end of this year, and from then upwards, I believe that that will be taken care of.
Are you saying that by March and April next year, the chances of breaking the vicious cycle are very high?
The chances will be higher than what we have seen before.
One of the major activities of the Ministry in recent times was the unbundling and sale of companies out of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN). How do you describe the process and what should Nigerians expect at the end of it?
The government took a very bold, courageous step to privatise the Power sector, especially with regard to generation and distribution. It was such a bold step that many people had thought that was impossible and that was not going to work. So far, by the grace of God, it is working and it is quite conceivable that it will do Nigeria a lot of good compared with when government provided, transmitted and distributed power.
The enormous amounts of capital needed to be injected into power generation, distribution and transmission is so huge that the government cannot do it alone. And when it is left in the hands of the government, and you add the factors of the system whereby not all the money that is voted to solve a problem goes into solving that problem, when you consider all this, you will know that the private sector is much better at providing these services. Government has no business doing business.
Government’s business is to create an enabling environment for businesses to thrive. It is these businesses that will thrive that will create jobs for the people, multiply the number of wealthy people, increase the middle class and make everybody else happier. So, the government took the right decision to privatise the Power sector.
Right now, it is going very well. Just a couple of days ago, the remaining generating company (GENCO) at Afam and distributing company (DISCO) in Kaduna have been privatised. All the 10 GENCOS and five DISCOS are now in the hands of private companies. They have already paid and will soon take over. They are waiting for the completion of the engagement with the Labour unions then they will complete their payments and assume power. Everything is on course and we believe it is the best thing for Nigeria.
So, what is the situation between government and workers’ unions with regard to termination benefits?
As at yesterday (August 1st 2013), payments started hitting their accounts. Government wants this process to be seamless. We are doing everything possible to carry everybody along. It is not always easy to get 100 per cent agreement on everything. We are paying the GENCOs first. At the end of that, we will begin to pay the DISCOs.
Part of the reason is the sheer number of people and the amount involved. Nobody can do that in one fell swoop. If you do that on any economy in Africa, it will create problems. It is better to do it on a gradual basis. They are completing the final assignment of auditing the people who were biometrically captured, and all of them have confirmed that they were credited with the correct amount due them.
When do we expect the process to end and the new owners of the privatised companies to take over?
I believe that by September, many of them should be taking over.
Can you describe the most trying moment you have experienced on the Labour issue?
I must be very frank with you. The union leaders have been quite good, even though they are hard nuts to crack. They bargain as hard-nosed businessmen. They want every “i” dotted and every “t” crossed. At this point, they want to get as much as possible for the people they represent. I would not say I have experienced any bad situation with them except that they are asking for too much and it goes beyond constitutional provisions. We don’t want to create precedents that will become a burden on the system.
The unions are doing very well though sometimes we see them write a few things in the newspapers accusing us of one thing or the other. It is worrisome because if you are the leader of a sector and people are complaining about one thing or the other, naturally, it will affect you. Sometimes we are at daggers-drawn; sometimes we are smiling and shaking hands. It has generally been okay.
You participated in the Ministerial Platform. What will you tell Nigerians is the achievement of President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration in the Power sector since he took over?
Rural electrification projects were moribund. Some previous governments even wanted to scrap them. It was President Jonathan that revived the Rural Electrification Agency in 2012 and provided funding so that rural dwellers that constitute the larger population of the country will get electricity. That is one significant achievement.
Remember also that all these National Independent Power Projects (NIPP) that all of us are acclaiming, were virtually dead upon the arrival of President Jonathan. They were all stalled. Nothing was going on. Unfortunately, the Yar’ Adua government did not want to continue with it. Eventually, President Jonathan stepped it up. We are really surviving with regard to electricity supply because he revived the NIPP projects, a multi-billion dollar project altogether. This is the actual basis that we have of guaranteeing steady supply of power to Nigerians.
Now, take the hydros aspect, it is the same President Jonathan who decided to go forward with it, and not dreaming and seeing visions. He proceeded to actualise them. Zungeru has been on the drawing board for 30 years. It was President Jonathan that said, let’s get on with it, found funding for it and flagged it off on 28th of May 2013. Mambilla has been on the drawing board for 40 years, it was President Jonathan who said, let’s get it going.
