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Alhaji Ibrahim Sani Bello: A Rising Star in Nigeria’s Power Sector  By Keem Abdul

Read Time:11 Minute, 17 Second

The generation to which at least 65% of Nigerians belong has been described as ‘The Generator Generation.’ That term encapsulates the state of electricity supply in the country, and the lengths to which the people have had to go to enjoy the benefits therefore – benefits that citizens of many other countries (including those who were hitherto on the same developmental trajectory as Nigeria) have since learned to take for granted. If there is any one sector that is crying for reform ‘like yesterday’, it is the power sector. To be sure, EVERY single sector in the Nigerian economy is in dire need of urgent, comprehensive and far-reaching reforms designed to position it as a driver of growth – or at least, stability. But there is no denying the fact that reform in the power sector in particular, if faithfully carried out, would transform – nay, revolutionize – the country’s entire economy and launch the country more fully from the margins to the mainstream of the modern industrial world.  

Truth be told, though: the story of electricity in Nigeria (a chequered one, to say the least) began with generators. The story began in Lagos in 1886, with the use of generators to provide 60 kilowatts, following which, in 1892, tin miners in Jos (in what is now Plateau State) installed a 2-megawatt plant on the Kwali River. It was not until 1923 that the country’s first electricity firm, a private organization known as the Nigerian Electricity Supply Company (NESC) was established. The NESC powered the mining industry in Jos and its environs from a hydroelectric plant located just outside the city. This was followed soon after by another private enterprise in Sapele, Delta State. Owned by the United Africa Company (UAC), it powered the activities of the African Timber and Plywood Company in that town. 

Still, between 1886 and 1945, electric power generation was concentrated in Lagos and the mining cities of Jos and Enugu. In a bid to modernize and expand the scope of power supply in the country, the colonial government created an electricity department within the Public Works Department with a mandate to install generating sets in various cities to serve Government Reservation Areas (GRAs) and commercial interests. In the 1950s, the government eventually established the country’s first national service provider, the Electricity Corporation of Nigeria (ECN), which, between 1952 and 1960, established coal-powered turbines in two strategic locations, Oji in what is today’s Imo State, and Ijora in Lagos. Shortly after Nigeria’s attainment of independence, the ECN completed a 132 kV transmission line linking Lagos to Ibadan via Shagamu, and in 1965, this line was extended to Oshogbo, Benin, and Ughelli in what was known then as the Western System. 

The formation of the Niger Dams Authority (NDA) by the Nigerian government in 1962 saw the building and maintenance of dams along the River Niger and the Kaduna River, and the commissioning of a 320 MW hydropower plant at Kainji (now in Niger State) in 1969. Three years later, the NDA and ECN were merged to form the National Electric Power Authority (NEPA), which served as the major electricity firm in Nigeria until power sector reforms during the administration of President  Olusegun Obasanjo resulted in the creation of the Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) and the privatization of electricity generation and distribution in the country. 

Nigeria currently has just over twenty power-generating plants connected to the national grid with the capacity to generate 11,165.4 MW of electricity. These plants are managed by Generation Companies (GenCos) with varying respective capacities, as well as the Niger Delta Holding Company and independent service providers. Electricity generated by these GenCos is used to power the grid through the Transmission Company of Nigeria (TCN) and distributed from TCN to the primary substations run by Distribution Companies (or DisCos), then to the secondary distribution system, and finally to the end-users.

The amount of power these companies generate, transmit and distribute – in terms of megawatts (MW) – is, however, far short of what is needed to meet basic household and industrial needs in Nigeria. For years now, distribution has hovered between 5,000 MW and slightly more (and in many cases, less), a figure which is light years away from the 40,000 MW needed to sustain the basic needs of a country with a population of over 200 million. It is a huge deficit indeed, which has over the years been exacerbated by such challenges as unannounced load shedding, partial and total system collapse, and chronic power failure. One of the low points in Nigeria’s battle with chronic electricity shortage – which summed up its perennial struggle with the monster of outages – was recorded in 2022, when the national grid reportedly collapsed TWICE in the space of just one week! So, to meet demand, many households and businesses resort to purchasing generating sets to power their homes and businesses. 

The causes of these failures – and the huge supply deficit – are too numerous to mention here. Suffice it to say, however, that they have to do with technical, infrastructural and maintenance issues – but also with systemic and HUMAN failures. To be sure, the sector also needs significant investment to achieve a reliable power supply; in fact, industry operators estimate that the country will require as much as $100b in investment over the next 20 years just to maintain current services.  The World Bank is financing a $486m credit to support the rehabilitation and upgrade of Nigeria’s electricity transmission substations and lines with a view to expanding the power transmission network and capacity, allowing distribution companies to improve reliability and supply to consumers. But any serious attempt at reforms would have to take cognisance of all the two aforementioned factors: systemic and human.

As a new administration under President Bola Ahmed Tinubu settles down to tackle the challenges in the electric power sector in a bid to harness and maximize its enormous potential, industry stakeholders agree that there is a need to assemble a capable, dynamic and visionary core of drivers in terms of policy formulation and effective and timely implementation, who are equipped with both the requisite knowledge of the industry in all its ramifications, proven capacity in terms of experience and expertise, and a readiness and ability to meet (and even exceed) global best practices and standards in the sector. They also agree that this core of drivers and change agents must be led by an individual with an overarching vision to position the Nigerian power sector ahead of the curve in terms of leveraging on power as critical infrastructure to position the Nigerian economy for global competitive advantage – especially in these days of climate action, just energy transitions, net-zero targets, renewable energy sources, and so forth. 

