‘There is hardship because Nigeria didn’t focus on science and technology for 30 years’
For months now, Nigerians have experienced so much economic hardship accompanied by job cuts and rise in the exchange rate, which resulted in a lower standard of living. The climax is the economic recession that affected the country. The Minister of Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, who is also a key member of the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC), admitted in this interview with Abuja Bureau Chief, Igho Akeregha and Abosede Oladepo, that the country was truly in hardship. He is, however, of the opinion that if the country can invest in science and technology, Nigeria will catch up with the developed nations.
Nigeria and some Asian countries were at some point at the same level of technological advancement but Nigeria seems to be lagging, was this a key reason why your ministry organised the recent expo to make up for the gap?
Nigeria is behind many countries that were at the same level with us at independence. One country that we can use as example is South Korea. Fifty years ago, both countries depended on commodities. Then, for us it was agricultural produce. The same for South Korea. However, we didn’t pay attention to technology and South Korea did, for example, they spend about 4.2 per cent of their GDP on research and innovation whereas we spend 0.22 per cent by World Bank data.
Because of the attention that South Korea paid to science and technology, today they export goods like ships., vehicles, telephones and many more items but we still export commodities, that is crude oil and natural gas. They have moved away from commodities. The sad thing about commodities is that you do not determine the price. When there is a sharp drop you are affected.
Now we are in recession but South Korea is not in recession because they have moved away from resource-based to knowledge-based economy.
We organized the technology and innovation expo to bring together all researchers in the country, research institutes, the federal ministry of science and technology and other research institutes. Researchers from universities, polytechnics, industrial labs and those from the organised private sector as well as those from the informal sector.
We were able to bring inventors and investors together so they can cooperate for the purpose of commercializing research findings. Researchers can also cooperate with those working on similar projects. They can also procure locally made equipment for the work they are doing.
Nigerians need to know that we don’t need to import everything into the country; we don’t have any business doing so. That we can produce them at home. And when we do so, the benefits are enormous. You can create new jobs, grow your economy, reduce poverty and strengthen the currency. Producing locally, you don’t have to put pressure on looking for foreign exchange. That’s the reason for the expo, to commercialise research findings.
Where did investors come from?
We invited the Manufacturers Association of Nigeria, NACCIMA, and many other organisations and the Organised Private Sector. These are people who invest. Without the investors, the expo will not be complete.
What did you identify as the major problem why Nigeria shied away from focusing on science and technology from the 60s?
I think when you make money the easy way, you will always think it will continue. Because we stay in our houses and offices and money is put in our hands. It’s amazing because even the petroleum industry is not diversified. We import petroleum products. I think that is the reason but we just have to break away from that and understand that what we did when the price of crude oil was high, we can no longer do. As a nation, we should be able to produce many of the things we use. It is very important. Look at food security, which is our priority in the ministry for now, there was a time we had enough rice and we exported. People forget this. But you need to make sure whatever you do, you accompany with research to make your effort sustainable and make you competitive. Otherwise after some time, you will need to start importing.
How satisfied are you with the outcome of the expo?
There are just a few lessons we can draw from the expo. But I feel very happy that Nigerians now know that we are a very creative people. I had to ride in a wooden car not because I didn’t realize that if we use wood and if there is fire or any impact (I don’t want to use the word accident), it’s a serious problem. It was done by someone who doesn’t have the level of education that we have. And yet he thought of using the engine of a motorcycle, and because we don’t have metal sheets, he used wood. Very well polished and all the curvature he did well. It shows creativity, it shows the Nigerian spirit. It shows that what we thought cannot be done, can be done. That was why I decided to ride in that car. Maybe other Nigerians also seeing that will also think we didn’t know we could do this. The Nigerian spirit is a very strong one.
You promised to concretise some of the inventions. Are there some of the projects the ministry has penciled down to see through to commercialization?
There is very little the ministry can do directly. Just this year we went round the country and we identified 56 inventors from every geo-political zone. We acknowledged their contribution and supported them financially. The least got a million and the highest, N10 million. But we are working on institutionalizing the National Research and Innovation Council and along with that is the National Research and Innovation Fund. For 30 years that the science, Technology and Innovation policy has been in existence, they never held a single meeting. But during the presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, the first meeting held last year. And we were able to hold three meetings last year. This year we have held another meeting. The Council and the Fund is very important because all nations that pay attention to science and technology don’t fund their projects only through the budget. They use extra budgetary means to fund their projects. We need this Fund because one of the constraints is usually funding. If we had that type of funding, it will be more helpful. Part of the fund will go into the Science and Technology Bank to solve the problem that we have; because we don’t have enough venture capitalists. We have very few of them. Venture capitalists are very important because they are the people who take the risk involved in commercializing research findings.
