• Says‘we can’t force government to appoint people but we can establish job-creating businesses’
• Wonders why government won’t concession federal roads in the region for effective reconstruction and maintenance
• Says Geometric Power demonstrates that power problem in Nigeria is surmountable
Professor Bartholomew Nnaji is not a man of many words but of intense action. Upon his appointment as minister of power in 2011, when Nigeria was faced with very daunting power challenges, he had, reportedly, assured former President Goodluck Jonathan that fixing the problem was, “doable”. In this encounter with The Oracle Today,Nnaji assures that reliable power for the South East is also ‘doable’.
“Reliable electricity for the South East is not rocket science, it is doable… we did it in difficult terrain, we can do it here,” he says. The former Minister is the Chairman of South East Region Economic Development Corporation (SEREDEC) and founder and Chairman of Geometric Power Limited – the first privately owned power-generating plant in Nigeria. He spoke to CHUKS EZE, in Enugu, on current efforts by the South East Governors Forum, in partnership with key stakeholders, to develop the region and create jobs, among others.
What is your assessment of the just-concluded South East Economic Summit (SEES), which held in Enugu at the instance of South East Governors Forum (SEGF), in conjunction with SEREDEC, which you chair?
I think the summit went well. There were so many activities in the region that period and yet, many of the governors of the region were able to attend the opening ceremony of the exercise. The Deputy President of the Senate, together with some other Senators and House members; President-General of OhanaezeNdigbo; organised private sector; representatives of state governments and other leaders of the region were all in attendance. So, we had quite a good forum for discussion about how to move the region forward economically.
It is generally believed that Nigerian leaders usually engage in beautiful talk-talk without commensurate post-talk actions. As the Chairman of SEREDEC (South East Region Economic Development Corporation), which played a very pivotal role at the Summit, are there assurances that the summit would not end up in same manner?
I think everybody who knows what I do, would know that I do not engage in talk-talk without action. My company – Geometric Power – has built a power plant in Aba, with distribution network. That is action. So, we are trying to support government, through SEREDEC to do basically the same thing.
It is often difficult for governments to get themselves together to do inter-state projects. We are not proposing to do projects that are specific to states; the state governments can do that. We are focusing on projects that cut across state boundaries, such as rail networks, gas pipelines, regional electricity projects and things that help to stimulate economic development in the region.
At the summit, we talked about things that states can do to change the dynamics of how things work in the region. That is what we have tried to do. We really want to go beyond talking; we want to have an action-oriented pledge.
So, you find that we had at the Summit, where critical people came together to talk about what to do, particularly in infrastructure and hospital development.
The presentations showed that they are not merely thinking about it but they have taken certain actions to progress the development of those projects. For instance, in the gas pipeline group, we have Dr.ChimaIbeneche, who is a retired Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer (C.E.O) of Nigeria Liquefied Natural Gas (NLNG). And a team from Shell as well as Novantus Energy among others, were all there to make presentations.
We also had the former Managing Director of Nigerian Railway Corporation, who made presentation on how to develop the rail network with a team from those who are developing rail in Nigeria now. We also had an infrastructure finance company, which came all the way from the United Kingdom, the Roughton Group, led by its Chief Executive Officer, Dr. Bernard Obika, who talked about structure for raising capital for such projects. The group on medical had a design already done. It costs quite a lot of money to do design for a hospital, and they had already done that before coming to make their presentation. That was not talk but action. So, a lot of things are being done really.
The issue of ease of doing business was also extensively treated. Can you shed more light on that?
The ease of doing business issue is about how government would make it possible for people coming to invest to succeed and operate effectively? That is basically what the summit was about. I, personally, have been here for three days, to be sure that it succeeded. And to have been part of it, I would say that normally, if it were just a talk shop, we would just come and talk for just an hour or two and go away. But, we have been here all through, for three days.
The Deputy President of the Senate, Ike Ekweremmadu, raised some legal concerns, in his keynote address, at the opening session. He expressed fears that some legal bottlenecks may militate against achievement of the set goals of the SEGF. What is your take on that?
There was value in what the DSP was talking about, but he was referring to the setting up of the South East Economic Commission (SEEC), which is similar to the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) and North East Development Commission. That is government initiative; they have value because the federal government should give us what is due to the South East.
