Examining the Power Play in NBET

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Marilyn Amobi

Emmanuel Addeh writes that despite being a little-known government agency in the power sector, there are many vested interests battling for the soul of the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading

In recent times, not many agencies of government have been riddled with so much hubbub as the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading (NBET) PLC , which essentially has become some sort of chaotic din in the last few years.

From one controversy to the other, one court case to another, a threat here from a disgruntled party and yet a reprisal from another. From outright sackings and reversals to altercations with top staff of the company, the power play in the agency appears to have gone messy.

The entire spectrum of government, including the presidency, represented by highly placed Aso Rock officials, the federal legislature, represented by heads of committees and ministers of government seem to be interested in what is going on in the agency, with the judiciary even dragged in intermittently to adjudicate on some of the issues.

But what does the NBET do? Essentially, NBET is a wholly-owned federal government company, incorporated in 2010 under the Umar Yar’Adua/Goodluck Jonathan administration as part of the roadmap for power sector reform.

NBET buys electricity from the generating companies (Gencos) through an arrangement called the Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs) and then sells to the distribution companies (Discos) through vesting contracts. These transactions run into billions of naira on a monthly basis.

To break it down even further, among other functions, the agency is supposed to manage and administer the financial flows for the physical supplies on the electricity network, allocate risks efficiently to parties and perform advisory on polices for efficient system settlement.

In simpler terms, NBET covers the market shortfall in the revenue of the electricity generation companies to prevent system collapse. One report indicates that in 2018 alone, N701 billion was released for this purpose from the Central Bank of Nigeria (CBN) for the 2017-2019 period. Definitely a lot of money!

However, for the greater part of the last four years, the agency has been embroiled in a multitude of controversies.

Basically, there seem to be two opposing views as to why a relatively unknown, but important organisation in the power supply value chain in the country, has been in the news, essentially for the wrong reasons, especially in the last three years.

Depending on whose interest is being defended, those who are pro-Dr. Marilyn Amobi, the embattled managing director of NBET, say that the vested forces, which are bent on rubbishing her and ensuring she’s forced out of the system by all means, are doing so because she insists that the rules should be followed at all times.

Those who hold this view maintain that many of the parties in the system , especially Gencos that Amobi has to deal with every time, have access to the funds and the government contacts to muzzle her anytime she insists on doing the right thing.

Amobi, for example has had a running battle with the Chairman/CEO, Sepco-Pacific Energy Company Ltd, Chief Deji Adeleke, the owner of Olorunsogo and Omotosho power plants over a certain N5.25 billion, which is still in dispute.

The fight has gone so high wire that in a recent letter, Amobi accused him of having “deployed all forms of tactical approaches to having these funds paid to your companies without the conclusion of the processes.”

In the memo obtained by THISDAY, NBET alleged that the businessman had issued threats to the MD/CEO at different occasions and “sought interventions from our principals in government in order for you to present to them chronicles of the situation, which you know to be untrue”

But on the other hand, her ‘detractors’ say she has flouted many of the rules of service while giving the impression that her over-riding interest is the survival of the Nigeria Electricity Supply Industry (NESI).

They argue that all the parties that have squabbles with Amobi couldn’t all have ‘hated’ her without genuine reasons, even some top employees of the company.

History of Sackings and Reversals

Amobi, who holds a PhD and a degree in Economic Regulation and Competition from City University London, England, and an Economics degree from the University of Nigeria Nsukka, was appointed the chief executive officer (CEO) of NBET in 2016 by the Muhammadu Buhari administration for a term of four years in the first instance.

In late December last year, the Minister of Power, Mr Sale Mamman, announced that the federal government had fired Amobi summarily.

In a statement issued by his media aide, Aaron Artimas, the minister stated that the sack was in continuation of the re-organisation and sanitation in the ministry, adding that the ministry was investigating the MD over complaints issued against her over time.

“In view of this, the minister has also directed the constitution of a five-man investigative committee to look into the myriads of complaints against the MD/CEO with the view of restoring sanity in the management of the company. Consequently, she is to handover to the most senior director in the organisation,” it said.

But in early January, Buhari reversed the dismissal of  Amobi  in a memo issued by the office of the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF) and moved the agency from the ministry of power to the ministry of finance. Amobi was asked to resume her former position because due process was not followed by the minister of power. This happened the same period the president overruled the same minister on the suspension of Damilola Ogunbiyi as the managing director of the Rural Electrification Agency (REA).

Since then, it was learnt that the cold war between Amobi and Mamman continued, culminating earlier  in the week in another memo being issued by the minister, announcing the immediate termination of the appointment of the NBET boss.

Making public the decision to end Amobi’s appointment, Mamman stated that she will be replaced by Dr. Nnaemeka Eweluka, the company’s General Counsel and Secretary.

