A Plaintive Voice, From Nigeria’s Engineering Void
The Nigerian Academy of Engineering (NAE) has seen better days. Incorporated in 1997, as a non-profit and non-governmental gadfly, to goad and guide Nigeria into the modern engineering era, it is now a hapless casualty of political neglect and perverse social policy. But NAE’s accomplished President, Professor Raifu Isola Salawu, insists that the old timers, whose average age is 70, have not thrown in the towel. In this plaintive interview, conducted after the Academy’s recent well-attended Annual Lecture and Life Achievement Awards ceremony (at the University of Lagos, Akoka), Salawu shares his past anxieties and present expectations, with J.K. Obatala. Educated in Nigeria, Ghana and Britain, the 76-year- old electrical engineer, from Ogbomoso (Oyo State), has authored more than 100 scholarly papers. His Visiting Professorships, and prestigious international appointments, encompass Southern Africa, the Far East, Europe and North America.
What is the Nigerian Academy of Engineering (NAE)? Is it a quasi-governmental organization or…?
It’s an NGO, made up of very senior engineers — experienced engineers. Most of them are retired. We come together periodically, to discuss the country’s problems and proffer solutions.
But in order to help solve problems, we need the government to actually ask us to do things: To challenge us.
Also, as an NGO, we don’t have funds. It’s doing things that generate funding for us.
Does the government ever ask you to do anything?
Up till now, no. But we’ve volunteered advice, some of which they used. When the government was reforming the communication system, for example, we held a workshop. As a result of that seminar, and after conferring with the community, we suggested the use of GSM instead of CDMA technology.
What is the CDMA?
That’s a landline system.
Don’t you think it would have been better to begin with landlines — then go to mobile phones?
We had landline infrastructure in the country. But it wasn’t working — because of vandalism.
Also, a lot of money was needed to build-up the infrastructure. Protecting landline infrastructure from vandals is very costly. You also need to protect people, while they’re using outdoor phones.
Then, there is the problem of water seepage, during rainy season, which causes damage to telephone equipment.
But GSM, even though it is expensive to users, is easy to put in place — as opposed to installing the landline system and stringing cables all over the place.
What is the next step, communication-wise?
We believe Nigeria needs a landline. The GSM is very expensive. Eventually, we’ll have to go to the landline.
In fact, if you look carefully, you’ll see that most corporate bodies in Nigeria have landlines, as a backup. They use GSM for instant communication.
As we are going forward, if the landline system is improved (which we think will happen) most people will then change over to it, instead of the GSM system — because it’s cheaper.
Has NAE made any specific proposals?
We haven’t done that yet. We will suggest what ought to be done. But nothing can happen, until the government takes it up.
But you are going to submit a proposal?
Yes. We will — because we think NAE will probably have the ear of the present government.
What, specifically, do the Nigerian Academy of Engineering want from this administration?
We want the government to make use of Nigerian engineers — like they do in other countries. Other people use their own engineers. We see no reason why Nigeria should be different.
You’ll find that in this country, today, most of the contractors are foreign. All the older Nigerian contractors…they’ve all gone…because the government was not patronizing them.
You need to patronize your own contractors, for them to have enough funds to buy the equipment and for engineers to gain the experience they need.
Unfortunately, our government apparently doesn’t see things that way. They don’t seem to realise, that most of the foreign contractors enjoy the support of their home countries.
Some of the equipment and materials they bring here are provided by their governments — through tax write-offs, loans and possibly even direct subsidies.
This makes it difficult for Nigerian contractors to be able to compete.
As Head of State, General Babangida promised to let Nigerian engineers build a second bridge across the Niger River. But nothing more was ever heard of the project. What happened?
Yes… You know how it goes in Nigeria. A new government comes in, who wants to award its own contracts, and they change what the previous government has done.
The project was given to the Nigerian Society of Engineers (NSE). NSE appointed a committee of engineers, who produced a design. Why it never took off, I cannot say —except politics.
What is your relationship to NSE?
NSE is made up of young engineers, whose needs it addresses. It also plays an advocacy role. They can pressurize government — and get it to do one thing or the other.
In our case, we are an advisory body. We look at the future, and try to tell government how to reach there. Where the nation should go. That’s the big difference.
