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Monday, November 30, 2015

From NET to ntel: A tribute to Engr. VA Haffner



A wag once said that the death of a wise old man is akin to the burning down of a huge library.

That aphorism rings very true in the contemplation of the highly accomplished life of Engineer Victor Adetunji Haffner, FNSE, FAEng who passed away about a month ago and was committed to mother earth on Friday November 27, 2015.

For an industry player with over 20 years’ experience­­ on both the regulatory and operator sides of the fence, the name Engineer Haffner was a familiar and recurring one even though I did not have the pleasure of meeting the legend until a few months ago when I paid him a courtesy visit at his Ikoyi home in company of a colleague.

The visit was necessitated by a letter Engineer Haffner had sent to our office here at ntel. Following a publication in the newspaper requesting an audit of customers using fibre ducts of erstwhile NiTel and Mtel, the octogenarian had sent us a letter in which he expressed his happiness at the conclusion of the drawn-out acquisition process of the old NiTel.

In his letter, Engineer Haffner expressed his delight at NatCom’s emergence and eventual acquisition of NiTel/Mtel’s assets by the NatCom consortium via a guided liquidation process.

I read your notice in the publication of the Punch newspapers on Tuesday 7th July, 2015. I was very happy about your success in a matter which has dragged on for so many year.” “I was very happy about your success in a matter which has dragged on for many years,” he wrote.“I was very happy about your success in a matter which has dragged on for many years,” he wrote.“I was very happy about your success in a matter which has dragged on for many years,” he wrote.
Pa Haffner, as he was fondly referred to in the industry, was the first Nigerian to head a Telecoms company. He was CEO of Nigerian External Telecommunication Limited. 

A trained engineer, he began his career during the colonial era and climbing through the rungs, emerged at the pinnacle as the Chief Executive Officer of the Nigerian External Communications Limited in 1964 at the age of 49.

Engineer Haffner had a string of accomplishments under his belt, accomplishments that helped launch Nigeria into the modern telecommunications age. He was instrumental, as Contracting Officer, in the setting up of Nigeria’s first Satellite earth station at Lanlate, first in 1969 and then with an upgrade in 1972 for the Lanlate II Earth Station which was expected to provide commercial services via INTELSAT satellite in the Indian Ocean with the East African and Asian Telecommunication administrations.

As General Manager of NET Limited, Pa Haffner was thrust into the thick of Nigeria’s first coup d’etat as head of Nigeria’s communication company. His account of the heady days beginning January 16, 1966 and terminating in the counter coup makes for interesting reading in his published memoirs,– Memoirs on my Engineering Career and Reflections on Nigeria (1960 -1999)

In the book, Engineer Haffner who described himself as ‘a cat with nine lives’ having survived a terrible car crash and a vicious armed robbery attack at 78, recalls how he provided refuge for Chief Remi Fani Kayode after the coup and being present at meetings between important government functionaries like General Aguiyi Ironsi, Chief Adeniran Ogunsanya, Dr. Elias and Zana Buka Dipcharima.

His recollections of those exciting days read almost like fiction but are borne out by the political history of Nigeria as we know it.

Listening to Engineer Haffner speak one was struck by his intelligence, lucid recollections and expansive knowledge of the telecoms industry. What also became immediately evident was the fact that he was a man who had served his nation with diligence and commitment. 

He oversaw Satellite communications in Nigeria as part of the Syncom Project, ("synchronous communication satellite") an initiative of the United States of America’s NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) which pioneered Nigeria’s space project with the launch, in 1963, of an experimental satellite into orbit from Lagos.

Pa Haffner supervised, as Chief Executive Officer of NET Limited, the construction of the 32 storey NECOM House, a towering skyscraper built by Costain (West Africa) and which currently ranks as the tallest building in Lagos.

In 1990, fifteen years after his forced retirement, Engineer Haffner was drafted as a founding member of the nascent Nigerian Communications Commission (NCC), the brain child of Engineer Olawale Ige, the Federal Minister of Communications under President  Ibrahim Babangida.

The establishment of the commission was signed into law by Decree 75 of November 1992. Prior to this, Engineer Haffner had served previously as African president of the Administrative Council of the International Telecoms Union (ITU) and first president of the Council of Registered Engineers of Nigeria (COREN)

Engineer Haffner, even at the ripe old age of 96, exuded knowledge, affability, integrity as well as an abiding love and interest in the industry and a nation to which he had committed his whole life but his recollections were tinged with regret something he took out time to point out in his memoir where we read “I was shortlisted to be given national honour of OON in 2006 but did not show up in Abuja to receive the award because I considered it an insult. 

There are some people who perhaps passed the examination of unrecognized bodies and you give them Commander of the Federal Republic. If you can only give somebody who has achieved what I have achieved OON, the best thing is to forget the person.”

Inspite of the apparent regret and disappointment, Engineer Haffner evinced no trace of bitterness which was not surprising because many who knew him well either as a boss, mentor or industry legend speak about his kindness and integrity.

Go well, Pa Haffner and you will never be forgotten.

*Osondu C. Nwokoro is Director, External Affairs at ntel and wrote this from Lagos.
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