Bartholomew Nnaji: Lighting Up Dark Paths

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By Emeka Chiaghanam

 With the turn of the century, Nigeria’s bad experience with power supply grew worse, ‘UP NEPA’ thunders the air in jubilation whenever power supply is restored, which often doesn’t last long before another power cut sets in, but one man came with the vision to make light outshine darkness. He was Berth Nnaji.

To Nnaji, who founded Geometric Power, Nigeria’s first indigenous power development company, it shames and embarrasses to see, even adults shout ‘Up NEPA,’ the acronym for the former national electric power company.  He frowns when many homes connected to national  grid have lived with no glimpse of light for months and yet pay for darkness. Nnaji wanted drastic change but unfortunately, some powerful forces frustrated his efforts.

Nnaji, who became a professor at the age of 27, lived almost entirely for the public, one of the innovators of the E-design concept, where product design Engineers can work from remote locations collaboratively to design, assemble and test the same product, using the computer and internet, hails from Enugu State.

Recalling his interest in engineering, “as far back as I can remember, I have always wanted to become an engineer. I was good at mathematics and other science subjects, so it was a given that I would tilt towards this particular direction. I also found that people loved and admired kids who were proficient in mathematics so I was well encouraged.”

In his bid to tackle corruption and inefficiency in the power sector, he ruffled feathers with the reforms he attempted to implement and that angered civil servants likely to lose their jobs. On the other hand, wealthy businessmen who import generators also criticised his plans to sell 11 distribution and six-generation companies as part of a privatisation initiative.

Armed with a Bachelor of Science degree in physics at St John’s University, New York, USA, he proceeded to the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University for his Masters and PhD in Engineering. He also obtained a Post Doctorate Certificate in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT. He joined the faculty at University of Massachusetts Amherst in 1983. After a few years, he became the director and founder of Automation and Robotics Laboratory at the University and was made a professor of mechanical and industrial engineering in 1992.

Berth Nnaji. and power
Berth Nnaji.

In 1993, Prof Nnaji took a leave of absence from the university and came back to Nigeria to serve as Federal Minister of Science and Technology. Returning to United States after his brief ministerial tenure, he went back to the world of academia where he was made ALCOA Foundation Distinguished Professor of Engineering University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1996. He subsequently was appointed the William Kepler Whiteford Professor of Engineering, at the University of Pittsburgh, USA, where he also served as the Founding Director of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for e-Design – a five University-campus NSF Center of Excellence in e-design. He officially left the University and returned to Nigeria in 2007.

In 2010, he served as Special Adviser to the President on Power, and Chairman of the Presidential Task Force on Power. Prof. Nnaji made his mark when he created a roadmap that was acknowledged worldwide as the way to go. This roadmap brought about a parliamentary act to a tactical implementable level. It also showed investors how they could go about their investments in the sector. A post he held until he became Nigeria’s Minister of Power in 2011, and resigned in August 2012.

Following his resignation as a result of stepping on powerful toes that resisted his bold initiative, the Economist magazine in its article titled “A Bright Spark is Extinguished” stated that Prof. Nnaji’s supporters say that opponents of privatisation belatedly and unfairly engineered his departure. “Nnaji was the best person for the job,” says an adviser at the presidential task-force on the reform of power. “But he was getting in the way of other interests.”

A lover of scholarship, Nnaji has run the Nnaji Foundation since 1983 from which over 500 persons have benefitted, with scores of the beneficiaries distinguishing themselves in various fields.

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