Against the backdrop of heightened expectations for the new administration as far as the power sector is concerned, not a few industry stakeholders have noticed the giant strides that have been recorded over the years by Alhaji Ibrahim Sani Bello. His accomplishments in the sector speak not just of capacity and expertise, but also of a consuming passion – the kind that drives a man to dare the seemingly impossible. Currently a Director at the Jos Electricity Distribution Company, Bello is also a Director at Highland Distribution Company (which holds a 51% stake in the Jos Electricity Distribution Company), as well as Allstream Energy Solutions Limited. A Law graduate of the University of Maiduguri, Ibrahim Sani Bello also holds an MBA from the University of Wales in Cardiff, UK. Since his return to Nigeria, and his completion of the mandatory one-year course at the Nigerian Law School, this brilliant technocrat has had sterling work and professional career across sectors. His spell as the Managing Director of Allstream Energy Solutions Limited (a company specialising in telecommunication infrastructure-managed services, as well as sales and distribution of petroleum products and haulage and logistics services) was followed by his equally meritorious stewardship as Project Co-ordinator and one of the promoters and founding Directors at Mainstream Energy Solutions Limited – in which capacity he successfully won the concession of the Kainji and Jebba Hydro Power Stations, which is currently the largest Hydropower Generation Company in Nigeria, during the Federal Government’s landmark privatization scheme in 2013. He also served as the Project Coordinator and one of the promoters of Quest Electricity Limited (owners of a 51% stake in the Yola Electricity Distribution Company). 

Bello’s vast knowledge of the nuances and nitty-gritty of power generation and distribution comes from a long-standing immersion in the sector that goes beyond just his education and training – which doesn’t come as a surprise, considering that his father is also an accomplished investor and long-standing corporate player in the electric power industry. The said father is none other than the retired Colonel Sani Bello, an elder statesman and former Army officer who served as a one-time Military Governor of the old Kano State (comprising of today’s Kano and Jigawa States) from 1975 to 1978. The senior Bello’s vast business interests, since his retirement from the Nigerian armed forces, span the oil, telecommunications and electricity sectors. Popularly referred to as ‘Marshall’, Col. Bello is a proud and enthusiastic supporter of his son’s trailblazing strides in the industry.  

This support is expected to become even more palpable in the coming days, given the widespread speculations surrounding the younger Bello’s expected role in the implementation of the Tinubu Administration’s comprehensive power master plan  – perhaps, more likely than not, as Minister of Power. If, as his ardent and numerous supporters across the nation hope, he is named Minister in this critical sector, Ibrahim Sani Bello will definitely not lack for wise counsel (and no small amount of unvarnished truth-telling) from his illustrious father – a man who has been there, done that, and lived to tell the story. 

Apart from his learning and family heritage as far as the power sector is concerned, Ibrahim Sani Bello’s allegiance to the ideals of the ruling party, the All Progressives Congress (APC) since its early days as a fledgling political movement, also speak of strength of character and fidelity to one’s convictions irrespective of the season. A leader determined to make progress where it matters usually finds men who combine intellectual sagacity, a solid pedigree and unflinching loyalty to the cause, an invaluable asset. One suspects that President Tinubu, who has built a career out of identifying leadership mettle and creating a platform for it to shine, will be drawn to men such as Alhaji Ibrahim Sani Bello. 

If he does get saddled with the Nigerian power ministry as its new helmsman, Ibrahim Sani Bello will need every bit of the experience and expertise he has garnered over the years, given the complex dynamics of the country’s electric power sector. Currently, electricity generation in Nigeria is mostly via hydro and thermal sources – with thermal claiming the lion’s share of installed capacity. However, incoming policymakers might find themselves under a measure of pressure to begin to initiate a transition towards renewable sources of energy – in the spirit of the Renewable Energy Master Plan,  which the Federal Government initiated back in 2006 in a bid to increase the share in the total power supply of such alternative sources as wind, solar, biomass, small hydro – including mini-grids, and, to some extent, coal) – from their current combined figure of 13% of total installed generation capacity in 2015, to an expected 23% in 2025, and 36% by 2030. With local companies working to fill this gap, there is high demand for equipment such as solar panels, installation equipment, distribution equipment, and batteries. Therefore, the Ministry of Power, in conjunction with regulators such as the Nigeria Bulk Electricity Trader (NBET), System Operator (SO), and the Nigeria Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC, which is the sole regulatory body overseeing the sector), as well as foreign development partners and intergovernmental agencies will have to come up with solutions that match the urgency of the moment. 

There is also the argument being made for a greater role in power generation and distribution by sub-national governments (ie states and LGAs) which in the past had been subject to constitutional constraints. Clearly, those constraints no longer serve any useful purpose and must be dismantled to give these entities greater generating/distribution capacity and latitude. 

In the final analysis, the key challenge, as far as the man on the street is concerned, is that Nigeria does not have a reliable, consistent supply of electricity. THERE IS NO LIGHT. Where supply seems to be stable (at least by Nigerian standards) the user has to navigate the sometimes outrageous tariffs – especially through the vexed system of estimated billing (as opposed to the much sought-after alternative, namely, prepaid metering). Nigerians, therefore, expect the incoming government to expedite the actualisation of the mandate of Metering Asset Providers (MAP) in line with the 2018 Meter Asset Provider (MAP) Regulation, which provided that 3rd-party MAPs are going to be primarily responsible for providing metering services. 

The Nigerian power sector presents a whole bucket list of monsters to take on. But not a few industry stakeholders agree that if there is one man with the intellectual depth, industry experience and clinical expertise to wrestle those monsters to the ground, that man is Alhaji Ibrahim Sani Bello. 

Not only does he have what it takes, but he also has a ‘Marshall’ of a father – an industry titan, no less – to cheer him on, and sometimes, to set him straight.

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