Omorodion Uwaifo @ 80…It’s Not Too Late To Know Him By Taiwo Obe



The Guardian on Sunday

“He does not know me but he knows my name.”

THANK you, Pa, for calling me that night. You saved me from a writer’s agony; of searching for the right words to get into a story such that the audience would at least be hooked. For several weeks, I had written all sorts of intro — in my head — and discarded them, until that night when you called to talk about the email I had sent earlier in the day (or the previous night) on that governor’s alleged secret mansion, and rounding off, you had casually said those words up there.

You may now recall that I L(aughed)O(ut) L(oud), and quipped: “I like that.” You probably did not hear the rest of what I said: “Nobody knows my name” —  the title of a book by one of my eternal favourite authors, James Baldwin —  as the phone abruptly terminated because of my phone’s low battery.

You are right: he should know your name, Omorodion Solomon Uwaifo. After all, in his domain are the famous moats which the Foundation you founded, and you are chairman of, has been working hard to restore to their pristine state. Quite many others, particularly in literary circles, should also know your name even if they don’t know you. After all, in 2004, on the very first edition of NLNG’s Nigeria Prize for Literature, you, an electrical engineer, got an honourable mention, plus some United States dollars, for your fictional work, Fattening House. Yet, you have more feathers on your cap: Best Electrical Engineering Student Award, Yaba Technical Institute (1957), Federal Government Scholar (1958-1962), Eisenhower Exchange Fellow (1969) and Presidential Merit Award, Nigerian Society of Engineers (2002).

The last honour is an occasional award given by the president of the Nigerian Society of Engineers to a member he considers deserving of the honour, for services to the Society and the nation.

Were I the NSE President, I would be honouring you with a Lifetime Achievement Gold Award.

Why not?

As an Eisenhower Fellow, you undertook a study tour of a host of electric companies in the United States to learn how each had helped their communities, the country and catalysed development. You also interacted with several renowned experts and teachers to learn about the economics of public utilities and how rates might be used to lift the electric utility. You soaked in useful information on government-owned public utilities in the United States. They are few. They have nothing of the resources of investor-owned utilities, which power the innovativeness and the symbiosis that have brought down the cost per unit of electric energy generated throughout the United States. Public power companies struggle to keep up with the investor-owned companies much like the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (liquidated?) yet are they creative in their marketing techniques.

Back in Nigeria and working with the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN), in 1962, you had spent less than a month of relative peace in the highbrow residential of Ikoyi as Maintenance Engineer, when someone in ECN headquarters thought that you were the right man to tackle cable faults in Apapa which then was burdened by unbalanced loads, overly long distribution lines, and a poor mix of conductor sizes, but your hard-work and savoir faire brought them under control. Maintenance of the distribution network assets and staff went on apace; and before long new distribution substations and networks were up. Not quite sure they used to shout “Up ECN” in those days.

ECN had found a magician: four months later, you were despatched to Onitsha to take-over as Engineer and Manager. You spent two years there and undertook extensive building of new 11-kV lines and substations particularly to the UAC-sponsored Calico Printers of Nigeria — a new textile mill; supervised the building of Asaba Power Station, the building and commissioning of Asaba township distribution network as well as supervised the management of the new installation when it became an undertaking; the building of Onitsha-Awka 33kV sub-transmission line, the erection of Amawbia 33/11-kV substation and the building of Awka township primary and secondary distribution systems. You co-ordinated the maintenance of Oji-Onitsha 66kV transmission line and the 66/11kv substation at the Onitsha end.

Again, ECN headquarters recognised your wonders in the engineering aspects of your work in Onitsha, and brought you back to Lagos as Planning and Design Engineer. Soon after you landed in 1965, you were assigned to the re-planning of Enugu primary distribution and Sokoto Township primary distribution systems. Later, you designed a new 33-kV injection substation for the Makeri Industrial area of Jos, the Trans Amadi Industrial Estate of Port Harcourt and extended the Bauchi Power Station as well as the 11kV line to serve the Bauchi Meat Products Industry.

