By Dennis Agbo
The Director General of Voice of Nigeria, VON, Mr. Osita Okechukwu recently led a delegation to Enugu government house, of investors who want to set up a coal power plant in the Coal City. In this interview, Okechukwu narrates the journey, challenges and the new hope of establishing a coal power plant in Enugu to contribute to the power needs of Nigeria.
Why was Enugu coal belts designated for generation of electricity?
This is because the federal government was looking for how best to generate more power, knowing that South Africa, China and others generate more than 60% of their electricity from coal. They considered that there are large coal deposits in Nigeria from Enugu, Benue, Kogi, Gombe, to Sokoto and why don’t we tap into this resource. Especially, when you consider that our over dependence on Gas power plants sometimes face the challenge of the restiveness in the Niger Delta. Thus while it is very important that we develop more Gas power plants, there is still need to have alternatives, more hydro power plants and even the micro hydro. The idea is how fast can Nigeria generate 40,000 mega watts whether via hydro, gas, coal, solar, or wind.
What were the challenges along the line of revamping Enugu Coal?
The 3D seismic study is important because it is deep coal mining. If it were surface coal mining you could use gravity like in Kogi, Gombe or Sokoto states but when you are going more than a kilometer deep you have to use the 3D seismic survey. The late paramount ruler of Agbaja, Chief Onyeama Onwusinkata went to England between 1907 and 1909 because of this same coal. He represented Enugu and signed the agreement between our people and British Coal. As Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi said is it not a paradox that we have on our mast number coal city and some of the kids born after the civil war had never seen a block of coal yet we are addressed as coal city? That is why we now said the best front is that Enugu state government, the federal government and the Simang Group should go into partnership once and for all to revamp Coal.
So it’s a tripartite arrangement?
It is not the partnership of assigning shares of numbers, but aiding Foreign Direct Investor like Simang. The control of Solid minerals is still in the hands of federal government of Nigeria, then the state is holding the custody, and now go into support partnership with Simang Group and while the President has agreed to give honest support to it.
Don’t you think that people in the South East would have wished it was a direct Federal government project?
No, the Federal Government has a policy of providing the enabling environment for private investors and not managing Coal enterprises. The issue of allocation or concession of the Coal blocks is in the hand of Federal Government. Don’t forget the Minister is a federal minister and not a state minister. All I am saying is that Coal is under the exclusive legislative list, which is under the purview of the federal government of Nigeria. Yes, there is agitation that it should not be but the constitution has not said otherwise. He made a commitment that based on his powers, that there should be development of Coal.
Will Simang Group first carry out the 3D seismic study before setting up the power plant?
You know South Africa is deep in coal mining industry, they said we should not bother that they will complete the study in less than six months, that what they need is access. You are talking about a mining country where about 90 percent of their electricity is through coal. They said they will carry out the study, do the mining and generate electricity.
Have all the legal and enabling environment been given to them?
They have gone round the ministries, it didn’t start today, it is just that we are bringing it face to face with people for the first time. The ministers of mines and power were in Enugu with the Governor and so it’s not today that it started but we know that in few months ahead their physical presence will be on the ground. If they know that if they spend one billion dollars that they won’t recover it, they won’t come.
At what point or date are we looking at to begin to see electricity generated through coal?
They have said that it won’t take them more than three years for electricity to be generated. It may not even get up to then.
Don’t you think they may run into hitches in distribution of the electricity they will generate such as Geometric power in Aba is currently facing the challenge?
I don’t think so. I think that Geometric has been allowed to operate according to the agreement reached with Federal Government. For the fact that President Muhammadu Buhari is not the talking type, he directed the Attorney General to look into the Geometric agreement, that Geometrics couldn’t have invested one kobo if there was no agreement. Even the minister for Power, Fashola, had made it open to the Discos that they have to allow some Gencos to key in without prejudice to the agreement they have already. So that is not going to be a problem.
Will Simang Group distribute the electricity when it generates?
No! No! I told you there is a law in place. There are distribution companies and there is transmission. Mr. President discovered that our transmission as it is today cannot accommodate the way we are going, both those that will come from solar, from hydros. The government is running helter shelter because evidence has shown that we cannot move forward without power. What they are thinking about is super transmission line.
Will the power generated through coal be transmitted into the national grid or will serve Enugu or south east states alone?
It’s going to be in a dual carriage way. The entire south east cannot consume 600 mega watts and you know their target is 1000 mega watts. So there must be the local side and the grid and that is why Mr. President is looking for how to expand the grid so that when the time comes, all of them will be joined together. By the time the power generations are aggregated we may have up to 10, 000 mega watts which is the target of government in the first phase and you know we have less than 4, 000 mega watts as of today.
Since we are going to resume coal mining, can’t we also think about exporting it to other countries other than just for power generation?
There are a lot of coal deposits in Nigeria which was the reason why Prof. Nnaji singled Enugu and Gombe out for generation of electricity. That does not mean that the Benue and Kogi coal cannot be used to generate electricity but these four belts in Enugu and the one in Gombe are committed to generating electricity.
What role are you playing in the federal government’s coal to power project in Enugu State?
Just a messenger! A messenger in the sense that when Mr. President came back from England in the course of our discussion, he said how far has the coal project gone? And I said not much has happened on the ground, but a lot has been done as well. He said how and I reminded him that since his directive, the Minister for Mines and Steel, Dr. J K Fayemi, had meetings with the Simang Group in South Africa and that from his own assessment it is a group we can work with because the journey for revamping Enugu coal is a very hectic one, hectic in the sense that it is deep mining and a mine which had been abandoned for long. That Simang has the financial and technical knowhow to survey, mine and generate electricity.
Are you the Nigerian partner of Simang Group?
No, I am not their Nigerian partner. Odilim Enwegbara of the Pan African Development Corporation is their partner. By virtue of my appointment, I am barred from commercial business, however as I said I have been on this coal issue for the past seven years. My interest was triggered off, first when Prof. Barth Nnaji as an Adviser to the then President formulated the road-map for power sector reform and placed coal as one of the sources of generating electricity and made sure that the four blocks in Enugu were singled out and designated – Okpara, Onyeama and the Amansiodo axis coal belts and the one in Gombe, were designated for generation of electricity.