‘No country can develop in reasonable pace without professionals’
THE Association for Consulting Engineering in Nigeria (ACEN) has been in forefront of calling for strict adherence to the rules guiding the engagement of foreign firms in the nation’s construction industry. What are these rules and expectations from government?
Well, it is an issue, we have been discussing and fashioning out measures and strategies to tackle it. Everybody says the world is a global village, so frankly it is difficult to say other countries should not come into Nigeria to practice their occupation and profession. We do know, though that every part of the world has different ways they promote and protect their profession. What we are then doing is to say; there must be a structured manner in which we can protect the profession of engineering, Nigerian economy and the society. We are not saying that others from other climes like Americans, Indians or British should not come, we are saying, they should come in a structured manner. There are certain things Nigeria is self sufficient in, Nigeria should then take advantage of its resources and utilise them fully. So, things Nigerian engineers can do, there is no need for the British and Americans to come and do those things. It is a waste of their time and our resources. So, what we are then saying is that government should evolve a policy or policies that will decide the structure of development or guidance and promotion of the engineering sector. We don’t think anybody benefits any thing, if people come here from outside or other parts of the world to be designing and building bungalows or one-storey buildings. There is no need Nigerian should not be self-sufficient in that area. Of course, there are other areas, where we may not be self sufficient like construction of 100 storey building, there might be need to take advantage of resources and technology from other parts of the world. So, our suggestion to government is that, they should streamline these things, let see what Nigerians can do, let Nigerians do them, and what Nigerians need support and cooperation to do, let us identify those things. Our own agenda is similar to that of the architects, as a matter of fact, about four months ago, we had a press conference at the Engineering Centre in Lagos, we have the same feelings and share the same views that the things Nigerians can do, let Nigerians do them. The ones we need assistance, let’s decide how we can get that assistance.
I thought there were some policy guidelines on the involvement of foreign professionals in the built environment?
But those guidelines, are they adhered to? In 1995, the Obasanjo administration came up with a set of guidelines for the strategic development of engineering in Nigeria. That says, all projects below the cost of N500 million should be done by Nigerians, such as consultancy on construction. But I can tell you that there are projects below N200 million being done by people from other parts of the world. Those guidelines are being promoted in the breach really and not strictly adhered to. We all should take the blame for these failure, both government and engineers. If government said, these are the guidelines, perhaps, we should have moved on to say, let see how we can make these guidelines into laws. When people break guidelines, you can’t hold them to it, but if they are laws of the land, it is very difficult to do it and get away with it. Now, we all have moved on both engineers and government.
In the oil and gas industry, there are laws that tend to state those things in practical terms like anything that has to do with engineering, shipping and various aspects, must largely be done by Nigerians. So, we understand that the consulting engineering in the oil and gas industry, some aspects and specifically the front end engineering and preliminary aspects is been done up to 80 per cent in Nigeria. It is a step forward. They used to do them abroad and bring it here and carry out the design works. The next step is to see that Nigerians are doing it in Nigeria. We are moving gradually and making progress. We are saying that what is happening in the oil and gas industry, which is quite exoteric; is the height of engineering development and should be emulated in the construction sector, especially in building and road maintenance. There should be a systematic programme to move it from one sector to another, allow engineers to engage in project ideas, conceptualization, feasibility and viability examinations as well as detailed project planning, prepare final designs and engineering documentation. We are saying, let us start doing things by ourselves and have governments that recognize engineers. We don’t know too many countries in the world, where they have developed in reasonable pace and cost without involving their professionals.
Don’t you think the Public Procurement Process is faulty and should be overhauled?
What does the procurement process want to do? To ensure that goods and services are procured in a timely manner, efficiently and at good cost as well as ensure we get value for money. Frankly, is it supposed to be for engineers, it supposed to be for all Nigerians, so that Nigerians can make the best use of their money and their resources. Now, the question should be, are engineers happy about the procurement process?
