The other day, I had the privilege of undertaking a facility tour of Aba Integrated Power Plant (IPP), the signature project of Geometric Power Limited. It was a worthwhile experience. The Aba IPP, an ambitious project conceived by Prof Barth Nnaji, is a revolution about to happen in the power sector. It is a response to the gaping hole which the absence of regular power supply created in the Aba business fabric.
It is a strategic vision borne out of the overriding need to reclaim Aba from industrial atrophy. Aba, a city that once bubbled with industrial and commercial concerns, went under owing to neglect by government and other relevant authorities. Yet, the brawny and can-do spirit of the Aba artisan held on tenaciously to the inventiveness and innovation the city is known for. They have continued to make Aba a city that must command attention, regardless of the willful abandonment by those who ought to lift the city from ruin. Significantly, Aba got that compulsive attention when James Wolfensohn, then the President of the World Bank, visited the city in pursuit of the bank’s Development Assistance to Africa programme.
After his assessment of the industrial potentials of the environment, he recommended to the Nigerian government that a power plant be set up in the city. The then government of Olusegun Obasanjo accepted the idea but, curiously, chose to site the power plant in Abeokuta.
The infamous decision left a yawning gap in the Aba business community. It was this lacuna created by the Obasanjo government that Nnaji set out to fill when he, in 2004, conceived the idea of Aba IPP. Nnaji, a William Kepler Whiteford Professor of Engineering and Baker Research Fellow, knows what it means to create an industrial base. He knows what it means to tap into the vast industrial potentials of an environment. It was on the strength of this that he set sail. He did not need to discover Aba. The city already has a ready market. What was needed was to deliver the right industrial roadmap. Prof Nnaji saw the Aba IPP as capable of doing the magic. He was right.
The project has now come to fruition. In a matter of weeks, it will be delivered to the Aba business community, and with it, things will never be the same again with the city. The $500 million power plant boasts of three gas turbines, four substations and three other substations leased from the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN). The plant is to serve the entire Aba metropolis and neigbbouring Osisioma and Owerinta. It is a massive facility which will make our unreliable PHCN and its handlers look green with envy.
Looking at the revolution that is Aba IPP, one cannot but take another look at the on-going (or is it concluded?) bids for the electricity distribution companies unbundled from the behemoth called PHCN. We must recall that Prof Nnaji who was Director of the United States National Science Foundation returned to Nigeria with a boatload of experience. He was chairman, Presidential Task Force on Power and Special Adviser to the President on Power. He was later to become the Minister of Power.
It is significant to note that Nnaji’s exposure at Geometric Power put him in a very good stead to manage the power sector in Nigeria efficiently. While he was in the saddle, he was able to resolve the many problems bedeviling the power sector. The Power Reform Act which he set up was the vehicle for the attainment of these goals. Apart from the leap in the quantum of power supplied, the power sector reform made it possible for the private sector to get involved in power issues.
In recognition of his stellar performance, the Bankers’ Committee rewarded him with an award. Given Nnaji’s expertise and the positive changes he brought to bear on the power sector, it is strange that the Nigerian government which sought his services on account of his expertise treated him as an intruder. While the man was working to lift the country out of darkness, some entrenched and destructive interests were up in arms against his progressive bent. From what we know and can see, he was set to midwife a transparent process in power sector reforms. But because Nigeria has been programmed by revisionists to remain a lame duck, Nnaji was seen as a strange bedfellow who was out to upset the apple carte. They resisted him fiercely.
But do we really blame those who saw Nnaji as an obstacle? They are simply fighting for survival. But the regret is that they are doing it at the expense of Nigeria and the system that drives it. But the bigger regret is that the duplicity of agents of darkness was sanctioned by the Jonathan Presidency which, until the bubble burst, was still pretending that it was out to reform the power sector. If there is anything which has exposed the underbelly of the Jonathan administration in the area of power sector reforms, it is the sale of the electricity distribution companies to some firms and consortia whose competence in the power sector is questionable A company called Southern Electricity Distribution Company (SEDC) has since joined issues with the Bureau for Public Enterprises (BPE) and the National Council on Privatization (NCP) over what they consider to be underhand dealings over the bids. SEDC lost the bid for the Benin Distribution Company in circumstances it could not understand. Consequently, some of the interests behind it, notably Governors of Edo, Delta, Ekiti and Ondo cried blue murder.
But they were confounded the more when the chairman of the Technical Committee accused SEDC of submission of two different bids in contravention of the bid requirements. The controversy is yet to be settled. But the case of Enugu Distribution Company is a different story all together. Owing to the resentment for Prof Nnaji by some powerful elements that control the Jonathan Presidency, the bid which involved South East Governors was manipulated in a manner that would ensure that Geometric Power does not have a stake in any of the electricity distribution companies. By rigging geometric out of the process, the post- acquisition success of Enugu Distribution Company now looks bleak. But let us leave the Jonathan Presidency to its devices and begin to focus some attention on Aba and its environs.
The decay that the city has suffered in recent years has attracted national and international attention. A city that was once an industrial and commercial hub has become a shadow of its old self. Owing to the collapse of vital infrastructure in the city, many of the industries which used to operate in Aba have left. With their exodus, the economy of the city, indeed, that of Abia State, is bleeding. One of the most notorious factors that killed Aba’s industrial growth is power supply. James Wolfensohn was told this much when he visited. From what he saw, it was clear that regular power supply would help Aba to return to glory. This is where Geometric Power comes in.
The Aba power plant is set to bring back the magic of Aba. It is believed that regular power supply which the commissioning of the IPP will bring about will make Aba to bubble again. Some of the industries that left will return and new ones will find the impetus to come to Aba and operate. But there is a snag. The roads in Aba are the new jinx that must be kicked off if the city must begin to function again. It is an indisputable fact that Aba parades the worst roads in the country today.
The situation has become scandalous. I felt even more scandalized as I navigated through the macadam that is the road leading to Aba IPP. It is simply an embarrassment to the government of Abia State. We need not emphasize the fact that Geometric Power has done well to give Aba a new face. But the government must complement its efforts by making the roads in Aba motorable.