By Joe Brock
ABUJA (Reuters) - Nigeria's former power minister, who resigned after reports he part owned a company involved in bidding for state electricity assets, said on Wednesday he had stepped down to protect the integrity of himself and the president, but denied wrongdoing.
The resignation on Tuesday of one of President Goodluck Jonathan's key cabinet ministers came just two months before the preferred bidders are announced for state electricity assets. Jonathan has flagged the power privatisation as a key reform.
Economists and investors say a lack of power is one of the biggest brakes on growth in Africa's second biggest economy. Chronic power shortages are an everyday headache for Nigerians.
Nigerian newspapers on Tuesday reported that Barth Nnaji had inappropriately held a stake in Geometric, a company involved in bidding for two of the state power assets being sold as part of an overhaul of the dilapidated and corrupt electricity sector.
The presidency later announced Nnaji had resigned.
Nnaji said on Wednesday he did have a stake in Geometric but said it was above board, adding he felt it better to resign.
He said powerful vested interests trying to block the privatisation were behind what he called "scurrilous attacks" against him.
"This resignation is also to ensure that there is no spillover of these attacks to the president who is working very hard to transform the nation," Nnaji said in a statement.
Nnaji said he stepped down as director of Geometric before he became minister and put his shares in a blind trust, which meant he had no knowledge of the company's decisions.
When he found out Geometric were involved he announced it publicly and distanced himself from the selection process on the assets the company was bidding on, his statement said.
Nnaji said he would return to working in the power sector.
It is highly unusual for Nigerian politicians to resign over conflicts of interest in a country that still ranks low on the Transparency International corruption perceptions index.
Minister of Information Labaran Maku said on Wednesday the resignation "was to enforce the credibility of the privatisation process following issues of conflict of interests."
Nigeria plans to sell off 11 distribution and six generation companies with preferred bidders due to be announced on October 23.
The government is hoping to produce 6,000 megawatts of power by the end of this year, up from around 4,000 currently. This would only scratch the surface of the estimated 40,000 megawatts needed, which they hope to reach by 2020.
(Additional reporting by Felix Onuah; Editing by Tim Cocks and Jon Hemming)