Mr. Omorodion Solomon Uwaifo can be described as an elder statesman in engineering and a walking encyclopedia in electricity issues. In fact, a contact with that he radiates electricity! It is painful to him as an engineer that Nigeria doesn’t have a stable electricity supply. He believes that Nigeria has the manpower to generate and distribute power. He spoke with ADEMOLA ADEGBAMIGBE and OLANREWAJU BABALOLA.
At what point did the General Olusegun Obasanjo regime spot you, we learnt you wrote the report on the electricity sector for that government?
General Obasanjo’s administration wrote tro the Nigeria society of Engineers, NSE, not to me or other individuals, for advice when National Electric Power Authority (NEPA) wanted the Federal Government (FGN) to allow it go commercial. The letter was in April 1979. The President of NSE, Engr Imarhiagbe Igiehon, called ten engineers together. I was one of them. In three weeks of intense activity, we wrote an excellent report, which the NSE sent to the FGN in June 1979. By that time, politics was at centre stage. Alhaji Shehu Shagari won the Federal election and General Obasanjo handed over to him on October 1. I presume that he also handed the NSE Report to his government.
We learnt Shagari did nothing about the report. Did you find out why?
I would say that Shehu Shagari did little with that report. However, in 1983, probably as a result of advice, the President set up what he called a National Panel to re-organize the NEPA. It was a multi-disciplinary panel that consisted of engineers, accountant, lawyer, and administrator. The four engineers were Engrs Dr. Ademola Banjo, S O Ajose, Modu Kagu and S O Uwaifo. Chief Arthur Mbanefo MFR represented accountants, Dr. Arthur Nylander SAN represented lawyers and Chief Ebenezer Oke, business administration. Panelists toured the country and had meetings with stakeholders and special interest groups. Three panelists – Engrs Dr. Ademola Banjo and S O Uwaifo, and Chief Arthur Mbanefo were selected to edit the final report. They did that in engr. Uwaifo’s office in Palmgrove Estate and his Personal Assistant, Mrs. Funke Otusajo, provided excellent secretarial services.
The Report was handed over to the FGN in July 1983. Electioneering was in full swing as President Shagari campaigned for re-election. He won and returned to the presidency on October 1. Unfortunately, General Muhammadu Buhari overthrew his government on the last day of the year 1983.
Before you go on, what was the crux of the report?
The crux was that a monolith, NEPA, as its predecessor, ECN, with a vertical management structure, could not give a country as geographically large and politically complex as Nigeria is, an efficient electric utility, given other constraints of poor communications and manpower inadequacies. The 1979 Report wanted the monolith reorganized consistent with the country’s state structure. The 1983 Report was similar. It wanted Undertakings, distribution services, to be as consistent with state structures as much as possible. Generation and transmission were to remain, as they were#, essentially monolithic because that would serve fuel and the national economics better.
What were the differences between your 1979 and 1983 reports?
The essences were the same, but the details were vastly different. The NSE had three weeks to do its 1979 report. They sat in one room to distill their experiences of the industry. The National Committee had three months to tour the country and talk to interest groups as well as stakeholders.
We heard that Obasanjo revisited the report when he came back as civilian president…
Yes, by the time Chief Olusegun Obasanjo became President in 1999, two excellent reports had floated in the federal system for two decades. A succession of five military governments did nothing about those reports. Power supply systems across the country had become decrepit. Talks were on that the President would privatize the industry. I was glad to support him, writing a weekly column, Public Utilities Watch, in the Vanguard between 2002 and 2003. The columns discussed the monolith and its problems including its derelict systems, corruption and its abuse of power. They also suggested how the industry might be successfully privatized.
But was privatization part of the things you suggested?
No, the reports wanted the power supply administration reorganized along state lines while retaining generation and transmission services as one monolith with the horizontal management structure. As I have said, a monolith with a vertical management structure cannot give Nigeria the type of electric power supply service that the country needed at that time. With the telephones the country has now, monoliths have better chances, but not by very much.
