RIGHT OF REPLY By CHARLIE AGBO
It is doubtful if any follower of the Nigerian print media will return a verdict less than superlative on the reportorial and editorial acumen of Ijeoma Nwogwugwu, the editor of THISDAY newspaper. I first encountered this graceful egghead at Ikeja, Lagos while writing my rested column, ‘Carriageway Advocacy’ in Sunday THISDAY in the late 1990’s. Her grit, wit, craft, intellectual aplomb and intrepid proclivity to detail make many professors and academics green with envy. No volume of facts is laborious to her as the reader, in pleasurable captivity, escorts her pen in its foraging labyrinth of exposition, culminating always in the satisfactory decomposition of seemingly complex issues.
Little wonder that Dele Momodu, with whom I also had the honour of working with in the rested Concord Newspaper in the 80’s had asked Nigerians to look out for this unusual woman, for the sky may not be capacious enough as a limiter to her possibilities.
However, lately, there has been this curious tendency on her part to fire broadsides at the Minister of Power, Professor Chinedu Nebo. Writing under the caption, ‘Seismic Shift in Nigeria’s Electricity Sector’ published in THISDAY, Monday the 26th of August 2013, Nwogwugwu, ‘concerned that a group of investors who had won the bids to acquire the 15 electricity utilities created from the unbundling of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) were about to derail the power reform process’, was piqued that the group aka ‘Disco Roundtable…met with the gullible Minister of Power, Prof. Chinedu Nebo and lined up a series of conditions which they said must be met before they paid up the outstanding purchase price for the assets (emphasis mine)’.
For the records, the National Council on Privatisation (NCP) is the apex body charged with the overall responsibility of formulating and approving policy on privatisation and commercialisation with the vice-president as chairman. The Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) is the secretariat of the NCP. The minister of power is a member of NCP by virtue of the fact that the electricity utilities being unbundled are under the purview of his ministry.
Reading through Ijeoma’s script, it is difficult not to conclude that she allowed herself to be overtaken by a hangover of presumptive sentiments on the honourable minister. This in turn has led to a situation where the conclusion to her narrative does not derive from its preamble.
For a start, she was frank in not faulting the bona fides of the meeting of the Roundtable, for in her own words, nothing is to ‘suggest that their demands were not genuine and that all of the Transition Electricity Market (TEM) arrangements had been put in place or that their lenders did not require some comfort from the NCP and BPE before parting with depositors’ funds for the acquisition of the assets’. Yet she labelled the minister as gullible for entertaining the Roundtable.
In any business transaction, parties explore all legitimate avenues to maximise benefits. It is only in this context that the meeting of the Roundtable with the minister could be situated. The mere fact of a meeting does not constitute an infraction of extant rules nor does it constrain or compromise the minister in any manner or form, after all, all is well that ends well. What Ijeoma sees as a gullible act may as well have provided the minister an opportunity to clarify policy to the members paving the way for their eventual compliance.
Gullibility has variously been described as a failure of social intelligence in which a person is easily tricked or manipulated into an ill-advised course of action. It is closely related to credulity, which is the tendency to believe unlikely propositions that are unsupported by evidence. So how did gullibility creep into the mix?
Was it the ministers gullibility that led to the unprecedented success of the exercise? In Ijeoma’s words: ‘That 13 and a half out of 15 bidders were able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to the privatisation agency, being 75 per cent of the transaction value for the electricity assets, on or before August 21, was no small feat at all. Many doubting Thomases, including the World Bank and a few other multilateral donor institutions, were sceptical over BPE’s ability to pull off the privatisation process. They even tried to caution the BPE against its privatisation strategy on the premise that the Nigerian financial system lacked the depth to support and finance the acquisition. Obviously, what they did not bank on was Nigeria’s ability to throw up surprises when it mattered most.’
Commentators on public affairs and particularly the press are under an obligation to presume regularity in the discharge of public trust until the contrary is established. It is the least duty owed occupiers of public office, the discharge of which entitles the holder of a contrary opinion to voice it.
The duty of the press as watchdog of society does not also include riding roughshod over the dignity and self esteem of accomplished men whose only offence is offering themselves to serve the nation, and constrained to navigate the crossfire of multifarious interests, patent and latent.
