Many intellectuals have their heads in the sky but no feet on the ground. This is to say that the intellectuals have a lot of ideas, but they are not practicable. Very few academics are both first class theorists and excellent practitioners. French philosophers call such gifted people l’homme engage, meaning a man of action or, better still, a practical man of ideas. A good example is the existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul- Sarte, who in the 1960s made global headlines for rejecting the Nobel prize in literature.
Nigeria does have its practical persons of ideas, men and women who marry theory and praxis, people who, for the benefit of the larger society, put into practice the fascinating theories they explore in classrooms, academic journals, seminars and conferences. As Bart Nnaji marks his57th birthday on July 13, it is apposite to do a brief reflection on his role in Nigerian society as l’homme engage. Nnaji has for decades struck the popular imagination as the first black man to be named a distinguished engineering professor in American history , the first foreigner to deliver the US Secretary of State’s annual Distinguished Public Service Lecture, the first black person to serve as director of the United States National Science Foundation-endowed Centre for e-Design, the first African to earn the Baker Distinguished Research Fellowship in Industrial Engineering and so on, but most Nigerians remember him for his preeminent and pragmatic part in the search for an enduring end to Nigeria’s most paralyzing infrastructure challenge: irregular electric power supply.
Nnaji could have been satisfied with his status as a super professor in the United States, earning a very impressive income from the US army, navy, air force , IBM, etc, but he chose to take the extremely dangerous but immensely patriotic step of plunging straight into the uncharted and murky waters of Nigeria’s electricity business even before the enactment of the Electric Power Sector Reform (EPSR) Act of 2005 which ended the Federal Government’s monopoly of power generation, transmission and distribution. His case is reminiscent of the story of current Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsen who, having broken every record in the Department of Mathematics at Cambridge, could have remained in the university to enjoy himself as a globally recognized academic, but rather elected to join his country’s army and later the civil service where his incredible talent would impact more directly on his emerging little nation.
It all began with the establishment of Geometric Power Ltd in 2000 to build in Africa power stations and facilities to compete with the best in the world. In 2001 Geometric Power completed in record time the 22Megawatt Abuja Emergency Power Plant which was commissioned by (then) Vice President Atiku Abubakar. For almost three years, the plant supplied electricity, without a second interruption, to State House, the corporate headquarters of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation, the International Conference Centre as well as the Abuja Business District. This achievement impressed so many Nigerians, including Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala who was then the World Bank vice president. When in 2003 Mrs Okonjo-iweala had become Nigeria’s Finance Minister and was visiting Aba in Abia State with then World Bank President James Wolfohnson, manufacturers in this foremost industrial city were asked the most difficult challenge confronting them and they wasted no time identifying erratic power supply. Aware of tremendous bureaucratic bottlenecks involved in building a dedicated power plant in Aba, the minister asked Nnaji if he could take the bull by the horns. Nnaji accepted the challenge enthusiastically. The 141MW Aba integrated power project, which has cost $460m, will be commissioned in August, marking a new phase in Nigeria’s engagement with history. But it has been largely years of tears, sweat and blood, thanks to deliberate man-made obstacles which we often call “the Nigerian factor”.
Nnaji was still grappling with the Aba project when President Goodluck Jonathan asked him to become in June, 2010, his special adviser on power and chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Power (PTFP). The appointment was greeted with aplomb all over the country. He selected the most capable Nigerian technocrats and experts he could find in various fields, extending the recruitment to economics, law, finance, media and communication as well as general management and gas resource management. The PTFP produced the path breaking Roadmap for Power Sector Reform launched by President Jonathan in Lagos on August 26, 2010, to the satisfaction of the Nigerian people and the admiration of the world. The PTFP was instrumental to Nigeria’s attainment of almost 4,000MW by the time Jonathan was facing an election in April, 2011, almost doubling the quantum of power within one year.
It was self-evident when Jonathan was forming his administration, after the vote, that Nnaji was the best man for the Ministry of Power. He was in office for only one year, yet his tenure has become the standard by which other ministers are now judged. He demonstrated infectious leadership. He did make everyone in the Nigerian power system work and think. Leading by personal example, there were numerous meetings, workshops, seminars and retreats, each with an action plan which he personally followed through. Staff and consultants were often stunned at the expertise he displayed not just in power engineering but also in finance, project management, international business negotiations and reputation management. A highly reputable international consulting firm was once reeling out figures about power development in Nigeria and Africa at a retreat when the minister politely stopped the presenter. “These figures and facts cannot be correct”, he said, and carefully provided detailed statistics right there. The consultant was overwhelmed and thanked him profusely for “expanding my scope of knowledge”. Within two months of working under him, I was confident enough to constantly stand for hours before top university professors, international and local business executives and media networks to discuss electricity from a position of sound knowledge.
Nnaji is hard work personified. Always the first minister to report for duty at the Federal Secretariat and the last to depart, the Ministry of Power staff used to be amazed to see him come straight to the office from the airport while returning from a stressful overseas trip. I wasn’t. At the University of Massachusetts and University of Pittsburgh, he was always voted the most hardworking professor. He would, on return from Christmas and New Year holidays in Nigeria, drive from the airport to his laboratory and stay there till early morning hours. While he was briefly the Minister of Science and Technology in 1993, I was his special assistant. I would leave his suite at 3am to retire, yet as early as 7am he would be on his way to the office. He would typically knock on my door at Nicon Hilton Hotel, prompting the reply from me, “Please, l am still sleeping. I would be with you at 8am”. I would then humorously add in Igbo, “This ministerial aide is more powerful than his boss!” Nnaji, a very simple hearted fellow, would predictably burst into a laughter which would end with the usual scream: “C-e-e-e-e D-o-o-o-n!” Nnaji is an engineer, academic, entrepreneur, leader and administrator who recognizes that the modern firm and bureaucracy must make provision for those called in modern management theory “knowledge workers”. These are gifted experts and specialists who may not conform to bureaucratic culture but produce good results, sometimes path breaking.
Bart Nnaji does inspire as he challenges us all. Literary scholars describe persons like him as well rounded characters. I salute him on his 57th birthday for, among other things, his uncanny ability to excell in the combination of theory and practice in the service of his fatherland.
Adinuba is head of Discovery Public Affairs Consulting.