Kindly appraise how Obasanjo tried to change the whole system before he left power. I mean his own privatization policy
What do you mean?
From 1999, his privatization policy the power sector…
Ah okay. By the time that Chief Obasanjo left office in 2007, he had set up all the structures needed for privatization. As a political platform, the Vice-President headed the National Council on Privatization, NCP. The electric power supply industry is intensive engineering. Privatising one that has had assets and liabilities across the country for over sixty years needed an engineering platform and the Bereau of Public Enterprises, essentially a clearing house for the NCP, should have been that platform. Sadly, rather than an engineering platform, the FGN made it another political platform. Probably an afterthought, but the FGN hired the services of a Canadian engineering firm to work for the BPE. The FGN had shot itself in the foot. Yes, the Canadian firm would probably have had better access to technology, but it certainly could not have matched an indigenous engineering outfit for essential information and knowledge of Nigeria’s electric power supply installations available to the engineer in the nooks and crannies ofg the country. A competent Nigerian engineer at the head of BPE, collaborating with other choice engineers, firms, and individuals including overseas engineers perhaps, would have been a wonderful asset for the country in terms of synergies developed and technological progress. Most if not all that was there to know about Nigeria’s decrepit assets, particularly distribution assets would have been available to interested entrepreneurs.
From 1979 you have suggested that the regulator be broken…
No, the monolith was an operator not a regulator. The office of the Chief Electrical Inspector at the Ministry of Mines and Power regulated the industry.
You said it should be unbundled but it wasn’t unbundled.
None of the two reports looked at unbundling. What I said was that successive military governments, five in all between 1983 and 1999 did nothing with two powerful reports that floated in the system, while Nigeria’s electric power supply decayed.
Would you say that was responsible for the mess we have found ourselves in?
No, but it contributed immensely and accelerated our arrival in the mess. The decline started some forty years ago. Engineers employed by the monoliths since then arrived in a decaying system. Continuing education and training was hardly available to them and decadence became inexorable.
Not until 2015, even Yar Adua jettisoned what Obasanjo did
Yes, President Yar’ Aduawas not interested in privatization. President Jonathan resuscitated it after he passed on. However, when the FGN filled the position of head of NERC, it appointed an energy economist. The neglect of engineers in an engineering-intensive industry was complete. A lawyer succeeded the engineering economist and for the first eleven years up to 2017, formative years of NERC, other professions supervised the engineering activities of the Commission. And the engineering economist and lawyer had duties that were vat best peripheral to responsibilities of the NERC. Today, the Chairman, an engineer, is to be cleared by the Senate!
Kindly appraise the situation of things now in the power sector under the present government…
The situation as it is, is rather messy. Discos, Gencos and the TCM are all new. Gencos and TCM have taken on situations that I would say were normal, Generation and Operations departments in the monolith were compact and well managed. Discos unfortunately are not the same. Distribution Undertakings in the monolith had no customer service policies all its life, except the handful of statutory renderings taken from the Electricity Laws of Nigeria, Cap 57 of, I believe 1958. In its twilight years, it operated in a state of anarchy. And that is what the Discos inherited. Old problems have exacerbated. Most of the engineers in Discos are the same ones, who worked the monolith in its twilight years. Hon. Raji Babatunde Fashola is probably irritated by what he sees and experiences and he makes pronouncements, which are not totally helpful probably because of the advice he receives.
The Canadian firm didn’t know what had happened on the streets. Maybe one might see what goes on in Ikorodu Road, but now what goes on inside streets. No, one does not. So the Nigerian government definitely needed to put together a Nigerian engineering outfit that understood the industry to be able to guide NERC and the entrepreneurs, because the whole idea wasn’t for the FGN to lie about the industry to maximise sales revenue. The FGN should have exposed what the industry was like in truth, then the buyer will buy as is at the right price. That did not happen, so some buyers bought and it was only after they bought that they started to see the reality on ground. One cannot see cables buried in the ground no matter the due diligence.
