Without a deliberate intention of working in the energy sector, Ifey Ikeonu found the industry enticing enough to take a permanent position at the then State-owned Nigerian Electricity Power Authority (NEPA), which launched an almost three decade career. ESI Africa caught up with Ifey on how her legal skills have proven resourceful to developing a thriving electricity market in Nigeria and the region.
Your journey from inhouse counsel at NEPA to the Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC), and subsequently to the exciting opportunity to build up the ECOWAS Regional Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERERA) must have been inspiring and daunting at the same time. Ifey, tell us a bit about how this came about.
At the time of graduating, I undertook the national youth service (a one-year post-graduation service compulsory for all Nigerian graduates under the age of thirty) with NEPA and decided to stay when offered a permanent post. The primary role was to provide legal advisory services to the Authority, which included the negotiation and drafting of several key agreements including power purchase and gas supply agreements. Providing corporate secretarial services to the Board and serving as Secretary of the NEPA Staff Housing Scheme Committee, gave me the opportunity to impact positively on the lives of many staff by creating opportunities for them to own their homes.
Following the commencement of the implementation of the power sector reform programme in Nigeria, I left NEPA in 2005 to take up appointment as one of the pioneer staff at the newly created Nigerian Electricity Regulatory Commission (NERC). Here, the role included setting up the Legal, Licensing & Enforcement Division and together with a team, to develop the licensing regulations as well as the Business Rules of the Commission on its Hearings and Proceedings. Other career privileges included setting up the Strategy & Project Management Office and in 2010 being fortunate to be appointed as one of the three pioneer Commissioners to start off ERERA.
I took over the chairmanship of ERERA in 2015, and played that role until April 2016 when my tenure as a Commissioner came to an end. Even though I have worked in different segments of the industry, I have enjoyed my role as a regulator most – because it focuses on the area of good governance, an issue I am very passionate about.
What have been the challenges and successes that you have experienced during your career that have motivated or surprised you?
I think one of the biggest challenges of working with the power sector in West Africa is the slow pace of infrastructure development and access to electricity in spite of the amount of effort undertaken by various stakeholders to accelerate development. Indeed countries, like Nigeria, have not only embarked on radical reform programmes, but have also spent considerable capital to bridge the gap between supply and demand and yet, the issue remains largely unsolved. The huge disparity in the development of the power sector in the 15 ECOWAS member states has also proved a huge challenge even in achieving minimum levels of harmonisation. The regional market will do much better when the respective national electricity markets are also doing well. Nonetheless, there exists a lot of political will on the regional level to make things work, which has made it possible to still achieve a number of successes.
Personally, I am thankful for the opportunity I had to pioneer a number of new initiatives both in Nigeria and in the West Africa region and to play a key role in laying the right foundation for these initiatives. ERERA is one of the very first regional utility regulators in the world and really had very little precedent to fall back on in making the organisation functional and effective, which meant that we had to be quite innovative. We were able to develop the Directive on the Organisation of the ECOWAS Regional Electricity Market, which after approval by the ECOWAS Council of Ministers in 2013, served as a catalyst for the reform and development of the power sector in various member states.
Again, the fact that we were able to put in place the key documents for the take-off of the regional market such as the Regional Market Rules, the transmission pricing methodology as well as the West African Power Pool (WAPP) Operational Manual, amongst others, was a big achievement. Being able to put in place a working collaboration among all the ECOWAS energy institutions, other regulatory bodies and associations across the world, as well as our developmental partners, made it a lot easier to accomplish our mandate.
Who were your mentors and how did they inspire you in the choices you made that brought you to where you are today?
Inspiration has come mostly from those who have believed in my abilities and spurred me on to be the best that I can. My late father, Eng. Chuma Dillibe, was a major inspiration as he gave me the confidence to believe that I could achieve anything I set my mind to. As a young girl, he gave me responsibilities far beyond my age and did not share in the general belief that roles were gender-based; he knew his daughters and son were equally capable. He was an avid reader who encouraged me to read widely and now I am a life-long learner, always seeking to learn something new. Career wise, I had a great boss, who was also my mentor, when I started working as a young lawyer in what was then a predominantly male organisation at the professional level. He was the Secretary/ Legal Adviser and was a great role model as he took time to build me up professionally. He believed that your impact must be positively felt in any role you undertake, otherwise you have no business being in that role. He was not just professional in his work but was an empathic leader who cared about staff members and sought to improve us personally and professionally.
These early influences made it possible for me to stay focused on always putting in my best and believing that no barrier was unsurmountable. More importantly, I learnt that you can only get the best from people when you value them for who they are and help them invest in self-development; and that in all cases, everyone deserves to be treated decently and with due respect.
Tell us about the current situation in West Africa’s electricity sector and how this has developed over the years.
West Africa as a region has one of the lowest access rates to electricity with the average access rate at approximately 40%. This figure however does not immediately reflect the diversity in the development of the power sector on a country-to-country basis. For instance, Cape Verde enjoys about 96% access to electricity, Liberia on the other hand has only a 10% access rate. The paradox in this scenario is the fact that West Africa has tremendous natural resources for power generation ranging from solar to hydro, wind, nuclear, coal and of course its huge natural gas reserves. It is this inability to translate this potential into actual energy, that was the core reason for ECOWAS to agree as a regional bloc to come together to harness these resources for the greater good and development of the region. This led to the adoption of the ECOWAS Energy Protocol as well as the creation of three institutions and agencies: namely, the West African Power Pool (WAPP); the ECOWAS Regional Electricity Regulatory Authority (ERERA) as well as the ECOWAS Centre for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency (ECREEE).