It is, really, a government initiative to do some work in the region. But, it does not really address these particular issues. For instance, they are not going to build rail lines, they are not going to come and build gas network, and they are not going to build power plants.
These are major initiatives that require international investments, which must be done by international investors because they are quite capital intensive. There is no government that can do it here. So, the SEEC that is proposed is very, very important to us, but it does not address this kind of problem, and I think that it is important for our people to understand it.
More so, that it requires that it has to be backed by law. But, the one that we are talking about does not have to be backed by any law. If you look at rail, for instance, that has been nicely done by the DSP and his colleagues to be on concurrent list. So, people can undertake to do concession of rail network.
Power is very critical to the development of any society. In that regard, former CBN Governor, Charles Soludo, recently stated at a public function, in Enugu, that the South East would not let you go unless you fix that sector for the region. Is SEESa move towards that direction?
I believe that it requires concerted efforts, on the part of everyone – the willingness of all – to address that problem. In fact, that was what I said two days ago when I made my presentation. We have shown, in Aba, that it is possible to do reliable electricity project. But I believe that we can do electricity projects to support industrial clusters such as in Nnewi, Onitsha, Enugu, Ebonyi and Imo among others, and have reliable supply of electricity.
It is not rocket science! We have done it in a difficult environment, it can be done elsewhere. So, the idea of doing a regional gas pipeline is to bring gas closer to various places so that we can build power plants. And we would like to look at the networking, the structure and how to enhance and make it more robust, so that we can also bring this power closer to our people.
We are confident that this is doable. So, what Professor Soludo was saying is basically, that somebody has to lead the effort to get it done, and we have started doing that. A number of people from the region have interest in seeing that that is done, and we are making that progress.
Are you reaching out to other Igbo in the Diaspora to buy into your current efforts at SEREDEC and the current commitment of the SEGF to rejig the south east economy and infrastructure status?
The thing is that the Igbo in the diaspora are very, very important. If you look at the area of health, they have proposed to build a hospital in the region, starting with Enugu and then the satellite hospitals. In the team, you would notice that they are probably about 90 per cent from outside Nigeria, but they are people from the region.
We have those who came from the United Kingdom; those who came from the United States and South Africa, among others, who are part of the team. And we believe, sincerely, that when we have experts, we should make very good use of them.
As a matter of fact, in virtually everything we do, we compose a team that is made up of experts, whether they are here or abroad. So, the SEREDEC is really a facilitator, perhaps, to see that these people come together.
It does not claim to have all thewherewithal. What it does is that it has the capacity to bring people together and get them to do work on behalf of the region, and support the governments of the region. So, those in the Diaspora are critical in so many areas. For example, in the Infrastructure Financing team, the person who is leading the team lives in the UK; and our people would be surprised to know that he is the Managing Director of a UK-based infrastructure finance company, which is an English company.
A person from this region is its MD! So, we tapped into that. You would also be surprised that there are a number of people from this region that run international banks. So, we called on them to be part of the team to raise capital. Therefore, yes, there is no chance that we would forget the role of our people in the Diaspora.
Some people have recommended that SEREDEC should consider the possibility of organising a follow-up version of SEES to be held abroad. Do you think that is necessary?
What I feel is that when we have a project, we go on a road show. That is where you can now take a specific project tom the people. But, we are not going to have a summit of this nature just held abroad. It is better that we hold summits here in the region, and bring those who are abroad to come home and talk to our people. However, if we have a project and we are doing a road show, we could package it in a manner that can be sold to the international community, which includes our people abroad.
There are optimisms in some quarters that with SEREDEC in place and with all the lofty programmes being designed by your team for economic rejuvenation and infrastructure development in the South East, that the region may soon cease to bother about marginalisation by the federal government. Does such optimism hold water?
The federal government has to do what it needs to do for the South East. What we are doing does not cure that part. For instance, we are not going to force the President to appoint people into offices; we cannot do that. What we will do is to establish job creating industries and institutions that will employ our youths so that we reduce the pressure of people who do not have jobs.
We have so many mechanisms that we discussed at SEES that will lead to that. Even vocational technical education will lead to young people being their own entrepreneurs or being part of providing support services to the public. Once you have one person that has a job, that is one person that does not have to be on the streets agitating for anything. That is how we help in reducing the agitation.