Was that the only area FG made mistake?
That is not the only area. The FGN shot itself in the foot in several areas. It privatized wrongly, then it set up NERC (Nigerian Electricity Regulation Commission) and put an energy economist at the head as I said. Energy economists are not engineers. One should not set up a commission to regulate an electric power industry without an expert in the industry to guide it, particularly in its formative years. Experts understand the industry being regulated, non-experts do not. One needs lawyers to write the laws but it is the engineers that will guide the lawyers.
I set up a website and invited other engineers to the platform to try find a way out for Nigeria’s power industry. But of course, younger engineers were looking for bread and butter; they were not old people like us, who have nothing to do, but sit at home writing books. I went to NERC website and dug up codes it had written. I was disappointed. Engineers should know the units for measurement of electric power. It was some of these reasons that all these that informed me to write the book for which reason you are here.
It is over 720 pages; it is a big book. I had to write it to tell Nigeria what the problem are, with our power industry. The monolith has outlived its time. In the 1960s Nigeria had very few engineers. Today she has quite a few thousands. Whether they are trained properly or not us another matter. The FGN must show concern for the country’s professional sector. Having privatized, the sector should now be able to make a break with the past, but where are the trained engineers? As we say where I come from, if you would butcher carrion, you will have smelly, slimy fingers and cannot scratch your body if it itches you.
Discos have hardly sat down to discuss these problems because they have other immediate problems of finance. If the FGN would take irrational action, many Discos, if not all, can be sacked. That would be a monumental injury to the integrity of Nigeria in the international community. I hope that they don’t do it. Missteps were made that must be corrected. Very few living Nigeria have the right experience and knowledge of electric power supply management. Nigeria must solve that problem. That is why I decide to write the book. I have taken on the FGN and the Discos in part of it. If at 85 I can’t speak my mind, I wouldn’t know why God brought me here. I wouldn’t have deserved to live.
Could you share some of those suggestions with us?
I have barely scratched the skin of the problem until this book. I had suggested in PUW in 2002 that the FGN should not privatize the entire industry in one fell swoop; I suggested that maybe it should privatize one or two, maybe Lagos and Abuja, to start with and watch how it goes. From the experience we garner from those two places, we do a better job privatizing other areas. It was a suggestion, maybe the FGN had its own ideas. I also suggested that three criteria should be the basis for selecting new distribution owners. They are engineering and financial abilities as well as savior faire. I don’t think the government followed any of these criteria, as the government decided to privatize because they probably wanted to share with their friends.
What do you think the Discos need to do to work better?
An engineering institution should have at the head technocrats that understands that industry to give it direction. I am also saying that if they had a proper NERC headed by an engineer who understands what he is doing, the first things as I wrote in the book that we are talking about, the first thing they should have done is to make sure that within the first two, three years the distribution companies will be able to deliver.
Look a distribution system that has been decaying over the past 40 years is what they sold to Discos and the Discos do not have a program to redress that situation, they are crying that there are so many power failures and so on and so forth. If I were a disco first thing I would do is to spend the first six months in reclaiming the industry from the thieves.
On this road which I live, I arrested somebody twice over a period of five years connecting his own customers to the power system, not to PHCN customers but his own. After connecting, no metering, why should he bother about meters? He will tell them, if I connect you I will collect N10, 000 every month, if he collects that amount from 50 people, that is half a million, a lot of money and there are people doing that all over the country as we speak. So NERC should have insisted, in fact, NERC should have worked out a program before this Discos took over. Do this as number one, reclaim the system, maybe at night from about 7 to 10; come to Maryland crescent, the transformer is on, everybody sis itched on, give everybody notice, this is what we are going to do, then enter homes and tell them let’s see your papers, are you a customer of the supplier, if he says yes, then bring your application and approvals and so and so forth and regularize them. Put their name on a paper, from street to street, this thing, we are not joking, we are talking of billions upon billions or trillions of naira so it is not a plaything.