It is fundamentally tepid and elementarily mediatising to attempt to whittle away the minister’s contribution to the mega success the exercise has become. Whereas Ijeoma could insinuate a role by his editorial team, or even in fact legitimately claim a substantial contribution to the process, it cannot be at the expense of the minister’s. His role is already cast in stone and safely archived in the annals of the past.
In an earlier publication on this same page some weeks back, Ijeoma had asked the president to relieve Nebo of his position. Though this is not the subject matter of this contribution, some of the issues she canvassed in the said publication bear direct relationship with the current point in issue. For instance, some nexus was drawn between the size of cheques signed previously by a person and his requisite pedigree to hold certain positions, the power portfolio inclusive.
This esoteric concept, cosmetic in its entirety has led many to repeat some historical errors. Integrity still remains the most important qualification for the holding of public office because it is the spin point that articulates the others such as cognate suitability, experience, managerial acumen etc.
Richard Nixon has been rated as one of the most cerebral presidents in the history of the United States of America. But when evolving political events conflicted with his personal interests, he could not muster enough reservoir of integrity to check the abuse of his office.
Professor Tam David West, an academic like Nebo, arrived the petroleum ministry in the 80’s equipped only with integrity, his doctorate in virology, and a large dose of spunk and mojo. He was not a technocrat. (The press is obsessed with this word). He never was used to signing fat cheques because his classroom at the University of Ibadan never offered him that opportunity. He left office as one of the most accomplished oil ministers.
Ferdinand Agu, an architect, arrived the National Maritime Authority (now NIMASA) in 2000 as director general. He was not a technocrat. It was doubtful if he had ever navigated a canoe before, neither was he known to have been used to fat cheques. A fiscal fundamentalist, he saw all public funds as the same whether one kobo or one billion dollars, and never fretted in signing and protecting them. By 2004, he made history as the first director general in NIMASA to earn a reappointment on merit! If in doubt, check out the multitude that succeeded him.
A quick check on some previous ministers of power revealed that none of them fits the bill prescribed by Nwogwugwu. The late Bola Ige was minister of power under President Olusegun Obasanjo. A Senior Advocate of Nigeria, he built his reputation on integrity and uncompromising dalliance with the truth. He was governor of old Oyo State in 1979. Until 1999 when he became minister of power, none of his tours of duty placed him in the pedigree of signers of fat cheques that approximates to today’s expenditure in the power sector.
Liyel Imoke, lawyer and suave scion of Dr Samuel Imoke, medical doctor who became a cabinet minister and leader of Parliament in the former Eastern Region was elected senator in 1992. He became minister of power under President Olusegun Obasanjo between 2003 and 2007. Successful in business as well as in politics, none of his previous stations placed him in the rank of signer of fat cheques. He is currently in his second term as governor of Cross River State.
Bath Nnaji is an internationally recognised professor of robotics. He was minister of science and technology under President Ibrahim Babangida. His exploits in academics and power engineering have earned him accolades. He indeed approximates to the Nigerian concept of the technocrat which ironically worked against him. It had to be so because the technocrat in the Nigerian mindset is a mythical fantasy imbued with a magical wand and the Midas stick. He is in the imagination of many capable of conjuring water from stone. Nnaji was expected to deliver power, a purely organic infrastructure in one phantasmagoric stroke. It is doubtful if he fit the bill in Ijeoma’s mould.
Professor Chinedu Ositadinma Nebo, reverend gentleman, metallurgical engineer, former deputy vice-chancellor, Enugu State University of Technology, former vice-chancellor, University of Nigeria, former vice-chancellor, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti is a thorough bred academic of distinction. His authoritative imprimatur adorns all institutions and work stations that have had the privilege of his beneficient stewardship. He surely may not have been used to fat cheques, but running a university, let alone three could not have been a piece of cake.
Providence still remains one of the important factors in human enterprises. Mechanistically-minded individuals will not admit it. But it is that factor that places individuals at auspicious stations at given times in space. It could determine success or failure of men in certain portfolios even when competencies are matched. So let Nebo be. He is succeeding.
•Agbo, a lawyer, is managing consultant, Carriageway Consulting