Science, technology imperative for Nigeria’s economic diversification agenda, says Onu
Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, a Fellow of the Nigerian Society of Chemical Engineers and the Nigerian Society of Engineers, is the Minister of Science and Technology. He graduated with First Class Honours degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of Lagos in 1976. He later obtained his Doctor of Philosophy degree in Chemical Engineering at the University of California, UC Berkeley, California, USA, in 1980. He worked as a research staffer and consultant at the Engineering Research Center, Western Electric in New Jersey, USA. On return to Nigeria, he started lecturing as the pioneer Head, Department of Chemical Engineering at the University of Port Harcourt, Acting Dean, Faculty of Engineering in 1985 and was also elected by Senate into the Governing Council of the University. In 1989, Dr. Onu served as a Director of the Nigeria Cement Company, Nigercem, Nkalagu; Visitor of Abia State University, Uturu. He was the pioneer National President of the Raw Materials Society of Nigeria; member, pioneer Board of Governors of the Federal Government Raw Materials Research and Development Council. In this interview with The Guardian team of Abuja Deputy Bureau Chief, MOHAMMAD ABUBAKAR and Senior Science and Energy Reporter, EMEKA ANUFORO, the Minister spoke on Nigeria’s recent pact with China, focusing attention on how science and technology would lead the way in Nigeria’s economic recovery programme. Excerpts
You were with the President on his recent trip to China to sign some deals, including some on science and technology. Can we have some insight into some of the details?
I visited China in January and during that visit, I insisted that there was the need for me to meet with the Chinese Minister of Science and Technology first because I felt the relationship between many agencies in the Ministry of Science and Technology and some agencies and corporate bodies in China would be stronger if it had the two governments’ backing. It was during that meeting that we agreed that there was the need, on my own suggestion, for a government-to-government agreement. I am very happy that when Mr. President visited China, that agreement was signed. Indeed, when I met with China’s Minister of Science and Technology, I requested from him to give scholarship awards to those we hire in our agencies, especially those with first degrees. We agreed that they need advanced trainings, especially in some specialised areas. The Chinese Minister did tell me that it was under the Ministry of Education. I emphasised that that was why the agreement was very important and Nigeria should enter into it. So, when we held a bilateral meeting between China and Nigeria, the Chinese President offered 700 scholarship awards and 1,000 training positions. I felt very happy. When I made that request, I was not expecting much. Now, it is a very important achievement in terms of human capital development.
In which areas are those scholarships and trainings?
We will be looking mainly at those with engineering, science and management background. The Ministry of Science and Technology is a very technical ministry. Many of those who work here are engineers and scientists. We also need good managers. But since it is now government-to-government, it is very likely that the scholarships may be thrown open to all. But what was at the back of my mind when I made the request was increasing the skills of our people.
For instance the National Space Research and Development Agency (NASRDA) has 400 engineers. You know they successfully designed the last satellite. They designed it themselves. There are certain skills outside that you acquire at the university. For example, look at welding. When you weld satellite capsules, it is a very specialised activity. It is not like normal welding. So, we are very happy. Nigeria will benefit a lot from the deal.
One of the problems in Nigeria is continuity. Given the way political heads are changed, how soon do we expect to begin to reap the benefits of these deals and how sustainable are they?
That is why there is an agreement. The agreement is between Nigeria and China. The implementing Ministry is the Ministry of Science and Technology. It doesn’t really matter who is there at any time. As long as you have the Ministry of Science and Technology, that agreement will be on. Then for training, once the scholarships are awarded, it is now left for our country to nominate those who will benefit. That, again, does not depend on who is the political head. The structures are there. We have 17 agencies in the ministry and they are all very specialised organisations. They need to upgrade their manpower profiles. Where China has the expertise, we will be very happy to benefit from such.
You were in China in January and some of the discussions then were focused on Nigeria’s quest to have a satellite assembly, integration and testing centre. How do some of these new MoUs concretise the initial discussions in this area?
I just explained that the relationship that we had before was between agencies in Nigeria and agencies in China and the corporate bodies there. Definitely, if we continued in that route, anything can go wrong. Now that we have government-to-government agreement, the agencies know that the government of Nigeria is there, monitoring and those in China know that their government has interest and they would want to make sure that things work. Those other smaller MoUs are no longer necessary. For instance, we have the assembly, integration and testing centre in our budget. The civil works had started before. There are some redesigns. Our capacity to fund it will determine when we can realise it fully. The Chinese government is willing to assist us in acquiring such logistics. That willingness is important, because if not, you will not be able to do so.
There some worries out there that Nigeria is not getting its priorities right by going into space satellite project. The question they ask is why space when people can’t feed. Now that this government is keen to implement Nigeria’s space programme, what message of assurance do you have for the common man out there?
I do agree that there is the need for us to solve many of the immediate problems that we have and that is why the Federal Ministry of Science and Technology is focused immediately on helping the nation have food security to assist in agriculture. That is our immediate priority. Space also has a very important role to play in agriculture. There are so many things, many contributions that space science and technology can make. Space science and technology would help the nation in controlling our environment, making sure that we preserve our environment for the benefit of future generation. Space science and technology is very important in medicine for health services. Take for example; we have shortage of specialised manpower in healthcare delivery, especially consultants .