The power industry is the lifeblood of development, therefore it is a serious affair, you have to go from house to house to make sure. I mean I did a study for NEPA in Ikeja. I went to a house in Toyin street, where St Leo Catholic Church is, that road that goes by the Cathedral, about three or four houses from there, a house that is owned by a former army captain. During this study, I found out the meter that I was looking at was only a decoy. The man or whoever it was, has bypassed that meter and passed the wire through the ceiling, so the meter was just useless.
He said, you are looking at my meter, the meter that these people gave me I don’t know whether it was working or not, so I laughed. You see I told NEPA, I took the meter, I said sorry this meter is not working so I am taking it back, it is not your own, it belongs to NEPA. He said you said it is not my own but I paid for it. I said well this property belongs to NEPA but you are not NEPA, whatever you paid, maybe you should go to them and get it. After I left he went to PTC opposite Ikeja General Hospital and took his meter back from them, said how can you take my meter after I paid the money, which was part of the report that I wrote. I told them you created this mess when you started asking people to pay for meters, how do I pay for meters and it is not my own?
You have a bullion vehicle, for example, you asked me to buy, so if I buy it, it is no longer yours it belongs to me, so these are all mess that the monolith built for themselves over the years because the government messed them up, telling them what to do and what not to do, these should have been corrected.
But recently Minister of power, Mr Babatunde Fashola identified shortage of funds as part of what is responsible for the mess. What is your reaction to that?
There is no doubt about that, that has always been the problem, recommendations were made, the projects you were going to do, the government will not approve until after about 2 or three years, no power industry can survive at all.
In the same interview, Fashola also suggested that the government should intervene just like the United States government did during the recession in that country by bailing out the automobile industry. What do you say to that?
Of course, no country can survive without the power industry; the power supply industry is the lifeblood of every form of development, so every government has it as a duty, a primary duty to ensure that the power is vital and sustainable. We started developing the power industry in 1951, at that time Nigeria was already in existence, and only very few townships in Nigeria had power supply and these were townships either they were on the railway line and electricity got there because the white people were working and they wanted power.
They wanted a conducive environment, Abeokuta started having a power supply around 1928, Lagos had the first taste of power in 1896. Places like Ibadan around the same time, Port Harcourt, Kano, these were the places that had power, places like Benin for instance, I had left Benin to come to Yaba College of Technology before 1954. 1955 that was when power supply got to Benin, I was, as a technical officer after I graduated in 1957, responsible for the building of Shagamu, Ikenne, Ayepe, Ijebu Ode, Ago Iwoye, etc. I was an assistant technical officer running those areas at that time. The first place was at Shagamu before I was transferred to Ijebu Ode. That was in the 1950s. in 1958 I was in the UK before I came back they had finished all these. So power is a very new thing in Nigeria and when people start talking about power deficit I laugh because it has always been a deficit. You have just started from the beginning and until you have served the whole country, we don’t talk about the deficit, you should talk about serving the country, after that, and then you say oh the country needs more power. You have never been able to serve the whole country up till today; I think we have served less than half of Nigeria so we have a problem.
Some people have suggested that the national grid should be scrapped. What’s your take on that?
They are talking nonsense because they don’t know what the national grid is all about.
We have 36 states, why not have 36 different grids that will serve them, without having just one grid connecting everybody?
Well ok, let me tell you, Nigeria is a little bigger than Texas and America has 50 different states and America is trying to serve all that number of states with the same grid system. They are still trying to have as many grids as possible, refined, and consistent with the economy. The whole idea of the grid system is first and foremost to save your energy resources in a particular country. I give you an example, like this street, if everybody was to buy his own generator for power supply, first and foremost, noise on this street will kill you. The next thing is the environmental hazards, fumes all over the whole place and every house, whether the house will provide generate more it had to use if he does not give to anybody that extra is wasted not just in that house but the entire economy.
How did the grid system evolve?