But, the issue of marginalisation is not something the private sector does. The kind of marginalisation which the President-General of OhanaezeNdigbo talked about at the summit, for instance, which is that there is no South East indigene in the security apparatus of the nation, at the top level, is not something that we can do. That is something that must be done by people who lead at the centre. So, that still has to be done.
However, our people may soon realise that that is not really the most important thing for them. The more important thing is creation of jobs and industries for our people to be able to feed themselves. If you look at the United States, for instance, the government is there, and the people do care about who becomes their President, but the private sector drives the train.
In the UK, Germany, America, name it; the economy runs on the hope of the private sector. So, if you say, the CEO of General Electric, do you really need to be a minister in the American government or any of these functionaries? It is a major sacrifice to serve in government, if you do it right and you actually hold such position.
Where the Chairman of General Electric may get paid like a hundred million dollars per year; which government would pay you 100th of that? None, it is not possible. So, we have to create an economy where our people can feel comfortable in being part of development and job creation within the region. We want to see more jobs in the region that employ our graduates, so that they do not have to be going to Port Harcourt, Lagos or Abuja in search of these jobs.
With the summit over now, what next?
What next is that we have set up a task force, which will, essentially, drive the implementation of the things outlined in the summit. So, it is not going to be like your typical summit where you just print the report and go away. We are also proposing the setting up of state-by-state implementation committees that essentially dovetail into the regional task force.
The regional task force, for example, is made up of 15 people, plus the Governors Forum Secretariat. In each state, we have nine people – three from each Senatorial Zone, which are composed of two members from the private sector and one from government.
It is set up that way, (to have more people from the private sector than government), so that the private sector drives the process. In the regional task force, we have people from say, South East Chamber of Commerce, Industry Mines and Agriculture (SECCIMA), as well as nominees from South East Manufacturers Association of Nigeria (MAN), SEREDEC, Civil Societies, the Media, the religious, women and youths and so on.
It is a very composite group. But, the sole objective is for it not to be so unwieldy. So, I think that the implementation group is tight,well composed and well thought-out one. That is the implementation, and they should be driving the process.
One of the major concerns of both local and international investors is the issue of security. Are there plans towards assuring investors of adequate security for their lives and investments?
There are different types of security issues in Nigeria. I would say that the South East has become more secure than before. We used to have very high incidence of kidnapping and armed robbery in the region. It is no longer so, but it is not wiped out. People can even travel at night these days, which was not so before.
The other day, I was coming back from Aba, at night, and there were a lot of people on the road around10: pm. Before, you would not find anybody on that road by that time of the night. That is also made possible by the cashless system in place. So, people do not really know how crimes reduce by certain policies of government, and this is one of those.
Now, in the region, we say that the governors are still working actively to support the integration policies whereby they are able to share intelligence information on the issues of security because that will help a lot.
There are certain things that one government would have to stretch itself to buy, but governments together, can buy certain equipment to support security. SEREDEC, for example, has a number of very key security people – a number of retired Army Generals, Inspectors-General of Police – in the security group; and the intention is for them to be advising on how to address security concerns in the region. We believe that the people in these states can then work with the people at the federal government to better secure the region. But, you cannot leave your region without protection to be able to use legal ways to ensure that the region is well secured.
What about the issue of poor state of federal roads in the South East region? Aren’t good access road networks also key to the success of the current regional drive?
Yes, actually, the proposal in that regard is very interesting. It is one that we do not understand why people have not hit on it. There have been proposals, at SEES, for the concession of the key roads in the region and tolling them.
If you concession Enugu-Onitsha road, Enugu-Port Harcourt road and toll them, you would be surprised that in a very short order, these roads would be fixed. They would be functional and people would love to be on them. I do not know anybody who would not want to go from Enugu to Aba in 1 hour and 15 minutes, or maximum of one hour and half, and pay a certain amount of toll that is reasonable.
It is better than that you would go on those roads and your car gets damaged while manoeuvring portholes. And when you get back, you have to take medicine to deal with body ache and fatigue. These are some of the initiatives that really work. The question is: can it be done? Yes, it can easily be done, and the government does not have to put the money.
The money does not, necessarily, have to come from the federal budget. But, the private sector can lend money for such roads, because federal budget comes in drips. So, those drips can still be coming to support the process. Meanwhile, the toll will help to address it. That is the proposal; it is doable and those people are moving. So, it is not just talking.