This Day (Lagos)

Nigeria: Jonathan Ponders Defence, Power Ministry Portfolios

Following President Goodluck Jonathan's acceptance of Professor Bart Nnaji's resignation as his power minister on Tuesday, the presidency Wednesday denied reports that the president had taken over the running of the ministry, pending the appointment of a replacement for the former minister.

But with Nnaji's departure over the conflict of interest that arose when a company he owns submitted a bid for one of the power assets slated for privatisation, presidency sources Wednesday alluded to the likelihood of a cabinet reshuffle to fill the vacancies in the power and defence ministries, as the president weighs his options on who to fill the positions.

The Minister of Defence, Dr. Haliru Mohammed Bello, was relieved of his job last June alongside the former National Security Adviser (NSA), General Andrew Owoye Azazi.

On the openings in the cabinet, sources in the presidency told THISDAY that the lobby to replace the former minister commenced immediately the story of his departure went viral.

According to the sources, "What is happening now is an indication that there could be a cabinet reshuffle sooner than expected.

"So far, two ministerial slots are open and this is a good reason for a reshuffle. It may not be a total sack of the Federal Executive Council, but some of the ministers would be reshuffled."

The clarification from the presidency on the power ministry portfolio coincided with a statement by Nnaji, in which he shed more light on the circumstances that led to his exit from office.

Nnaji, who in a statement by his Special Assistant on Media, Mr. Ogbuagu Anikwe, set the record straight and denied reports that he was forced out of office. Rather, he said he voluntarily resigned his position to defend his integrity.

Minister of Information, Mr. Labaran Maku, corroborated Nnaji's narration of how he left office, even as his resignation has caused ripples in the sector, prompting stakeholders, including electricity workers, labour unions and others to ponder over what would become of the power sector, especially the improvement in electricity supply.

However, the presidency assured Nigerians of its commitment to ensure that the gains made under Nnaji are not eroded.

It also said that the public would be informed as soon as a replacement is found for the former minister, adding that Jonathan has not taken over the running of the ministry as speculated Wednesday.

According to presidential spokesman, Dr. Reuben Abati, the news is "not true, it is a mere speculation and the figment of the imagination of those spreading it."

Also speaking on Nnaji's exit, Maku said he was not sacked from his appointment but resigned voluntarily.

He told State House correspondents at the close of the weekly Federal Executive Council meeting that Jonathan did not fire Nnaji.

He said Nnaji's voluntary disengagement was to give credence to the ongoing privatisation of the power sector.

"Let me put it this way, the reasons why Prof. Bart Nnaji resigned are already known to you. Let me put it clearly that Prof. Nnaji resigned to give credibility to the power sector privatisation process and the statement issued by the Special Adviser to the President on Media Affairs yesterday (Tuesday) was very clear and explicit.

"The voluntary resignation of Prof. Nnaji is indeed something that will reinforce the credibility of the Federal Government's reforms in the power sector. I do not see it in anyway hampering the process, rather it would assure investors all over the world that Nigeria, and all of us in government, are prepared to do everything possible to ensure the credibility of the process," the minister explained.

According to him, Nnaji made a good decision to resign when he discovered that there was a conflict of interest between his position and that of the demands of the nation.

He assured that the resignation would not obstruct the implementation of the power reform programme, noting that it would enhance its credibility.

Also speaking on his resignation, Nnaji maintained in the statement that he voluntarily resigned from office to save his integrity, which he said had come under scurrilous attacks recently by powerful vested interests that were hell bent on destroying all he had worked for over the years.

However, sources said the president had been concerned about the lingering crisis between the former power minister and electricity workers and had on several occasions charged Nnaji to do everything possible to resolve it.

In addition, it was gathered that his inability to effectively manage the crisis, coupled with his links to two companies that participated in the bid for Afam Power Station and Enugu Distribution Company, prompted the move to sack him, before he opted to resign.