You mean the original builders or the first people that first thought about electricity supply. Example is rural Manhattan in the USA. They put a power generating facility there and it was making noise and it served one person and they tried to serve another person and it worked. If this is so noisy why don’t we take it out of human habitation and put it somewhere where the noise will be in the bush, but just get the power to serve people, they brought cable and connected it. If the distances is too long, there is what we call voltage regulation, the voltage falls low here, it will be too low by the time it gets to Abeokuta? So what do we do? We now put a transformer, a transformer will now boost it up, by the time it gets to Abeokuta the power will get brighter, so the plant itself, the generator they had then was too small and technology kept developing, so they started making them bigger and bigger. Now we have a situation when the bigger the generator the more efficient it is.
When you run a generator whether it is small or big, there is what we call the inertia. The inertia is the power you need to make the moving parts of the machine to start working, they don’t start working on their own, you have to inject power for them to work, so they consume power, to serve other loads, that power they need to generate themselves is a loss you have to maintain, that loss will not be there if it does not work but when it is working it must overcome its internal problems to continue to work and if you want it to serve more and more people, more and more electrical loads, you put in more fuel. It burns more fuel, it consumes more fuel to do it so the idea of the grid was that technology needed to be able to harness the properties of the huge machines which become more efficient because of their size, that efficiency rebounds that you use, so you have to locate few of them around the country, stringe them up to a grid system. The grid system ties all of them up, if one of them fails, the others are still there and the power is still on the grid to serve even people in the area where one of them had failed or even one of them is being maintained.
The grid helps you to save the primary energy resources you have in country. Gas, Coal or whatever you have, they are wasting assets, the fewer the number of places you burn them for electricity the lesser, I mean the more efficient you are in handling your energy resources. If you burn them out in so many different places, energy resource that might have lasted you say 100 years for example will probably last you about 70 years, that’s what the grid system does.
Now if the grid system is inadequate, that does not mean that the grid is bad, it is the same way, the same reason that we are talking about that developments were not allowed to take place. ECN was very good in the beginning. It was growing beautifully. Around 1957, Eleyele power station in Ibadan was having problems, today you have to fly this part there, ECN quickly said alright, let us increase Ijora, the power station in Ijora, ECN then built Ijora B power station and put in more plants, they built a line from Lagos to Ibadan and relieved Eleyele. That line was the beginning of the grid system in Nigeria.
Talking about injecting capital, the Obasanjo government did it between 2003 and 2007 before it left, some people collected this money and did not do anything. It became a subject of probe by the House of Representatives. Names were constantly bandied around, people like Emeka Offor, collected huge amount of money for the rehabilitation of the power sector. Now would you still suggest that government should assist the investors – the Discos with money?
I will never suggest that. Nigerians are suffering, Nigeria can never industrialise without a good power supply system so it is the responsibility of the government to ensure that, that power supply must be sustained and I have written in this book what I think should be done. To improve the power system, I don’t talk about money, what is the name of this professor of robotics who became minister of power, Barth Nnaji, who said in one interview, that Nigeria needed $76 billion to sort out the power supply problem, I laughed.
There was another man Professor Olutokun who wrote in The Punch. How can you talk about money when you don’t even know what size of power Nigeria needs. You have to do a study, it can be studied, I have studied parts of this country, so why are people running away from studies. Study the problem, what does Nigeria need?
With your experience, how can this be done?
I left the system in 1973. These days Google will give you the plan of any town, beautifully laid out so you don’t have any problem of oh I don’t have a map. In 1976 regional manager of the ECN made me draw the whole map of Ibadan to show the position of every pole, whether it was wood, concrete or iron and the location of substation in Ibadan. In 1956 I was very young, Ogbemudia hired me to study Benin city in 1974, I studied it, I took two engineers there, we were camped in one hotel and we showed them what to do and they did it, we did all the calculations, I have a copy of it, so it be done, these days it is easier to do it because you have computers.
