PHCN Privatisation: Now That Nnaji Is Gone- By Mohammed Haruna

When Professor Barth Nnaji left as Minister of Power in late August, it was not clear whether he jumped or was pushed. Most guesses including mine, however, was that he was pushed, if only because his departure was rather too sudden.

The terse two paragraph announcement of his departure by the spokesman for President Goodluck Jonathan, Dr. Reuben Abati, hardly suggested the minister left on his own. “President Goodluck Ebele Jonathan,” Abati said, “has accepted the resignation WITH IMMEDIATE EFFECT of the Minister of Power, Prof. Barth Nnaji.

President Jonathan thanks Prof Nnaji for his services to the nation under the present administration and wishes him well in his future endeavours.” (Emphasis mine)

Presidents don’t go about accepting the resignations of their sidekicks with immediate effect and without saying why.

In this case the president did say why eventually but his reason hardly suggested that Nnaji jumped. In any case sudden resignations are very unusual ways to depart lucrative jobs like ministering to a country’s electricity power supply.

Nnaji left on August 28. It took the president two days to say why. This was on August 30 during a town hall meeting in Onitsha after he’d inaugurated the town’s inland river port complex. “Barth Nnaji,” he reportedly said, “has not committed any offence. He is a very competent and seasoned professional.”

However, before seemingly exonerating the minister, the president made an oblique reference to the issue of conflict of interest involving not just the minister but probably other senior government officials as well. “Before we started this privatization,” Thisday (August 31) reported him as telling his distinguished guests, “some major stakeholders who had access to me, came to me and said, ‘Mr President we heard all these privatisation of projects in the power sector had already been shared among the people and we want the president to assure us so that we do not waste our time.’ I said, ‘no you can keep faith in the process.’”

The minister, the president reportedly said, had willingly declared his interest in two companies that had bid for Afam Power station and for Enugu Distribution Company. This, he said, was what gave rise to a conflict of interest that made the minister resign in order to safeguard the privatisation exercise. Obviously it was contradictory for the president to say his minister did nothing wrong and yet point at the conflict between his private interest and his public duty as the reason why he “resigned.”

The president did not say when Nnaji declared his private interest in the privatisation of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN), but anyone familiar with the exercise knows the minister’s conflict of interest did not arise yesterday. It goes all the way back to the time of the president’s immediate predecessor, the late Umaru Musa Yar’adua, when the minister was his special adviser on energy. That conflict of interest had been a source of serious, and a times violent, conflict between Nnaji and both management and workers of the PHCN.

The minister could, therefore, not have resigned simply because the president suddenly discovered his private interest was in conflict with his public duty; the conflict had been there all along. From the president’s oblique talk about some VIP stakeholders’ worry about the integrity of the exercise, a more likely explanation could be that the private interest in the exercise of some officials more powerful than the minister simply trumped the minister’s.

In which case it should be obvious that Nnaji’s resignation alone has hardly solved the problem of the conflict of interest of government officials responsible for the exercise.

When the president announced on August 28 that he had accepted the “resignation” of his minister, he said he would replace him quickly and with another Igbo. It’s now mid-October and Nnaji is yet to be replaced at all, never mind with an Igbo compatriot. This undue delay suggests the politics of PHCN’s privatisation has complicated matters for the president.

If this is the case, the president has only himself to blame; he ought to have known that a policy of allocating portfolios by ethnicity – or for that matter, by State, as seems to be the case with the ministry of defence which has remained vacant since he sacked the last minister, who is from Kebbi State, months ago – is as wrongheaded as it is untenable in a world where competence has no tribe, creed or colour. Not that there are no other Igbos even more competent than Nnaji. There are. But to insist on an Igbo replacement was clearly restricting his choice.

In announcing Nnaji’s departure as minister, the president praised him for his competence and professionalism. Few would or can question the president’s judgement about the ex-minister’s credentials. However, it misses the main issue which is the integrity of the exercise. The fact is that competence and professionalism are no substitutes for integrity. And it is the dubious integrity of the exercise that has left the country as poorly served today by its power utility company as it was nearly 13 years ago when President Olusegun Obasanjo promised he will turn the sector around.

Nnaji did little to enhance the integrity of the exercise which, by the president’s own admission, was why the gentleman had to leave.

The question is, would his departure make any difference? It is doubtful that it would, for the simple reason that Nnaji is probably not the only senior government official whose private interest ran counter to his public duty. The evidence is there in the history of privatisation in this country where the commonwealth has largely ended in the hands of senior government officials and their cronies and kins. It is also there in the fact that, as with previous exercises, perhaps the most notorious of which was that of NITEL, the country’s telecommunication company, the assets of PHCN have probably been grossly understated.

Government ownership of companies may have been discredited in this country but the record of the private ownership in sectors like banking and aviation has given little cause to believe that privatisation is the only viable alternative.

Elsewhere, among the Asian Tigers – South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, etc – and in China, there is ample evidence that efficiency and profitability is not the preserve of privately owned companies. The evidence is also right here on our continent, where the publicly owned Ethiopian Airline, for example, has shown that public ownership is not necessarily an obstacle to commercial success.

By all means let’s go ahead and privatise our public companies since they have proved unviable. However, as we do so we must remember that their problem was less the nature of their ownership than the lack of integrity with which they were run.

Unless the authorities do all they can to guarantee such integrity in the sale of the public companies, their privatized offsprings can only bring even more pain to consumers than was the case before.