Between 1967 and 1968, you served as Instrument and Meter Engineer in the headquarters. The Meter and Instruments Section at Ijora was part of the System Operations Department of Headquarters, but that department had little time for meters; and that was consistent with the poor recognition of the status of the credit meter as a revenue vehicle, throughout the Corporation. Your assignment as head of the section was to make everyone more aware of the place of the instrument in the Corporation’s growth and survival. You initiated Annual Meter Returns from all undertakings to Headquarters to help the control of these revenue vehicles.

You carried out pioneering work on the endurance of Kilo-Watt hour meters in Nigeria’s humid climate, leading to the formulation of standard requirements for polymers used in meter covers, worms, gearing systems and counter registers and physical requirements of permanent magnets and meter driving systems.

In 1968, ECN created the position of Senior Commercial Engineer (Sales) in the Commercial Department at the HQ, for you to promote more sales of electrical energy. This was best done through tariff regimes that encouraged the use of electrical appliances, but governmental control gave the Corporation no room for tariff initiatives. However, there was clamour for power supply to be extended to more areas. Accordingly, the engineering team you headed planned and designed the electricity supply to the following towns: Mubi, Azare, Birnin Kebbi, Yelwa, Kafanchan, Lanlate, Igbo-ora, Auchi, Agbor.

Once you had, more or less, conquered the South, ECN, in 1970, despatched you to the northern region as District Manager, Kaduna, responsible for distribution assets and workers in Kaduna Undertaking, including Sokoto, Gusau, Zaria, Bida and Minna. The one year you spent there was a period of increased revenue collection as a result of the innovative Pay as You Bank system you introduced. It was the first time in Nigeria that a public utility would use the better and more convenient facilities of a bank to collect its revenue. At the time, the Standard Bank of West Africa charged the undertaking one shilling for every collection, irrespective of the face value of the bill paid.

In a year, you had become ECN’s Area Manager North, still based in Kaduna, and for the next three years, you extended 33-kV supply to Kaduna South to cope with increased power demand by the textile companies which dominated the North Central State economy of that time; re-organised ECN offices in major undertakings such as Kaduna, Kano and Jos to improve performance and to create controlled channels of communication between the undertakings and the customers; designed new service methods, records and processes to make officers and staff more accountable and to make old processes easier to monitor.

Twice, you served on national committees to reorganise the National Electric Power Authority; the one set up in 1979 by the NSE at the request of the Olusegun Obasanjo Military Regime, and the other set up in 1983 by President Shehu Shagari. If they are talking about unbundling NEPA today, your committees had recommended that before.

Never mind your recent forays into the literary world – and lo, you are also making waves here —  you are a power man through and through. Even after your meritorious public service, you concentrated on electrical engineering consultancy. From 1973-1974, you were managing director of Trans Engineering Nigeria Limited and from 1974-1994, the principal partner and chief consultant of Omo Uwa Partnership.

At Trans Engineering, the work you did for the Midwest State Government — advisory on the adequacy of the electric power supply to the state capital, Benin Ciry, vis-a-vis the development plans of that government — led to establishment of the  Oregbeni 33-kV substation by the ECN and helped the Midwest State Government support its claim that a monolithic organisation spread over a large country such as Nigeria can hardly be sensitive to the aspirations of governments far removed from its head office. A notable point of the report is that NEPA adopted it for the studies of its distribution networks in major cities in the late 1980s.

Apart from the works Omo Uwa did at the University of Benin such as the street light of the whole campus, the company also worked on NEPA projects such as the national survey to determine NEPA’s Pole Requirements from (1975 – 1982) and the forest and manufacturing plants resources available to provide them; Power Distribution Planning Studies of Aba and Warri township systems, involving studies of anticipated direction of future development of housing, commerce and industry, the projected growth of power demand in the medium and long terms. Omo Uwa’s projects are numerous in Abuja: the Abaji and Gwagwalada satellite towns Power Supply Master Plans; the electrical, mechanical and controls systems of the Abuja General Post Office, etc.

Most admirable, for me, is the passion and commitment you have continually devoted to getting Nigeria’s power debacle to become history — when (wo)men of your age group are tending to the needs of their grand and great-grand–children. Which is why I have worked, quite often without your knowledge or permission, to reach out to folk in power to find a way of engaging with you; to find sustainable solutions.

