Mr. Omorodion Solomon Uwaifo can be described as an elder statesman in engineering and a walking encyclopedia on electricity issues. In fact, a contact with him shows that he radiates electricity!It is painful to him as an engineer that Nigeria doesn’t have a stable electricity supply. He believes the country has the manpower to generate and distribute power. He spoke with ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE and OLANREWAJU BABALOLA ( Photos: AYODELE EFUNLA) on what Nigeria should do to have stable electricity supply
At what point did the General Olusegun Obasanjo regime spot you, we learned you wrote the report on the electricity sector for that government?
General Obasanjo’s administration wrote to the Nigerian Society of Engineers, NSE, not to me or other individuals, for advice when National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) wanted the Federal Government (FGN) to allow it to go commercial. The letter was in April 1979. The President of the NSE, Engr Imarhiagbe Igiehon, called ten engineers together. I was one of them. In three weeks of intense activity, we wrote an excellent report, which the NSE sent to the FGN in June 1979. By that time, politics was at center stage. Alhaji Shehu Shagari won the Federal election and General Obasanjo handed over to him on October 1. I presume that he also handed the NSE Report to his government.
We learned Shagari did nothing about the report. Did you find out why?
I would say that Shehu Shagari did little with that report. However, in 1983, probably as a result of advice, the President set up what he called a National Panel to re-organize the NEPA. It was a multi-disciplinary panel that consisted of engineers, accountant, lawyer, and administrator. The four engineers were Engrs Dr. Ademola Banjo, S O Ajose, Modu Kagu and S O Uwaifo. Chief Arthur Mbanefo MFR represented accountants, Dr. Arthur Nylander SAN represented Lawyers and Chief Ebenezer Oke, business administration. Panelists toured the country and had meetings with stakeholders and special interest groups. Three panelists – Engrs Dr. Ademola Banjo and S O Uwaifo, and Chief Arthur Mbanefo were selected to edit the final report. They did that in Engr Uwaifo’s office in Palmgrove Estate and his Personal Assistant, Mrs. Funke Otusajo, provided excellent secretarial services.
The Report was handed over to the FGN in July 1983. Electioneering was in full swing as President Shagari campaigned for reelection. He won and returned to the Presidency on October 1. Unfortunately, General Muhammadu Buhari overthrew his government on the last day of the year 1983.
Before you go on, what was the crux of the report?
The crux was that a monolith, NEPA, as its predecessor, ECN, with a vertical management structure, could not give a country as geographically large and politically complex as Nigeria is, an efficient electric utility, given other constraints of poor communications and manpower inadequacies. The 1979 Report wanted the monolith reorganized consistent with the country’s state structure. The 1983 Report was similar. It wanted Undertakings, distribution services, to be as consistent with states structures as much as possible. Generation and transmission were to remain, as they were, essentially monolithic because that would serve fuel and the national economies better.
What were the differences between your 1979 and 1983 reports?
The essences were the same, but details were vastly different. The NSE had three weeks to do its 1979 report. They sat in one room to distill their experiences of the industry. The National Committee had three months to tour the country and talk to interest groups as well as stakeholders.
We heard that Obasanjo revisited the report when he came back as civilian president…
Yes, by the time Chief Olusegun Obasanjo became President in 1999, two excellent reports had floated in the federal system for two decades. A succession of five military governments did nothing about those reports. Power supply systems across the country had become decrepit. Talks were on that the President would privatize the industry. I was glad to support him, writing a weekly column, Public Utilities Watch, in the Vanguard between 2002 and 2003. The columns discussed the monolith and its problems including its derelict systems, corruption and its abuse of power. They also suggested how the industry might be successfully privatized.
But was privatization part of the things you suggested?
No, the reports wanted the power supply administration reorganized along state lines while retaining generation and transmission services as one monolith with horizontal management structure. As I have said, a monolith with a vertical management structure cannot give Nigeria the type of electric power supply service that the country needed at that time. With the telephones the country has now, monoliths have better chances, but not by very much.
Kindly appraise how Obasanjo tried to change the whole system before he left power. I mean his own privatization policy
What do you mean?
From 1999, his privatization policy the power sector …
Ah okay. By the time that Chief Obasanjo left office in 2007, he had set up all the structures needed for privatization. As a political platform, the Vice-President headed the National Council on Privatization, NCP. The electric power supply industry is intensive engineering. Privatizing one that has had assets and liabilities across the country for over sixty years needed an engineering platform and the Bureau of Public Enterprises, essentially a clearing-house for the NCP should have been that platform. Sadly, rather than an engineering platform, the FGN made it another political platform. Probably an afterthought, but the FGN hired the services of a Canadian engineering firm to work for the BPE. The FGN had shot itself in the foot. Yes, the Canadian firm would probably have had better access to technology, but it certainly could not have matched an indigenous engineering outfit for essential information and knowledge of Nigeria’s electric power supply installations available to the engineer in the nooks and crannies of the country. A competent Nigerian engineer at the head of BPE, collaborating with other choice engineers, firms, and individuals including overseas engineers perhaps, would have been a wonderful asset for the country in terms of synergies developed and technological progress. Most if not all that was there to know about Nigeria’s decrepit assets, particularly distribution assets would have been available to interested entrepreneurs.
From 1979 you have suggested that the regulator be broken…
No, the monolith was an operator, not a regulator. The office of the Chief Electrical Inspector at the Ministry of Mines and Power regulated the industry.