Yes, engineers are happy about it, because it is attempting to work to make resources utilised in the best manner. There are still areas of the public procurement process that needs fine-tuning or improvement. It says, that you must do these things in a manner, but if there are breaches, there is specified punishment. Now, am not aware of the process of punishing those who have committed breaches. I know that Nigerians have not just become saints over night. All types of breaches are still going on, and what makes laws work very well are to identify infringements and punish people immediately. I think that is the area that there is a shortfall. Again, public procurement agency says, if there are breaches among engineers, let’s know about them, well, when we know about them, we than start to punish the culprits. Basically, am reluctant to blame any particular person. I want to blame the system than blame people. Our system says, that if any body infringes against the law, he should be punished. When you have a law, and you don’t punish, that law is what you call a toothless bulldog.
I think, public procurement agency with our support and everybody’s support needs to step up and do a good job and ensure that infringements are identified and punished.
With what you’re saying, engineers seem to be marginalised to a large extent. How then can we promote greater use of indigenous consultants?
Give them jobs to do, encourage them to be more trained, and give them opportunities to be better and you will find that you will get more value from them. They learnt everything in school that the man from China, America or the man from India learnt. You know learning is the first stage; the next one is what you do with the learning. Principally, if you’re a 20-year in practice engineer, you can’t be compared with a one-year-old professional. But you will be at the level if you had not the opportunity to practice what you have learnt over time. It is not Ghana or Ivory Coast that will be give them the opportunities, it is the Nigerian system that will give them the opportunities. We all get better by doing it. Trust them, and give them opportunities to improve. The fear may be that houses are collapsing, but houses collapse any where in the world, we have examples here where houses have been completed in the United States, they were going there to commission it, it collapsed. Some bridges have been finished and cars were going on it, it collapsed. Why is collapsing? Is it the fault of the engineer? Perhaps, it may the fault of so many people. It could be procurement process for the project. We will make those mistakes and correct those mistakes.
Does the use local consultants ensure sustainable projects?
Obviously, you know getting project done very well has many components, the design must be good, the builder must be good, and everybody, particularly the builder must understand the environment. There are some materials we use in England that you’re not advised to use in Nigeria. For example, you want to build in the Niger Delta area, the material you will use there is not the same you typically use in Kafachan or Jos because of the environment. One is saline or less of salt intrusion. So, the environment must be understood the environment. Now who ensures that environment is fully taken care of in the design and construction, it is the Nigerian engineer. The man who is coming from China, what does he know about the environment in Port Harcourt? It is a man who knows about the environment will ensure your project is protected for over 20 years rather than stay for five years. ACEN is actually developing another document called the Accord for Cross Border Engineering Practice. The document promotes the concept that anybody that is coming from abroad can work in this country, but it will help the project, if he works with a Nigerian engineer who knows the environment. The document is going to FIDIC- International Federation of Consulting Engineers through the Group of African Members Association (GAMA). We want it adopted for global practice. The architects have a similar document for architects that are coming into Nigeria now. If adopted globally next year, it can be used in engineering practice in developing countries and Africa; so that any person coming into Nigeria for example, would be morally bound to work with a Nigerian consulting company.
Financing engineering projects have been a major problem, leading to several-abandoned infrastructure. Can we blame these on the impact of high interest rates and inflation in the country?
Well both high interest rates and inflation, but infact Nigerian financial institutions are interested in financing short term projects. They rather give out their money and get in back in three months. So, financing projects require long-term finance, which Nigerian institutions are not interested in. Some professionals were looking at setting a construction bank, that has run into a stumbling block now. If we have such a bank, we know they are there for a long-term financing. There is still Infrastructure Bank that is financing road projects. We need many of such banks, even the revival of the proposed Construction Bank. It will impact on our development, and China for example has several of such banks as they are targeted at a particular purpose. You are right; inflation and interest rates are still big issues. May be not too much in direct financing, but in terms of preventing abandonment of projects. Both factors lead to galloping project costs, which lead to inability to manage projects seamlessly.