You can have a consultant stay in one place and through telemedicine guide, younger doctors in far away rural areas can be accessed. That is one thing that you can do through space technology. And that would help save lives. It will help issues of migration for medical help, due to the fact that in the process of moving from place to place, the patient could even die. It is also very important in education. Take for instance, the Open University programme. Using space, you can stay in one place and teach so many people. That is
Using space, you can stay in one place and teach so many people. That is tele-education. This cannot be possible without space. Space science and technology is very important in crime control. If you look at the Gulf of Guinea, the goings on there are not desirous. You have piracy, oil theft and many other crimes. If you had your satellite that picks information on what is happening at any given time, you will be able to know what is happening. So, you see that virtually all aspects of life, space science and technology are there. Above all, look at the earth. The earth is just one planet in our solar system and in fact, one of the smallest.
It is a very big asset. For a country like Nigeria that is aspiring for many great things, the closest aspiration we have is the Vision 2020: 20. It shouldn’t stop there. We must participate in the space business. So, no matter how you look at it, space science and technology is critical.
As far as we are concerned, our immediate concern is agriculture, health, crime control, education, communication and others. If you know the amount of money that we now spend buying facilities from satellites owned by other countries, you will be amazed. China is making a lot of money from its space programme. It even launches satellites for other countries. If you go there, you will be amazed. The highest denomination of their currency is 100 Yuan. They have decided to create another currency of 100 Yuan carrying a space station image. That will show you that space is like the pride of the Chinese people. As a nation, we need to make sure that we utilise all the resources that we have for the advancement of our national interest.
If you were to go to your village, how would you convince the people there that this government means well for them, especially considering the hardships being faced everywhere?
The government means well. What some people don’t realise is that if there was no change of government, the situation in the country would have been unbearable. Look at the cost of crude oil falling from $140 to a barrel at some point to $26. We had a sad situation where we virtually depended on money from crude oil, even to import food. We are importing rice. We are importing sugar, wheat, even corn. We are importing virtually everything into the country. I am talking about food! I am not even talking about equipment, machines and all that. It is because we have this administration that has tried to block all leakages. Otherwise, the effects would have been very severe.
Look at this trip by Mr. President. This travel has helped the nation, because there are two major areas that this administration has made substantial progress. One is security. There is no doubt that the Boko Haram insurgency in the North East has been reasonably checked. Now, they have been properly degraded. There is another one, which is very important and has far reaching implications for our economic revival. It is the image of the nation. The image of the nation was so bad that even with our money, we had difficulties buying weapons. We were not asking for the weapons to be given to us on credit or through a loan, but with our own money, yet we were refused. You know how Nigerians were being treated all over. But now, the image is improving substantially.
Once we are able to get the security situation in all parts of the country to improve, it would help investors to come in, because without the President traveling, it would be difficult for us to have this improvement in the image of the country. His travels are very important. Most of his travels have brought in economic gains. I just told you about the impact on my ministry. It is true that people are going through a hard time, but Nigerians must recognise the fact that when you have an injury, you will go through some pains to heal it.. We are on the path of sustainable economic recovery. The good thing is that we are moving in a different direction. If we try to move in the same direction with the past administration, recovery will be far more difficult and it won’t get us to where we should be.
You have regularly hammered on the need to diversify the economy. You recently started the campaign, using science and technology to achieve the diversification agenda. What are the core deliverables or components of that planned diversification, using science and technology
The first thing that we are trying to do is to even make Nigerians recognise the importance of science and technology in nation building. We even think that it is the most important. Living revolves around science and technology and we must exploit it to make our people experience good living. Science and technology is omnipresent. It is in every sector, whether it is in agriculture, environment, defence, crowd control, health and others. There is no sector that science and technology does not influence. Science and technology is the process of positive change, geared towards improvement of the system. Already, I have asked all the agencies to concentrate on one or two areas of their mandates, so that we can easily measure progress. Once they make any finding, we want them to protect the intellectual property. They should go and patent them. And it is happening. Some of our agencies have just written to me that they have started patenting their products. If it were before, they would just let it lie there, gathering dust. When you patent, you protect that intellectual property and investors can come to you.
Finally and on a most important note, we want all good ideas and all research findings to be commercialized, so that you can now take an idea, which might not be invisible, and then transform it to something that is visible, in form of a product or a service. And we are getting results. The Federal Institute of Industrial Research, Oshodi (FIIRO) has been able to get Nasco to agree and they are working to do commercial production of a high nutrition biscuits. I even hear the biscuits are already in the market!
So, the process has started. If it were before, that won’t happen. And we are in discussions with so many people. But Nigerians must recognise that science and technology is not something you come out and say tomorrow you will do this or that. No, you don’t do that.
For those who have done research, especially those who have done PhDs, you may even find something else, different from what you were looking for in your original research. But the most important thing is that no nation in the world has ever being great without science and technology. So, Nigeria cannot be an exception. With greater emphasis now laid on science and technology, we will now be in a position to diversify. What do I mean by diversify? We will now be able to feed ourselves. We will produce all those food items that we usually import and it is science and technology that will help us.
Without science and technology, no young person will go to agriculture. Now, we will also go into manufacturing to promote industrialisation. It is very important. How do we produce the things that we now import into the country?
Do we remain a consumer nation forever? No! We must start producing. Science and technology is vital and China has shown it. It is very clear. Japan did it before. Small Singapore and others did it. They are investing heavily in science.
People make the mistake of thinking that t hey can use money to buy technology. That is why when people buy very expensive cars, and after sometime, they can’t even maintain it. It will be gone. You cant just buy technology. You need to acquire skills and build capacities, and so on and so forth!
We are waiting for this budget and we are committed to ensuring that there would be change, but I also want to assure you that the President is committed to diversifying the economy. Don’t forget that there has never been any administration since independence that has not promised diversification, but none has assured, because none has emphasised technology.
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