You cannot invest millions in an electric utility and are lazy to do basic thing you need to do, if you plot them out. You will begin to see what you have, what is wrong, what is good, what is bad, you can have a panoramic view of what you problem is and you will, start sorting them out.
We have to reclaim the industry and all the vanguards of stealing you take them out. I have written in a report where we should not locate meters because where you locate it is important. For instance in Sweden electric utilities are located around buildings, garages, but when you don’t pay your bills, they move the meters outdoors, so in Sweden if you are driving and see a meter, you will say this one is a debtor, so people avoid that. We have to help our country and begin to devise things that we can use to frustrate many of the wrong things that we do. For instance in my house here, before you came you had to pass through a gate. There is a wall, I suggested over 30 years ago that the owner of this house must put a hole on his wall and then fit a box, I suggested then that to make it easier, to make it beautiful, to entice people to do it, have a post box on one side of the box and then you meter on the other that is the meter is outside. If the meter is outside, from that wall into my house is my responsibility. Why can we not think of a simple thing?
In 1969 when I did a study for ECN, I went to Isale Eko and some of the meters were on the back, on the wall. This particular place, there was latrine, bucket latrine, and faeces you could see faeces pouring out of that place, and “akon” (crabs), the big ones would be making “yanga” (walking with swagger) there, so I said to me I won’t go near that latrine, look at the ground, that was when I found my idea of where meters should be located and where it should not be located. There was one elderly gentleman, so there was a bed, the meter was right behind the bed, so I said how are we going to move this bed so that I can read the meter, he said don’t worry just step on the bed. I then stepped on the bed to read the meter. So, I wrote a report in 1969 that was before I went to America.
So put the meter on the wall outside, so you don’t have to beg anyone anytime you don’t have to beg anyone anytime you want to read, just go there and read it and go away, nobody will even know that you were there to read and if you want to vandalize the meter you have to break the wall and maybe when you are doing it one or two people will see you although in this country we hardly observe anything, these are some of the problems that we can overcome so easily but we don’t want to think, we don’t want to do anything.
What in your view can be done to make things right? We are already in it now, the Gencos are there, bought by people who are not supposed to buy them, the Discos are there too messing things up.
At least the government has to admit its errors, any law that is not workable they should know. I give you an example, I studied Warri for NEPA in 1987 and the problem was there staring me in the eyes but NEPA was not prepared to know that the problem was there but there were engineers roving around, based in Warri, so what problem are talking about? In Warri, the SPDC, had its office, headquarters and then they have the staff quarters, both their offices and their staff quarters were supplied by Shell’s in power station. The lines connecting their staff housing passed through public lines. There was an oil servicing company in a community, it had its own power station, served its own facility. Their excuse, NEPA was incompetent but NEPA had the mandate to supply electricity within Nigeria, the law was there and I blamed NEPA because they could have gone to SPDC to say sorry by law we are supposed to supply, alright do you think you want to build a power station, yea you can build it but we jointly own it, all your customers, staff quarters must pay electricity bills to us- NEPA, not to you.
Basically let me explain, what government has done over these years is that by its action. It has kept off people who can make the industry rich when you have those people off, you have the poor, the poorer people to bear the cost of the system. The cost of a power system is shared by the population it serves. If you now start removing prosperous members of the population so that they can have their power supply on their own, you are reducing the number of people who should share the common facility.
So you leave the Discos to people who they will be pursuing to pay their bills. There is no society in the world that people are equally rich, there are few people who play mago mago but it is these others who are better empowered who will pay their money on time that keeps the overall system going.
Some people have suggested an alternative source of generating power: wind nuclear. So how possible are these in Nigeria?
They are all possible. But I pray to God Almighty that they will never be able to bring nuclear power when I am alive! I pray they don’t. The fact of the matter is that we still have a lot of resources; we still have a lot of primary energy resources available to Nigeria so we don’t really need a nuclear plant because most sensible countries are running away from nuclear plants.
Could you talk about crazy bills because a lot of people are protesting about PHCN sending them crazy bills?