You’ll find that most of the people in the Nigerian Academy of Engineering are much older. Some have retired. Some are close to retirement. The average age in the Academy is about 70.
Why is this so?
Well, they are the great bulk of people who have gained engineering experience, over the years.
In the early days, engineers were properly trained in this county. When you graduated, they would send you to do an apprenticeship. Through apprenticeship, you were able to gain a lot of experience.
During that period, Nigerian engineering companies were patronized by government. They were employing young engineers and training them.
But these days, the situation is different. One: Most engineering jobs go to foreigners.
Two: Some of these politicians will capture a contract — and then look for somebody to give it to.
You’ll find that most so-called “indigenous” companies are not really indigenous at all.
What can be done about this?
We are hanging our hopes on the administration, that’s coming in. We’re hoping they’ll make use of Nigerian engineers. I mentioned this is my short speech, during the awards ceremony.
We are telling government, we’re telling the country…that “We have the expertise. And we are ready to help our country. Just make use of us”.Most members of the Academy are not looking for a job for themselves. They are looking for a way to assist their country.
Is there any specific package or proposal you’re working on now, which you will carry to government?
We did that before. We did something on the power sector. We wrote a report, which was given to government.
Was the report acted on?
No. It wasn’t. Actually, we had difficulty getting it across to government. But we are hoping that, with this new political dispensation, something might happen.
You will present it again?
Yes. We want to present the report again.
Then, another thing we’re looking at is the refineries. Government has been talking about the illegal refining of crude oil.
We’re looking at the possibility of Nigeria going modular, like some other countries — instead of trying to build large refineries, as we’ve been doing.
What do you mean by “modular”?
A modular refinery would be constructed as a small, standardized unit that can be built upon or added to, as the need arises.
This approach allows more flexibility in planning, as well as variety in processing capability, in the face of changing situations.
Instead of one gigantic refinery, we can have smaller ones all over the place, depending on raw materials availability, production requirements and other variables.
What this means, in practical terms, is that we can build a refinery now, with, say, 35,000 barrels per day (bpd) capacity, rather than a mammoth structure with 500,000 bpd capability.
You can then increase the capacity incrementally, by adding unites to it. If, for example, your production needs increased, you could raise the capacity of your 35,000 bpd refinery to, say, 50,000 — by simply adding another predesigned, modular unit.
In other words, modular refineries come in sections; and you can add sections as they are needed.
Wouldn’t a programme to train the illegal refiners, be wiser than locking them up? Even though they’re crooks, they are obviously very talented. Why not put that talent to constructive use? Maybe you could even hand over a modular unit to them?
We’ve talked about that. I personally feel strongly about it. But our chemical and petroleum engineers complain that, what these illegal operators are doing is not right.
They protest that these are the guys who are cutting the oil pipelines to get crude for refining. Who are polluting the environment and, in some instances, putting local communities at risk.
Some of us think we should look carefully at this — and try to provide an alternative livelihood that would bring them into the system. But the petroleum and chemical engineers have a serious problem with this approach.
Nevertheless, we are still discussing it. We’ve not come to a final decision yet. We are considering both sides. NAE may eventually hold a forum, where everybody can air their views on the issue.
Dangote is building a refinery. Do you think it’s a viable project?
It is a viable project. The issue in this country, whether it’s refineries, electric power or what-have-you, is really the liberalization of the sector. Nobody will put his money in the system, unless he thinks he’s going to get something out of it.
Business people are out to make a profit. For Dangote to say he’s going to build a refinery, means he must have had a good feasibility study, which shows that the project is viable. There is no way it won’t be viable — especially, if government eventually deregulates the sector.
So you expect the Buhari administration to do that?
Yes. That’s one of the thing I’d like to see. I want also him to remove the fuel subsidy.
What do you think about the status of the engineering profession — particularly, the quality of engineers being turned out today?
That’s an interesting question! Some people think the standards are low. But it’s not as bad as it looks!
What the companies want now, is ready-made engineers…ready-made professionals. You can hardly get that in any country.
As I said before, the early engineers were given an internship. They worked as an intern for about two years — in which case, you get to know how the system works. But these days, companies prefer instant professionals.
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