You said it should be unbundled but it wasn’t unbundled.
Neither of the two reports looked at unbundling. What I said was that successive military governments, five in all between 1983 and 1999 did nothing with two powerful reports that floated in the system, while Nigeria’s electric power supply decayed.
Would you say that was responsible for the mess we have found ourselves in?
No, but it contributed immensely and accelerated our arrival in the mess. The decline started some forty years ago. Engineers employed by the monoliths since then arrived in a decaying system. Continuing education and training was hardly available to them and decadence became inexorable.
Not until 2015, even Yar Adua jettisoned what Obasanjo did
Yes, President Yar’ adua was not interested in privatization. President Jonathan resuscitated it after he passed on. However, when the FGN filled the position of head of NERC, it appointed an energy economist. The neglect of engineers in an engineering-intensive industry was complete. A lawyer succeeded the engineering economist and for the first eleven years up to 2017, formative years of NERC, other professions supervised the engineering activities of the Commission. And the engineering economist and lawyer had duties that were at best peripheral to the responsibilities of the NERC. Today, the Chairman, an engineer, is still to be cleared by the Senate!
Kindly appraise the situation of things now in the power sector under the present government…
The situation as it is is rather messy. DisCos, GenCos and the TCN are all new. GenCos and TCN have taken on situations that I would say were normal. Generation and Operations departments in the monolith were compact and well managed. DisCos, unfortunately, are not the same. Distribution Undertakings in the monolith had no customer service policies all its life, except the handful of statutory renderings taken from the Electricity Laws of Nigeria, Cap 57 of, I believe 1958. In its twilight years, it operated in a state of anarchy. And that is what the Discos inherited. Old problems have exacerbated. Most of the engineers in DisCos are the same ones, who worked the monolith in its twilight years.
The Canadian firm didn’t know what had happened on the streets. Maybe one might see what goes on in Ikorodu road, but not what goes on inside the streets. No, one does not. So the Nigerian government definitely needed to put together a Nigerian engineering outfit that understood the industry to be able to guide NERC and the entrepreneurs because the whole idea wasn’t for the FGN to lie about the industry to maximize sales revenue. The FGN should have exposed what the industry was like in truth, then the buyer will buy as it is at the right price. That did not happen, so some buyers bought and it was only after they bought that they started to see the reality on ground. One cannot see cables buried in the ground no matter the due diligence.
Was that the only area FG made mistake?
That is not the only area. The FGN shot itself in the foot in several areas. It privatized wrongly, then it set up NERC (Nigerian Electricity Regulation Commission) and put an energy economist at the head as I said. Energy economists are not engineers. One should not set up a commission to regulate an electric power industry without an expert in the industry to guide it, particularly in its formative years. Experts understand the industry being regulated, non-experts do not. One needs lawyers to write the laws but it is the engineers that will guide the lawyers.
I set up a website and invited other engineers to the platform to try find a way out for Nigeria’s power industry. But of course, younger engineers were looking for bread and butter; they were not old people like us, who have nothing to do but sit at home writing books. I went to NERC website and dug up codes it had written. I was disappointed. Engineers should know the units for measurement of electric power. It was some of these reasons that informed me to write the book for which reason you are here.
It is over 720 pages; it is a big book. I had to write it to tell Nigeria what the problem is, with our power industry. The monolith has outlived its time. In the 1960s Nigeria had very few engineers. Today she has quite a few thousands. Whether they are trained properly or not is another matter. The FGN must show concern for the country’s professional sector. Having privatized, the sector should now be able to make a break with the past, but where are the trained engineers? As we say where I come from, if you would butcher carrion, you will have smelly, slimy fingers and cannot scratch your body if it itches you.
Discos have hardly sat down to discuss these problems because they have other immediate problems of finance. If the FGN would take irrational action, many Discos, if not all, can be sacked. That would be a monumental injury to the integrity of Nigeria in the international community. I hope that they don’t do it. Missteps were made that must be corrected. Very few living Nigerians in Nigeria have the right experience and knowledge of electric power supply management. Nigeria must solve that problem. That is why I decided to write the book. I have taken on the FGN and the DisCos in parts of it. If at 85 I can’t speak my mind, I wouldn’t know why God brought me here. I wouldn’t have deserved to live.
Could you share some of those suggestions with us?
I have barely scratched the skin of the problem until this book. I had suggested in PUW in 2002 that the FGN should not privatize the entire industry in one fell swoop; I suggested that maybe it should privatize one or two, maybe Lagos and Abuja, to start with and watch how it goes. From the experience we garner from those two places, we do a better job privatizing other areas. It was a suggestion, maybe the FGN had its own ideas. I also suggested that three criteria should be the basis for selecting new distribution owners. They are engineering and financial abilities as well as savior faire. I don’t think the government followed any of these criteria, as the government decided to privatize because they probably wanted to share with their friends.
What do you think the Discos need to do to work better?
An engineering institution should have at the head technocrats that understands that industry to give it direction. I am also saying that if they had a proper NERC headed by an engineer who understands what he is doing, the first thing as I wrote in the book that we are talking about, the first thing they should have done is to make sure that within the first two, three years the distribution companies will be able to deliver.
Look a distribution system that has been decaying over the past 40 years is what they sold to Discos and the Discos do not have a programme to redress that situation, they are crying that there are so many power failures and so on and so forth. If I were a Disco first thing I would do is to spend the first six months in reclaiming the industry from the thieves.