On March 21 this year, just as COVID-19 began to affect Nigeria seriously, there died in London a remarkable 87-year-old British man, Engineer Mr Christopher Robin de Kretser, MBE, DFH, C.Eng, FIET, FNIM, often affectionately known as ‘Baba NESCO’.
In early April, by which time Nigerians were beginning to wear masks and to refrain from shaking hands, a Service of Songs was held in his honour at the Chapel at Old Government House in Rayfield, Jos.
As Chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum, Plateau State Governor Simon Bako Lalong issued a message expressing a warm tribute to the deceased.
Mr de Kretser’s name may not sound very English; he explained that an ancestor came to England from Holland in the 1690s.
He was always and only a British citizen; but he became an institution in Nigeria.
Having obtained a Diploma at the prestigious Faraday House Electrical Engineering College in London, he came to this country in 1957 in his mid-twenties to work for NESCO, rising within the company to become, eventually, its Managing Director/CEO.
He thus lived in Nigeria and worked for NESCO for most of his working life.
He continued going to his office and working there until the very end, that is to say until he had to fly to London in March for medical attention.
Sadly, he did not come back from there.
With its headquarters in Bukuru, the town adjoining Jos to the south, NESCO had been established in 1929 as the first hydro-electric generation and supply company in Nigeria.
The company is well-known and appreciated in Plateau State for supplying electricity alongside the national grid.
It uses water for generation purposes from Kura Falls and three dams in the area south of Jos.
For several decades its operations were crucial to tin-mining operations in the Jos area.
During his long period of working with the company, Mr de Kretser was naturally concerned above all to use his engineering knowledge and skills to ensure smooth technical operations.
I remember that some years in February or March he expressed anxiety over the level of water in the dams, which after months without rain had become rather low.
Mr de Kretser was also an excellent manager of men and resources, and it seems that it was under his management that the ‘social’ role of the company came to the fore.
This was chiefly a matter of supplying electricity to all those who needed it, and NESCO thus became a major supplier of ‘light’ to both urban and rural communities in different parts of Plateau State.
Currently it has a total installed capacity of 26 megawatts, and provides power in seven Local Government Areas. .
I myself first heard of NESCO – though not yet of Mr de Kretser – when in the 1980s I joined the staff of the Federal College of Education, Pankshin.
I was dismayed on my arrival because for long periods there was no ‘NEPA’ and the College generator could supply electricity for only two hours in the evening.
But happily, after some time, we were connected to NESCO, and from then onwards the ‘light’ did not fail.
Mr de Krester was a distinguished example of that interesting phenomenon of modern history, the businessman-philanthropist.
He wanted his business to be profitable, he wanted the company to be and remain successful, but he was determined to use his position as the head of it (and eventually as its principal shareholder) to alleviate suffering, to raise people out of poverty, and in many practical ways to help individuals, who might or might not be company employees.
He had a particular concern for the less privileged or less fortunate in society, and on several occasions he donated money to schools and hospitals and for road construction or improvement.
His Secretary relates that, when together they once went to a church service in a rural area, and observed that it had a bare-earth floor, he told her to write a cheque on their return to headquarters for the floor to be cemented as soon as possible.
Nevertheless, Mr de Kretser was prudent, he was no soft touch.
A man very modest in his habits, he also knew that a business will not be successful if its proprietor merely wants to use it to enrich him- or herself.
He hated dishonesty, and he hated corruption.
Undoubtedly Mr de Kretser’s philanthropy was born out of his Christian faith.
Being a British man belonging to what in the early twenty-first century was ‘the older generation’, he had a deep and strong faith.
But he did not advertise it by talking about it.
That would lead to quarrels, and the great gentleman that he was disliked quarrels because they would disturb the pleasant evenness of social interaction.
One of the remarkable facts about him was that in 1992 he underwent a heart transplant operation, and survived for longer after it than any other person in Britain who had undergone a similar operation; for this reason his name was in the Guinness Book of Records.
When he told me the story of the operation he included this remarkable detail: that before he was taken to the theatre, a woman he had never seen before and who was not a nurse came to his bedside, assured him that he would come through the operation safely, and prayed for and with him.
To him this was a case of angelic intervention, and it seems that just as the successful operation gave him a new lease of life, that mysterious visit strengthened his faith.
It is a facile pun: but one could say that Mr de Kretser loved the company but also loved company.
Every Saturday, at least in later life, he liked to meet friends for lunch, often at the Elysar restaurant in Jos, and often playing host.
On Easter Monday every year he and his wife entertained friends to a buffet lunch at their house in Bukuru.
Moreover, and this is an example of his practical kindness, he would not only feed all his guests but also provide food for their drivers as well.
The drivers in fact constituted a kind of club, so that if, for example, one wanted to know when Mr de Kretser was returning from his latest visit to London, one could find out from the drivers’ grapevine.
When he did arrive, he would invariably send his driver with a fresh copy of a British newspaper to give to each of several friends.
Mr de Kretser was eminently ‘a good man in Africa’, to quote the title of a novel by William Boyd.
He loved Nigeria and its people, and derived immense satisfaction from seeking to bring greater happiness to the lives of many.
Employees of NESCO naturally have a special interest in remembering him; and the prayers of all his friends who have said ‘goodbye for now’ to him are that the company will continue to endure and prosper as his great legacy.
Along with the management and staff of NESCO and the Office of the Governor of Plateau State, condolences were expressed at the Service of Songs over the ‘exit of an icon’ by the Plateau State Ministry of Water Resources and Energy, the Ministry of Lands, Survey and Town Planning, Jos Electricity Distribution, the ITF, the Police Staff College, the 551 Nigerian Air Force Station, and the Nigeria Immigration Service.
Mr de Kretser is survived by his wife Virginia, his daughter Julia, and two grandsons.
David Jowitt is a Professor of English at the University of Jos.