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Of power and national security

A S every bereaved family learns the morning after the funeral, it is left alone by sympathisers to nurse itself from grief to normalcy. This is the lot the Nigerian family must accept following the exit of the Manitoba “sympathisers” in its electricity bereavement.

In fact, the mission of the “sympathisers” – a team of expatriates comprising “eight full-time specialists” and “between 35 and 40 short-term experts” from Canada’s Manitoba Hydro international (MHI) – ended with the cessation of the contract the Federal Government of Nigeria awarded MHI to manage the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN). The “management contract,” worth 23 million US dollars, ran from 2012 to 2016, producing results that even the Manitoba team would admit its dissatisfactoriness based on its own projections of success.

For instance, from the evidence of extant documents, the Manitoba team had projected that, under its management, the Nigerian 330 KV transmission grid would be able to wheel 7,200 megawatts by the end of 2014, 10,000 megawatts by the end of 2015, and 12,000 megawatts by the end of 2016 (when its contract expired midyear).

None of the above projections materialised, as Nigeria’s power generation during the Manitoba era hardly exceeded 5,000 megawatts (a figure far below the 2014 projection, let alone the ones for the two subsequent years). And you cannot transmit power beyond your generation output.

Reasons have been adduced for this failure, which I am constrained to note happened on the team’s terms. Prominent among the reasons is “undue inference” with its activities from various sources. But it has to be said that the same excuses could have been given by any other team to justify its failure in similar circumstances, which renders the excuses moot.

Before signing the contract – if it meant to succeed in its execution – a team of 43 to 48 “experts” and “specialists” should have taken such “debilitating” factors into account, like a savvy entrepreneur undertakes feasibility studies of a potential business before investing in it. If the team did not, which seems to be the case with Nigeria and the TCN, where rests its claim to being comprised of “experts” and “specialists”?

In all, it would seem that the country has paid a tuition of $23 million to learn that the redemption of its power sector – whether in the area of generation, transmission or distribution – cannot come from expatriates, that it would have to look inwards and engage indigenous and patriotic expertise to help it tackle its power challenges, that self-reliance is the key to reliable power.

While I sympathise with the Manitoba team for the challenges it faced, I believe Nigerian experts would have produced better results if given the same amount of support – financially and morally – that their Canadian counterparts received from our government. I can say this because, having been involved in the power sector in various technical and other capacities since 1985, I can recall a period when the sector was better managed than during the Manitoba era, and the managers were not expatriates.

There is a consolation, however, that following the exit of the Manitoba team the management of TCN has returned to some of the best indigenous hands in the power sector.

I was physically present at the inaugural meeting between the Manitoba team, led by Don Priestman, the Canadian pioneer MD and CEO of TCN, and the then Minister of Power Prof. Bart Nnaji, at the Ministry of Power, at which Mr. Priestman announced his team’s enthusiastic improvement plan for the power sector, and I monitored with reciprocal enthusiasm the performance of the Manitoba team, which unfortunately fell far short of even its own projections as I have shown above.

During one of my subsequent encounters with Mr. Priestman, he said to me, after recounting the progress he had witnessed since coming to Nigeria as a 13-year-old in 1954, “I’m convinced that if the citizens of Nigeria work together for the common good the growth that we would witness is even more phenomenal than I’ve seen in my own lifetime.” For me, this implies a counsel that the new TCN leadership and other Nigerians working in the power sector should take, and “work together for the common good” to produce that “phenomenal growth” in power supply nationwide.

The Manitoba engagement was meant to have a component of knowledge transfer – from the Manitoba team to its Nigerian counterparts. To have expected this to happen in the real sense is comparable to expecting foreign nationals to transfer their technological knowledge to us even as we are aware that it may not be in their national interest, as our lack of such knowledge is to their economic advantage – perhaps as exporters of technological goods and services to our country. So the realistic thing would be to rely on our indigenous capacity to build such knowledge, being aware that the concept “transfer of technology” articulates an illusion.

With the generally predatory nature of the relations between nations, certain contracts some nations sign with others can be compared to sheep inviting wolves to manage their affairs and believing they would fare better in the end.

But there is another important factor in consideration of which our government should have been wary of engaging expatriates to manage the TCN. It is national security. Power is a critical national asset with a strong bearing to a nation’s economic progress. And the frustration of economic progress, which can result from lack of power, can impact national security and lead to the fall of governments. So, besides the risk of exposing sensitive information about our power sector to expatriates whose intention and use of such information may be suspect relative to our national interest, the Manitoba contract put a major component of the national assets that drive our economy in the hands of foreigners in a way that I think no self-respecting country should allow.

Incidentally, following the exit of the Manitoba team, we have been warned that our “power grid risks collapse amid low spinning reserve.” While the new TCN management should see this as a call for vigilance in averting system collapse, I have to say that it seems alarmist and misleading, considering that the availability of spinning reserve does not necessarily prevent system collapse, which can be due to several causes. To explain this with an analogy: spinning reserve is like the respirator you may need to prevent death in an unconscious person. But as we know, a respirator, though useful, may not revive an unconscious person – from coma, for instance – depending on what led to the person becoming unconscious.

Yet I believe the Nigerians currently managing the TCN have the technical capacity to boost spinning reserve and prevent any related system collapse.

 

  • Oke, a former staff of NEPA, lives in Abuja.