I understand what you mean. I mean you don’t have to be an engineer if you study physics when you get kilowatt hour, kilowatt is the power that they supply you and the hour is the time over which it was supplied, kilowatt hour, one kilowatt in one hour is kilowatt hour, kilowatt times hour. If you cancel the hour what is the result if kilowatt is zero then the power is kilowatt times zero which is zero. So instead of people saying, what PHCN and NEPA, not ECN, ECN would never have done these stupid things, what they have done is that they come to your house and say oh you have 13 air conditioners and you have one fridge and one freezer and when you add it all together it is so many kilowatts, so every month, it is 720 hours, all the power in your house times 720 hours is your bill. When 720 hours is what we got in a month if you did not supply hour for that 720 hours how can you multiply it by 720 hours, that’s how you talk about crazy bills, it is very easy, you have NERC, what NERC should do about it I have put it in this book, there is no magic in it.
They know me, not that am clever, they know me that I will shout, I will ask them to come and prove to me that I used the power, tell me the numbers of hours you served me, if you ask people in this area I will tell you until they did some silly things they did a few days ago, I will say in the average some areas will get power like 18 hours every day which is good by Nigerian standard so 18 times 24 is the number of hours, 18 times 24 is 540 hours and also you cannot say because I have 13 air conditioners in my house and therefore you are going to say 13 air conditioners, two kilowatts machine is now 26 kilowatts.
Now there is no such thing. In engineering there is what we call diversity, there is a demand factor, there is a diversity factor, as a matter of fact, although I have about 13 air conditioners in this house, in the busiest of times, only about 4 will work at a time and that’s mostly when my children are at home, when they come on holidays from the UK and US, the rooms are air-conditioned, if there is nobody there I won’t put it on. That is why in this book I have said it is not impossible to estimate electricity for anybody because all human beings have their idiosyncrasies, there are people who go out and there are people who stay at home, there are those who will go out and go and play golf, spend hours before they come in, there are people who work at night, so people cannot consume electricity the same way that is why there is so much diversity.
Let’s talk about meters, there are those who said they should not be paid for by the consumers, that the Discos should supply meters free?
No No No, nobody will ever supply you meter for free but what ECN did which is the correct thing to do or what is done all over the world is that you have supplied the meter and when the tariff is designed, the cost of the meter is taken into account so the electricity bill you pay every month pays part of the meter. So you are not asked pay for the meter, you should never be asked to pay for a meter, PHCN was wrong. It is their own property but if you get someone to pay for it then the person that pays for it should have it and that is what is happening, that is why a meter somebody bought when he was a civil servant in Lagos and then when the man goes back to Umuahia, he carries his meter with him. This confusion started years ago and over the past 40 years it has been declining and declining and we have not started on the rebound because discos have to sort themselves out.
What actually influenced you passion for Nigeria to have stable power supply?
What inspired my passion? That is a life story. At the age of 22 was when I joined the ECN (Electrical Corporation of Nigeria). That was 4 October 1954. I was 22, now I am almost 86. At that time, I and many other young people like myself were being trained as assistant technical officers, it was a three-year course in Yaba Technical Institute, my colleagues, most of them came from Government College Umuahia, Kings College and so on and so forth. I was a product of Yaba Technical Institute, a junior school where we had secondary education in technical balance. I remember that about that time we had about 18 teachers and out of the 18, only two were Nigerians.
From where did the other teachers come?
All the others were expatriates, particularly British. At the end of the Second World War in 1945, I think the British government was looking for opportunity to give employment to soldiers who had been demobilized after the Second World War and many of the teachers they bought here were soldiers, but many of them had a technical background, and some with electrical power machines for making mechanical parts. We had a workshop also where we did metal works – cutting metals by machines and by hand, filing and all sorts of stuff. That is how we grew up. I joined Yaba Technical Institute than at the age of 17 – that is the precursor of Yaba Tech and Yaba Tech was the precursor of Yaba Technical Institute which survived for only 14 years because I understand that by 1962, they stopped the Yaba Technical Institute as we knew it and they changed it to Yaba College of Technology.
