In his May 2018 lecture titled “The Value of Diversity: Restructuring to Save Nigeria”, delivered at the faculty of the social sciences, University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN), Prof. Obiora Okonkwo, the chairman of United Nigeria airlines, made a very profound and futuristic recommendation for the integrated development of the southeast region of Nigeria. He said: “If we take the example of a country like the United States of America, we will see the advantages of restructuring. By unbundling their federation and creating opportunities for their people, the US created a situation where every state has something it is known for, for which it is a proud producer. For instance, if you are talking of the automobile industry in the United States, you look towards Michigan. If you are talking aircraft manufacture, you look towards Florida etc. We can achieve the same in the Southeast with proper planning. We can restructure our systems to create an integrated structure where the Southeast can drive its rapid development from three points –heavy industries in the Nnewi/Onitsha axis, light industries in Aba/Owerri axis and agro-allied hub in Abakaliki axis. These can be linked with dedicated rail-lines and expressways along which shall be estates and business districts. This is something that we can achieve if we agree.”

These words came flashing through my mind again as I read the speech delivered by Prof, Barth Nnaji at the official commissioning of Aba Integrated Power Project which is powered by Geometric Power Group. The event held on February 26, 2024. In that speech, Prof. Nnaji traced the story of the Aba Power Plant to the interactive session of Aba industrialists with then President of the World Bank, Mr. James David Wolfenson, who was led to Aba by then Finance Minister, Dr. Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala in 2000. Outcome of the interaction was the demand, by Aba industrialists, for electricity to power their businesses. The request opened Prof. Nnaji to the reality and the possibilities. He said, “this convergence of desire for reliable electricity is what led us to this historic Aba IPP.”

In an interview he granted The Niche, a Nigerian daily online newspaper, Prof. Nnaji was asked if he intends to replicate the Aba power project in any other place. His answer was “Yes, we are doing the GE (General Electric) power project which is about three times the size of our current power plant… It is in Ukwa West LG. So, we are building another power plant. We are also expanding the current one.” Prof. Nnaji also said that he fixed his gaze on Abia state because, according to him, “Aba it is a huge commercial centre in the region”.

Merge Prof. Okonkwo’s recommendations and Prof. Nnaji’s decision to locate Geometrics Power in Aba and you begin to see a new picture of the emerging southeast. This is the picture of a vision that is propelled by the desire to add value and make the difference. This also presents new possibilities for inter-state light rail connectivity with Aba, Nnewi and Onitsha forming the fulcrum of commercial activities in the southeast with veritable linkages with Enugu, Abakaliki and Owerri for agro-allied industrial development, entertainment and leisure.

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These possibilities will also be supported by what the Imo and Abia state governors are doing to recreate sea routes in the region by opening up Oguta/Orashi River link to the Atlantic which hydrographic and comprehensive bathymetric/investigation survey report was submitted to Governor Hope Uzodimma in September 2023, as well as planned maritime trade developments at Owazza by Governor Alex Otti.

Tapping into the opportunities that these possibilities present, just like Prof. Nnaji did after the interaction with Aba industrialists, will lead to the regeneration of the southeast region, variously abused and insulted as “a dot in a circle”.

This, I suppose, will, however, depend on the development of policies that would encourage private capital to drive these development with insights on return on investments. This is because government capital cannot be enough to achieve these developments neither will it be adequate to drive them.

To achieve private capital investments into such developments, government must itself develop the will to be serious with the enforcement of the rule of law. Those who would want to invest their resources would also want the protection of the law, not just the protection of the man in office at the material time.

Nnaji’s Geometric suffered this before Aba IPP became a reality. Part of the hurdle that he had to scale was created by government itself in the concession of Enugu Electricity Distribution to another company which jurisdiction covered the entire Aba metropolis. It is heartening that the logjam was resolved in the overall interest of the public good. However, it calls to mind the fate of states of the federation and their relationship with electricity distribution companies, which are private entities, as far as the power generation and distribution mix was concerned. Recall that President Muhammadu Buhari had in March 2023 signed into law an amendment to the constitution which empowered states of the federation “to licence, generate, transmit, and distribute electricity”. The implication is that states of the country now have powers to do what the federal government alone did hitherto because the power to generate, transmit and distribute electrify was previously domiciled in the exclusive legislative list.

However, there are no detailed explanations on how this development interacts with the powers of generation companies (gencos) and distribution companies (discos) whose jurisdictions extend to the area of operation of the states under the 2023 constitutional amendment. That notwithstanding, what is most important is the expression of the thought of the possibilities that Prof. Okonkwo listed in that May 2018 UNN lecture. Thinking about them and also expressing them in a lecture before a university community means that they are achievable. What they need next is the development of policy, by state governments, that would encourage investors to put in their money towards moving them from potentials to actuals. That was how Nnaji proved that whatever is conceived by the mind, can be physically achieved.