Mambilla will give Nigeria 3,050 megawatts. Zungeru will give us 700 megawatts. The transmission system was outdated and aging. The President injected a substantial amount of money and we are recovering what we had lost. The same thing goes for the distribution that is now being privatised. A lot of money has been spent to stabilise the grid, and he is doing this all over the country. Remember that before President Jonathan came on board, power distribution in Nigeria was in the region of 2,000 megawatts. Now, we are hitting over 4,000 megawatts, doubling capacity in only a few years. He has done so well in the Power sector and we must shake his hands.
People are wondering, with these foreign investors coming to take over generation and distribution, what are the guarantees the poor and the rural dwellers will be able to pay for their services? How do you guarantee they do not price electricity out of their reach?
That is the reason we have the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC). It is supposed to protect the consumer as well as regulate the entire electricity industry. They are not going to allow excessive profiteering by the generating and distribution companies. I believe that it will not happen. And remember that there is R1and R2 for the very low income people.
What they are charged is so little that it is not up to 30 per cent of what they will spend if they are using generators. I don’ think that is something to worry about. Remember that some of these foreign companies have their Nigerian counterparts. Most of them are actually owned by Nigerians with an injection of foreign direct investment. It is all well for everybody.
You were with the President in his recent economic mission to China. What do we expect from China?
Mr President undertook a state visit to China, invited by the Chinese Government. Some of us ministers accompanied him because of our various sectors involved in the bilateral agreements the two countries entered into. With regard to power, that visit to China was very liberating. Number one, Power China Corporation is coming into Nigeria to help us with gas-fired power plants to generate 20,000 megawatts. That is one quantum leap when it happens – and it will happen. When they start, it is likely to be completed within two to three years.
It is something Mr President and all of us are very happy about. All the talk about Vision 20-2020 will be just a mirage unless we have electricity to drive the industrial and manufacturing sectors and move the Nigerian economy to the next level. And one way to do it is to engage in this kind of scheme. Power China is also planning to help raise resources to build 10,000 kilometers of super grid.
We also entered into agreement with companies that are coming, at the President’s instance, to start the coal-to-power power plant. They want to build a 1,200 megawatt plant. Then we have the China Machinery Engineering Company ready to contribute as much as 20 to 25 per cent equity in transmission and provide funding to help us develop our transmission lines. There are many other companies that are coming to help us in our Power sector. It was a very successful outing.
Given the picture you have painted, when do we expect all these things to become reality?
These things are very capital-intensive. And one of the things that delays starting of power plants is usually the funding. Whenever you see people talking about starting power plants, they go with their financiers and lawyers because the legal framework has to be taken care of, otherwise there will be no power plants. That will probably be the thing that will delay it, but funding is being worked out so there will be no lapses.
I will say, in the next few years, Nigeria will be much better off than where it is today. I don’t want to give you any time frame because “acts of God” do occur, but I don’t see that happening to set us back too much. But I will assure that there will be more than doubling of what we have today before the end of next year.
You complained bitterly about the activities of vandals during the Ministerial Platform, but is it not the work of government to secure its own infrastructure?
There is no doubt that it is the work of government. But it is the collective responsibility of all of us. Even today, I have been accosted by communities who are complaining that they don’t have light. What happened to their light? Youths vandalised the distribution network. They went to the transformers, disfigured the transformers and dismembered the transformers in order to collect some components they could sell as scrap, thus plunging the people into darkness.
This happened during the oil subsidy demonstrations. One of the sub-stations in Ogun State was burnt. Now, they are complaining that they have no power. Gas pipelines are being vandalised. If you vandalise gas pipeline, there will be no gas for the generation stations to produce power. The same if you vandalise transmission lines and sub-stations.
I believe that there should be a massive enlightenment campaign, and the media can help. In one DISCO alone, all the vandals could steal was worth about N10,000. Meanwhile, they knocked one million people out of electricity supply, and it took N27 million to rectify what they vandalised for the sake of a N10,000 component.
Government is doing what it can, but the whole populace should be mobilised to ensure that miscreants should not be going the way they are going. When there is no electricity, there will be no companies, no industries and no jobs. Sometime ago, there was a power outage around Oshodi during a football match and some people went and vandalised a power station. For months, they were unable to watch other football matches, let alone enjoy light in their homes and offices.
We must sensitise people to know that vandalisation of public amenities for any reason is not in the interest of anybody.