What was the effect of the change?
They served development because in my view what they did was to replace an umbrella with a straw hat; a straw hat is small as you know. They destroyed workshops where Nigerians were trained to industrialize their country and they built theatres to train philosophers. I remember that in 1953 our last year in Yaba Technical Institute, some of my classmates, I remember Dimeji Paul, Samuel Ogunseye, Mr. Stephenson (we used to call him Baba Eru), he used to be a staff member of the Railways. In the olden days, we manufactured railway parts, they had foundries, they had everything to be able to build parts for the rolling stuff but gradually the railway themselves started falling apart and Papa Stephenson was brought to the Yaba Tech to teach Nigerians the art of iron works.
In 1953 we built a single stroke engine in Yaba from the start. The engine block Papa Stephenson himself made from the railways was brought to Yaba Tech to the machine shop and machine did the work from the beginning to the end. I remember what that single stroke engine was. Papa Stephenson mounted it on a bicycle so that you don’t need to pedal, it was that small engine that provided locomotive power to move the bicycle and it was making a tu-tu-tu-tu-tu sound all over the compound. By the time, many of us were excited that within the next 10 to 20 years our country would be industrialized. But in 2017, I am not aware that we can make that we made in 1953, I am not aware that we make it today.
My training was to do practical engineering. As I said, I joined the ECN in 1952 and I was trained as an assistant technical officer and later changed to junior engineering assistant. In 1955, I had my practical training in Ibadan, our office was in Dugbe at that time. In 1956, ECN chose me to take care of the UCH substation which was built for that day when the Queen (Elizabeth of England) came to commission that hospital. I was the one the ECN nominated to take charge of that substation to make sure that there was no mess around. I still look on that day with pride. After that, I came back to Yaba to finish my course, it was a sandwich, you go for one year and come back to do the final year, we came back and did the final year, I won the scholarship best engineering student in 1957.
In 1958, I had federal government scholarship to study Electrical Engineering in the UK; I came back in 1962 after working with the central electricity generating board (CGB), a stint of one year with them to gain a little more experience before I returned as an engineer grade one in the ECN. I was with the ECN until 1973, 2 January when I decided to withdraw my services because the industry was not going in the direction that I had hoped. By 1969, I won the Eisenhower Fellowship and I represented Nigeria in the US. Nigeria was one of the 39 different countries that sent representatives to the US after winning the fellowship and that gave me a formidable experience because I went through many activities in Philadelphia, New York, Washington DC, San Francisco and so on. After eight months I returned to Nigeria, the rest is history.
By the time you left ECN in 1973, you have risen to which position?
At that time I was the northern area manager, but basically, at that time, I was a senior executive engineer. I said I came back in 1952, by March 1973, ECN thought I was too experienced for all these substations and kinds of stuff. So by 1963 March, I was moved to Onitsha and in Onitsha by 1965, something happened and I solved the problem and the head of planning and design department in ECN headquarters in Marina said Mr. Uwaifo is too experienced to be engineer manager in Onitsha, he should come and design distribution system for ECN. So I was moved back to the planning and design department was leaving, I think he is an Australian, then the chief electrical engineer of the ECN who said that we never had a Nigerian engineer to head the Metering and Instrumentation Department and that Engineer Uwaifo was most suited for that job. So they moved out of planning and design and took me to the system operating department where metering and instrumentation was and then sent me straight away to Austria, London, and Switzerland for a nine-month experience in meter design, manufacture, and settings.
I did that and that was during the civil war. I went to Austria in 1967 March; I spent four months in Austria in Vienna and from Austria, I flew to London to learn this idea.
After that experience they moved me from LG Works Switzerland; it is a place called Zoom. I worked in what we call a Trajectory meter. After about nine months, I returned to Nigeria, the city was still on when I came back, then I was in metering and instrumentation up to 1968.
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