Who is this Bart Nnaji?
Professor Bart Nnaji, Nigeria’s former Minister of Power who had also served as Minister of Science and Technology, was 60 years on July 13, but it was not celebrated till a month later because he was in the United States in discussions with investors like General Electric, the world’s foremost electric power equipment manufacturer. The celebration was grand. It was an assemblage of who is who in Enugu State, including Governor Ifeanyi Ugwuanyi, Deputy Senate President Ike Ekweremadu and old Anambra State governor Jim Nwobodo, as well as Ambassador Bianca Ojukwu, wife of the storied Biafran leader Emeka Odumegwu-Ojukwu. Yet, if Nnaji had his way, he would have marked this milestone in his eminently eventful life very quietly, and would have preferred the money spent on the ceremony given to the needy.
He was barely aware of the plan. His wife, Agatha, did everything in conjunction with a very small committee of relatives and friends led by Barrister Ugochukwu Agballah. They chose Nnaji’s sleepy and little known hometown of Umuode in Nkanu East Local Government Area as the venue. The venue could not have been more appropriate. Though Nnaji may be a global citizen in consideration of his prodigious achievements, he is, at heart, a homeboy who is probably happiest when he is in the village of his birth with his people, speaking the undiluted, rustic version of his Nkanu dialect which many young people, including those born and raised in the village, barely comprehend.
Nnaji is the first black man in American history to be bestowed with the title of Distinguished Professor of Engineering, the first African to become Director of the United States National Science Foundation-endowed Centre for Scientific Excellence, the first Nigerian to win the Baker Distinguished Research Award which is considered the equivalent of the Nobel prize in Industrial Engineering, the first African to write a book which was declared the best book in manufacturing engineering of the year throughout the world, the first Nigerian to be honoured by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as the African Scientist of the Year, the first Blackman to graduate as the best student of the year at St John’s University in New York which was then 120 years old, the first minister to come from Nkanuland in Enugu State, the first indigene of Enugu State to win the Nigerian National Order of Merit which is Nigeria’s highest honour for intellectual and artistic achievement, the first Nigerian to build a power plant, and the first minister to raise electricity generation in Nigeria to almost 5,000 megawatts and all of it was successfully put on the national grid, except some 300MW which served as spinning reserve, and so ensured unprecedented power supply across the country in 2012.
But there is an aspect of Nnaji’s life many Nigerians do not seem to know: a life of sacrifice. He lives almost entirely for the public. No sooner had he become a professor at less than 27 years of age in 1983 at the University of Massachusetts than he set up the Nnaji Foundation from which some 400 persons have benefitted. Some of the beneficiaries are today distinguished lawyers and other professionals. A lover of scholarship, Nnaji has awarded overseas scholarships for postgraduate studies to brilliant students who are today executives in places like Ford Motors and the Lagos Business School, and none of them is a member of his family. He has built houses for widows and paid the school and medical fees of numerous orphans and other indigent individuals. Just before the inception of democracy in 1999, there was a major crisis between his Umuode people and their neighbouring Oruku community which resulted in deaths and arson on a prodigious scale. The entire Umuode community went into exile, with a large number of people relocating to his expansive residence in GRA, Enugu city. His residence looked like a scene from Biafra. Nnaji fed and provided for the large number of people for years until peace was restored in their ancestral home.
When the residence of the parish priest of the Umuode Catholic Church was burnt, Nnaji wasted no time moving the priest to his own residence where he still lives. Needless to state, he is the pillar of St Rita’s Church, Umuode. At a thanksgiving mass to mark his 60th birthday on Sunday, August 14, Pope Benedict fittingly gave him Apostolic Blessings, that is, a special prayer in recognition of Nnaji’s extraordinary contributions to societal progress and faith growth. In Nnaji one sees a human manifestation of the scriptural saying that there is no love greater than the fact that a man should lay down his life for the benefit of his people (John 15: 13).
By writing this tribute in the media, I know I must be embarrassing Nnaji. He is genuinely humble and does not want the public to know of his philanthropy. He takes seriously the words of the scripture that the left hand should not know what the right hand is doing when you give to the needy (Matthew 6:3). I know of his philanthropy because of our special relationship. And I am making public this part of Nnaji’s devotion to the common good in his capacity as a private individual simply to challenge and inspire other successful people.
Philanthropy is not just a personal virtue. It is even a good business strategy, part of what is now called corporate social responsibility (CSR). It is a civic responsibility and vital for eternal life. Indeed, participants in Nnaji’s grand 60th birthday celebration were not so keen on the erstwhile minister’s intimidating personal achievements as on his solidarity with his people, especially the downtrodden. To a lot of people in Nkanuland and elsewhere, Nnaji is the Mother Teresa they know, feel and touch. Truly, his has been a life of sacrificial love.
I join millions of people in saying to Nnaji CON, FAS, FAEng, D.Sc, Onwa Nkanu and Akajioku of Igboland, a global citizen who thinks home, on the attainment of 60 years on earth ad multus annos.
Onovo is the judge of the Enugu State High Court.