Another factor that worked against him was the pressure on Jonathan to remove Nnaji by those who erroneously blamed the former minister for their travails after they missed the deadline set by the Bureau of Public Enterprises (BPE) for the submission of technical and financial bids for the power assets on sale.

A source close to the former minister, however, said he had done everything humanly possible to ensure the amicable settlement of labour issues in the power sector and should be commended rather than being condemned.

He argued that the minister did no wrong, noting that his track record in the establishment and management of Geometric Power Limited (GPL) prompted his appointment as the chairman of Presidential Task Force on Power and minister thereafter.

He expressed concern that the power reform process may run into hitches following his unexpected exit, as according to him, not many people would be as diligent as Nnaji was in office.

The former minister said he opted to resign to prevent a spill over of attacks on him to the president, whom he noted is working very hard to transform the nation.

He said his resignation would give him the opportunity to go back to his integrated power projects, which have been designed to accelerate the development of the nation.

He said: "I would like to reiterate that before I accepted to serve as minister, I resigned my directorship of all companies that I had interests in and put my shares in those companies in a blind trust; this means that I was not privy to the day-to-day business decisions of those who ran this trust.

"In addition, I publicly declared the participation in the privatisation process of a foreign company that did business with a company that I had interest in. This fact came to my knowledge only during the course of evaluating the consortia that were bidding for PHCN successor companies.

"Consequently, I also voluntarily recused myself from participating in the selection process. These actions, I should think, are in line with the finest traditions of transparency and accountability in governance."

He thanked Jonathan and Nigerians who supported him in his robust efforts to improve public power supply in the last 14 months.

According to him, he has everything to be thankful for because not many Nigerians have had the privilege of serving the nation twice as minister as he had done, and as a special adviser.

Nnaji also paid glowing tributes to the staff of the ministry, Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) and other agencies for their "dedication to duty, hard work, patriotism and commitment to the common good which have, in spite of all odds, completely moved the power sector in a new direction to the benefit of all our people."

Reacting to the former minister's departure, Chief Executive Officer, International Energy Services (IES), Mr. Diran Fawibe, in a telephone interview, also said Nnaji's resignation would not stall the power privatisation scheme, but would instead move it forward.

He, however, suggested that rather than start the bid process for the two companies linked to the former minister afresh, the BPE should disqualify those companies and proceed with the evaluation of others that submitted bids for the assets of Afam Power Station and Enugu Disco.

President, National Union of Petroleum and Natural Gas Workers (NUPENG), Comrade Igwe Achese, said Nnaji's exit would facilitate the entire power reform process.

He said events that unfolded recently only confirmed labour's stance that some government officials were ripping off the country.

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) described Nnaji's exit as honourable, noting that it would avoid a conflict of interest.

TUC President General, Comrade Peter Esele, who spoke with reporters at the inauguration of the secretariat of the Nigeria Civil Service Union (NCSU) in Abuja, said Nnaji should be commended as he had chosen to emulate what is obtainable in civilised societies.

Also, Nigeria Labour Congress (NLC) President, Comrade Abdulwahed Omar, said the resignation would pave the way for more transparent processes in the reform of the power sector.

He added that the labour movement has been vindicated after it announced its discovery that the ex-minister had vested interests in some of the companies bidding for assets of the unbundled PHCN.

About 500 workers of the National Union of Electricity Employees, (NUEE) Jebba, Hydro Electric Plc Wednesday celebrated the resignation of Nnaji.

The workers said with his resignation from office, power supply in the country would witness a new dawn. Speaking with reporters after a rally in Jebba, the chairman of the branch, Mr. Tony Ofuokwu, said: "We expect that whoever that is coming in should move round the sectors of PHCN and get first hand information of what is happening."

The Lagos League of Political Parties, however, faulted Jonathan's acceptance of Nnaji's resignation. It said in a statement by its Chairman, Chief Udoka Udeogaranya, that the allegation of conflict of interest was not enough to warrant Nnaji's exit.

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