Manitoba: To keep or put away?
It was once alleged to have been birthed in irregularity, a charge that almost led to its revocation.
Then the PHCN labour union questioned the pedigree of Manitoba, a small and provincial Canadian firm specializing in generating hydro power, to manage transmission network as huge as Nigeria’s.
Then its 70-year-old pioneer MD/CEO in Nigeria, Don Priestman, was forced to leave under controversial, if questionable, circumstances comparable to a doctor having worsened the disease he was being paid to cure.
The controversy has taken a fresh turn with the recent warning by the former Minister of Power, Prof. Bart Nnaji, against terminating the contract signed with the Canadian firm; and possibly seeking other avenues of improving Nigeria’s power transmission capacity which Manitoba has abysmally failed to do.
Here are Prof. Nnaji’s exact words in a news report captioned “Don’t Take TCN from Manitoba, Nnaji Warns FG”: “The TCN should never go back to government management. Government ownership, yes, but not government control. It is not a good idea. Private sector proper management, maybe.” (The Punch, June 17, 2015, p. 32).
Indeed, we must note the uncertainty with which the former minister’s recommendations for the future of TCN or Nigeria’s transmission network ends, evidenced by his use of the word “maybe”. This seems an unconscious admission by Prof. Nnaji that he does not have the final say, and that other stakeholders genuinely interested in improving the Nigerian power situation can join what seems a debate to keep or put away Manitoba at the expiration of the contract it has failed to fulfil. And perhaps, because of his uncertainty, Prof. Nnaji does not say why he considers it “not a good idea” for TCN to be under government control or management.
The Manitoba contract is worth US$23 million with a three-year duration and renewable for two years subject to agreement by both parties. The contract requires Manitoba staff to work with TCN staff and in the process transfer skills to the latter. It also requires staff of the Canadian firm to introduce new systems and best practices and put the Nigerian transmission utility on a sustainable financial and sound technical footing.
These, to say the least, are nebulous deliverables compared, for instance, to if Manitoba were required to upgrade the Nigerian transmission capacity from 2,800-5,000 megawatts at the end of the three years failing which its contract shall not be renewed. However, in executing what would amount to its mission to salvage Nigeria’s transmission network, Manitoba’s curious approach is to station eight full-time staff in Nigeria and make thirty-five short-term staff available as the need arises.
So the contract Prof. Nnaji is recommending its retention is one in which eight Canadians – for eight is the number we are sure of – are paid US$23 million to do a vaguely defined job for which our transmission network has witnessed no improvement in its capacity to transmit power for the three years of our engaging the services of the Canadian firm.
Let’s assume roles were reversed, and Canada contracted a Nigerian firm to render some services to it for three years at the cost of US$23 million. If at the end of the three years, the Nigerian firm achieved such poor result as Manitoba has done in the execution of its TCN contract, can Prof. Nnaji, a former Minister of Power, imagine any Canadian of his stature argue for the retention of the contract and yet expect to be regarded as patriotic?
And contrary to Prof. Nnaji’s unsubstantiated blame of government interference for Manitoba’s non-performance, the Manitoba staff are responsible for their failure. For instance, the company has such a high staff turnover in TCN that none of them has stayed long enough to make an impact. This counterproductive flux is particularly obvious in the very high replacement rate of their key personnel: Three MDs/CEOs and three GMs at the National Control Centre, Osogbo, within three years.
The team lacks cohesion, like a divided house; and dissention has never been far from its members. Also, their colonial style of leadership and their buck passing to their Nigerian counterparts alienate the latter and undermine the cooperation they would need to succeed if they were competent and serious with their responsibilities.
It is for the above reasons that Manitoba has not performed creditably over its three-year contract. It is also why its key performance targets were not met; and why knowledge transfer has not occurred, as its local shadow directors are mostly without defined responsibilities.
Altogether, the Manitoba team, as presently constituted, lacks the expertise needed to superintend over the vast transmission network in Nigeria. The team has been dysfunctional at certain times during the contract. Most members of their management team were recruited specifically for the Nigerian project and had no prior work experience with the parent company in Canada. This negates the very essence of the contract which is to transfer the corporate culture in Manitoba Canada.
In short, Prof. Nnaji’s warning to the Federal Government against terminating the Manitoba contract amounts to an advocacy for rewarding failure. And while I admire his passion and commitment as a private power entrepreneur, I beg to disagree with him on this Manitoba issue.
Having lived in Canada, I am aware of how seriously the country takes performance. And I dare say that the type of poor performance Manitoba has exhibited so far in Nigeria would have earned it a sack in Canada which, though far richer than Nigeria, would rather not waste its resources to reward failure as Prof. Nnaji seems to recommend to Nigeria in the Manitoba case.
Besides, the irony of contracting Manitoba to solve Nigeria’s power transmission problems, while giving the impression, as Prof. Nnaji has done, that the problem cannot be solved by a government-owned company or can only be solved by a privately-owned organization, is that Manitoba is owned by the provincial government of Manitoba, one of ten such provinces in Canada. The company is fully publicly owned and not privatised.
And there are other countries like South Africa, where the nation’s power utility, Eskom, including its transmission network, is fully owned by government and efficiently managed under government control.
So those with vested interest in private power entrepreneurship in Nigeria like Prof. Nnaji, should not give the impression that it is the only way of achieving reliable power supply. Even the Manitoba example, as a government-owned Canadian company, disproves such impression.
With the obvious failure of the Manitoba experiment in Nigeria, we should resort to building our indigenous capacity to improve our power transmission network. By this, I mean using the expertise of Nigerians to do so as will be necessary with the ultimate exit of the Manitoba staff even if they had succeeded.
There is a limit to which any serious country can genuinely rely on expatriates to improve its destiny, especially if, like the Manitoba staff, the expatriates seem to have nothing at stake beyond their pay cheque. Their failure has vindicated the PHCN labour union in questioning their capacity. We must not reward such failure with a contract renewal.
•Elendu wrote from Enugu.