You would recall that, that about three years ago, one young Special Assistant to another youngish Minister of Power had met you at your home in Maryland-Lagos. What I didn’t tell you then was what I told the SA. See: “Engr. Uwaifo goes to bed and wake up with solutions to Nigeria’s power problems; his heart bleeds that he can’t help his country. He may be knocking 77 but he has a mind of a 30-year-old. If you don’t find it like that then don’t ever talk to me again.”

Tomorrow, May 7 2012, you will be turning 80, and your passion, dedication, enthusiasm… to the resolution of Nigeria’s power problem isn’t waning. I recall that in March, you emailed me a rejoinder to a newsmagazine’s report which quoted the chairman of a regulatory agency in the Power sector on the subject of “subsidising power for the poor.”  In that rejoinder, you argued: ‘Subsidising any life-saving, life-sustaining and life-uplifting item for the “poor” is desirable and great, but not subsidising electric energy and power… Politicians are experts of specious statements; no one should blame them; it is the way of political power games. However, this one is exceedingly dangerous for our country and our economy. I suspect that the words — Subsidising Power for the Poor — were not (the chairman’s). Nobody who understands the philosophy and principles of electric power pricing will use those words in that context: they are the very antithesis of the help the feature wants the “rich” and Government to give the “poor”.

Electric utilities use meters to measure the quantity of energy used by customers. Whatever type of meter, they do not measure the customer’s state of wealth or of poverty. Economy of scale defines the success of the business of the electric utility. Based on current technologies, small plants are most inefficient; larger plants are more efficient and are encouraged in the industry. If customers would use only small amounts of energy and power, the industry would be constrained to build and to run small inefficient plants or to run extant plants at levels much lower than rated capacities, where internal losses become most significant. That is unhealthy for the business of the Industry.’

You didn’t know this: as soon as I got your email, I forwarded it to the chairman,  asking him if he would like to interact with you. He replied: “Thanks very much. I will like to stay engaged with him in this issue. The piece is very insightful. I will like to get such feedbacks regularly. Thanks for forwarding to me.” I thought that was an opportunity to tell the chairman more about you, believing that, he probably knows your name, but does not know you; so I responded to his email, thus: “Engr Uwaifo can be reached on (your email address). His number is (080xxxxx99711). Even as I have not asked him, I know that he will love to engage with you, with a view to imparting his knowledge of the sector to you. He is straightforward, honest and extremely patriotic. He wants the best for Nigeria and Nigerians. If there is anyone I know who has a wealth of information on Nigeria’s electricity generation and distribution, that is the man. Indeed, at some point he was running a weekly column on Public Utilities in the Vanguard . He just revised his book on Electric Power.”

Hmmm… if the powers-that-be don’t want to know you, Pa, even that is not too late to so do, perhaps we should recommend that they get your books, “Electric Power – Distribution Planning and Development (Economic Overview)”, the third edition of which you released in 2010, and “That Nigeria May Survive (Public Utilities Watch)” published in 2005. Of “Electric Power”, you had written to me in an email while we were trying to get sponsors for its printing — you eventually funded it yourself — “There are thick dark clouds against the industry in Nigeria at this time. The book is meant to help clear the cloud. It offers no new theories, but it is a collection of most of the right things Nigerian electric power distribution engineers need to know to salvage the industry. Most of the topics can be found in dribs and drabs in several books, but no book tells what keys they hold in any attempt to solve the problems of the industry. With examples of happenings in the industry in Nigeria, some of them problems and their solutions, I boldly say there is no book like it.” Of “That Nigeria May Survive” Chief Arthur C I Mbanefo, CON, one-time ambassador/permanent representative of Nigeria to the United Nations, writes: “A magnificent piece of work… insightful, readable, unsentimental, and written in a most elegant style…”

Tomorrow, there’s no guarantee that you will have public power at all, not to talk of an uninterrupted one, while you host guests your guests — but, not to worry, have fun. It’s your special day. C-h-e-e-r-s. And, thanks, Mrs Diagbonya Uwaifo, for keeping up with that man… quietly… quietly…

Obe is the Group Executive Director of Harpostrophe Limited, a Content Agency.

No tags for this post.