“In furtherance of the reorganisation/realignments in the power sector, the honourable minister of power, Sale Mamman, announces the appointment of a new Managing Director for the Nigerian Bulk Electricity Trading, PLC.

“He is Dr. Nnaemeka Eweluka, the company’s General Counsel and Secretary. He is to succeed Dr. Marilyn Amobi, as substantive Managing Director/CEO, while the former MD is to handover and proceed on terminal leave with immediate effect” he said.

Although Mamman said that Buhari had earlier approved the recommendation to that effect, a few hours later, a memo obtained by THISDAY indicated that the decision of Mamman had again been annulled by the presidency.

It also directed the NBET boss to serve out her four-year term, which expires next month against the position of minister of power, Sale Mamman, who in a statement, instructed her to immediately vacate the office.

Apparently taking orders from the office of the Chief of Staff, the letter conveying the information which was signed by the Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Finance, Dr. Mahmoud Isa-Dutse and was copied the minister of power, emphasised that Buhari approved the memo to allow the NBET boss serve out her term.

“I write to convey the president’s directives regarding your appointment as the MD/CEO of the Nigerian NBET. The president has approved that you serve out your tenure at the completion of which you should hand over to Dr. Nnaemeka Ewelukwa, who is to take over from you as the MD/CEO. Your appointment which took effect from 25th July, 2016 for four years is to end on 24th July, 2020” it said.

The latest brouhaha also set the minister of power, who wants to be seen as calling the shots in the ministry, with controversial decisions trailing him, and the minister of finance, whose purview the agency now falls, on a collision course with allegations that Mamman had overstepped his bounds. However, it also puts a question mark on the level of coordination in the Buhari administration, which has seen ministers, heads of agencies and parastatals clash publicly in the past.

The sackings, reversals and all the associated chaos, becomes even more confusing, given that a few weeks ago, Buhari announced the renewal of Amobi’s tenure for a second tenure which would have effectively ended in 2024.

Litany of Allegations

Amobi has had running battles on several fronts, including that involving some members of the National Assembly, who have insisted on probing her over some infractions and accusing her of completely disrespecting lawmakers in one of the sessions they had with her.

The latest allegation is that as MD of NBET, she was allegedly still running a private firm, ESL Economics and Management Limited, registered in the United Kingdom  outside the country, in breach of Nigerian laws.

Amobi, however denies the allegation , maintaining in a statement that her company had become inactive and that she was not running it while simultaneously overseeing the bulk trading company.

The NBET MD has also been accused of flouting the Public Procurement Act, alleged overpayment to selected power generating companies, undue payments to law firms and private consultants.

A report by the Office of the Auditor General of the Federation also accused  Amobi of contract splitting in different amounts.

Added to that those listed above was a ‘padding’ allegation over questionable budgetary allocations, among others, for software and rent which were thought to be inflated. But as usual , Amobi has refuted the claims several times.

There is also the issue of high-handedness in the handling of issues concerning top staff who oppose her, including the one involving one Abdullahi Sambo and a Waziri Bintube, who allegedly blew the whistle on the MD and were thereafter victimised.

In June, 2017, Sambo was said to have written to the then ministry of power, works, and housing, challenging his redeployment for whistle-blowing on the NBET boss whom he accused of mismanagement and misappropriation of funds.

They were redeployed to other departments and despite the intervention of the ministry, the SGF and several others, the matter remains unresolved till today, with their salaries eventually stopped by NBET.  The case is currently on appeal after the National Industrial Council (NIC) gave judgement against the organisation, which was appealed by NBET.

Is Power Minister Overreaching His Bounds?

Last week’s  controversial termination of the appointment of the NBET CEO would not be the first by the power minister, who has been accused several times of taking unilateral actions against heads of agencies under him without President Buhari’s approval.

Indeed, the argument is that the NBET having been moved from his ministry, Mamman’s latest action of sacking Amobi for a second time in six months and getting his decision reversed by higher authorities speaks volumes of his respect or lack of it for due process.

For instance, his announcement of the indefinite suspension of the Rural Electrification Agency’s Managing Director, Damilola Ogunbiyi, was reversed weeks later by the presidency.

In the same vein, the federal government has now reinstated Amobi twice as NBET MD after her sacking by the minister who always cites reorganisation as his reason for his actions.

Again, the termination of  the appointment of the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) erstwhile Managing Director, Gur Mohammed, by Mamman, compelled a long-written reminder by the Secretary to the Government of the Federation (SGF), Mr Boss Mustapha, to  ministers, detailing the process of removing chief executives of federal agencies.

But in all of these, the major victims appear to be the Nigerian people, who have endured years of darkness, partly due to petty fights within the ministry of power.