These three bodies working together have been able to assist ECOWAS member states to work cohesively towards the take-off of the regional electricity market as well as take comprehensive steps to ensure the rapid deployment of renewable energy into the energy-mix portfolio of the various countries. So far, the Directives on the organisation of the regional electricity market issued by the ECOWAS Council of Ministers have helped to fast-track the reform of the electricity sector in all member states in compliance with the Directives and have led to the establishment of independent regulators in virtually all the ECOWAS member states.
WAPP is also working assiduously on various interconnection projects and we are poised to see an increase in the amount of cross-border electricity trading. ERERA continues to offer regulatory oversight to all of these activities and is finalising the remainder of the documents needed for the effective operation of the regional electricity market. ECREEE has also developed a renewable energy policy, which has been approved by the Council of Ministers; and all member states are working towards achieving the 10% renewable energy target for grid connections and 22% of off-grid systems by the year 2020.
There is certainly still a lot more that needs to be done but the good news is that countries are taking steps in the right direction, learning from their mistakes or those of others and keeping in focus the need to realise the sustainable energy for all targets by the year 2030.
You played an active role in the power sector reform programme in Nigeria – what did you find particularly challenging or surprisingly easy?
I think most people generally resist change at first and I guess that is based mostly on the fear of the unknown. For Nigeria’s reform programme, this was no exception. It was a privilege to serve on the board committee for legal and regulatory issues in the early days. The challenge was drafting the then Electric Power Sector Reform (EPSR) Bill along with the consultants tasked with this responsibility, which took quite a while to reach the final version as multiple stakeholder consultations had to take place to get the right buy-in. Even after the final version of the Bill was sent to Legislature, there was still a bit of delay before it was passed into law. The entire process took about five years to complete. The EPSR Act is by and large a good document albeit with a couple of issues that may need to be amended.
Unfortunately, even though the Act provided sufficient guides and timelines for the commencement and conclusion of certain critical activities in furtherance of the reform agenda, those activities were not implemented as envisaged. The delay and subsequent rush in carrying out some of the activities have today led to unresolved issues in the operations of the Nigerian electricity market. Consequently, the expectations of the general public and other key stakeholders with respect to the outcome of the reform programme remain largely unmet today and it remains a major challenge for the key institutions responsible for the power sector to ensure that these issues are resolved as quickly as possible.
Based on the previous question – how has this since developed, what could have been done differently and how has this impacted on the ECOWAS region?
The lesson to be learnt from the power sector reform programme is the importance of not just having a holistic plan in place, but also ensuring that the plan is implemented to the letter. The challenge with the power sector is that in order to achieve results, a lot of sustained long-term planning is necessary. Governments should be encouraged to keep politics out of the electricity sector because each time an approved plan is thwarted, it takes the sector back a number of years and also impacts negatively on investor confidence. We have been advocating for a lot more private sector participation in the power sector and investors will only bring in money when they are aware of the rules of the game and they are also assured that those rules will not be changed mid-way. There is also the need for a gradual and targeted approach in the reform sector. Countries as well as utilities are all different and all these must be taken into account in deciding what will likely work best on a case-by-case basis.
Nigeria is by far the biggest county in the ECOWAS region and has the potential of being the largest net exporter of electricity to the region. The success of the regional electricity market is largely dependent on the success of Nigeria’s power sector reform programme especially as it is the first country in the region to embark on a fullscale privatisation programme.
What are your top three predictions for the energy market in Africa in the next five years?
Renewable energy generation will increase substantially and will be the primary source of energy for most rural communities in subSaharan Africa. There will be an increase in cross-border electricity trading, prompted by the increased renewable generation capacity. The AfDB’s New Deal on Energy programme will go a long way in boosting private sector investment and development partner-assisted projects in the region. Everything considered the future for the African energy market is looking quite attractive.
What is your personal vision for the energy sector in Africa and what legacy do you wish to leave behind?
My vision is for an energy sector in Africa that is at the heart of driving economic development and transformation of the entire continent. No region can attain sustainable growth without energy and as such, Africa’s success remains at the behest of an equally progressive energy sector. The energy sector (especially governance) in sub-Saharan Africa is one sector where the results are slow in appearing. Having invested my efforts into ensuring that things are not only done well, but also transparently according to set rules, I am all for due process, accountability and integrity in doing business. Even though these are not tangible, I think they lie at the core of achieving material developments. Leaving a legacy of service, integrity and accountability, not only here but more importantly, before God, is my goal.
Lastly, what words of encouragement do you have for women wanting to enter the energy sector, and for any women currently in the industry?
Go in with a vision of being the best in your field and attaining the pinnacle. This requires a lot of hard work, great values and a positive attitude: women in the industry therefore have to be prepared to bear these in mind and remain focused. Do not listen to those negative voices that say that you cannot aspire to be all you can. Build positive professional relationships and networks, as you will need these as you move along. Remember always, that with God, nothing is impossible and if others have succeeded, so can you! ESI
Featured image: Briefing former President of Ghana, John Dramani Mahama, on the development of the ECOWAS Regional Electricity Market
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