Even though by doing the research, we are taking away a lot of the risks. But there are still some risks left and it is the venture capitalist that takes that risk. We are working to put this Fund in place. In the meantime, all these innovations and inventions that have gotten to the level of commercialization, we are going to use NOTAP, the National Office on Technology Acquisition and Promotion to protect their intellectual property through patent. Because usually you need money to apply for patent and you need a lawyer. And some of them may not have the money. There are many other things we can do for them. A number of young inventors were at the expo. One of them exhibited an electronic ballot collation box, which is in line with one of NASENI’s
project, the Electronic Voting Machine.
Would the ministry like to have a look at this?
Why not? We will. One of the greatest legacies a government can leave for the people is free and fair election. And during the last election, if there had been no card reader, I believe it would have been difficult to have the sort of result that we had. The outcome possibly may have been different. Technology is very important in giving us free and fair elections. Once you have free and fair elections, it will introduce internal democracy in the political parties. I was national chairman and leader of one time second largest political party, if you know that the votes will count, you are going to bring the best candidate that will win election. Also, when any person is elected, he knows the election is dependent on the will of the people, if you want to be reelected, you have to do things in the interest of the people. That will help us to have good governance. For that reason, I put pressure on NASENI and it’s working hard. We are still fine tuning what was presented to Nigerians. It is when we take it to the level that we are completely satisfied, then we take it to INEC.
You have about two years to go as a government. These are lofty plans. Previous governments may have had these kinds of plans. But once another government comes, everything is set aside. That is why this country apparently has not done well technologically. Do you have plans to institutionalize these arrangements such that even if the Buhari administration is not in power, Nigeria can continue to move on?
I think we have to be fair to this administration. The previous administration didn’t have these plans. We had the Science, Technology and Innovation policy since 1986 and the leading organ to manage science and technology in the country never met for 30 years. So you can see we are doing something completely different through the science and technology expo, the format we adopted has never been used in the country.
If we had funding we would have aired the workshops live for people to see what happened there. And the format wasn’t what people used to do in the past. Commercializing research findings, we have agreements with NASCO; and May and Baker in one and half years that I resumed office as minister. We are doing things that other administrations have not done. We are working hard to institutionalize the Council and the Fund so we can be in a position to fund science and technology relatively better than it is being done now.
Some of your agencies and institutions are not well funded. Some of the directors general have practically nothing to work with. Also, some innovators refuse to showcase their discoveries. How far have you gone to sensitise them to know that their research discoveries are not meant for the shelves?
Thank you for the questions but I want to assure you that I told all our agencies that every research finding that can be commercialized must be commercialised. It’s a new policy. I don’t think anybody would keep his research findings. But I also taught in the university when I was much younger.
If somebody is doing research and is using it to write a paper, then most likely he will not release it to the public. But in the research institutes, that will not happen because it’s a public place. If you don’t take research findings into the market place you will not be helping the economy. Creating jobs, fighting poverty and strengthening our economy cannot be done. It’s a directive which all agencies under the ministry are adhering to and I’m happy with the results.
The Federal Government is looking into the areas of modular refineries and that requires a lot of technology. The local people in the coastal areas have been running these refineries given their limited knowledge. Is the ministry looking at the possibility of synchronizing the efforts of the local communities with research findings?
Why not? One of our research institutes is for chemical technology. We are interested in working to upgrade existing technology to achieve productivity.
You are a man of two parts, many Nigerians know you more as a politician. Today you are in the ruling party. Your party promised change to Nigerians. And I’m sure the feedback you are getting is not good music to the ear. Most Nigerians say the change they asked for is not what they are getting. How do you react to that?
The promise the president made, he made it with the manifesto of the party. He’s working with the support of the party and he has delivered on these promises. He promised to deliver on security particularly in the northeast and that has been achieved. And there is improvement. And let Nigerians not forget that Abuja was under attack. And who knows what would have happened with respect to security and insecurity.
He also promised to fight corruption and he’s doing that with every vigour. Then we must appreciate the fact that corruption has gone so deep into our system. We have corruption even in our schools, offices, and even on the roads. If you are fighting corruption, you don’t expect to see the result almost immediately. It will take time.
These problems were created a long time ago.
As far as I’m concerned, the only weakness that the APC may have shown was that at the time we took over, that we didn’t emphasise the depth of decay in the society. If we had highlighted the problems we were confronting, I know Nigerians would have appreciated us more. But I know
they will with time.
If Nigerians had been told the level of decay I don’t think people will be blaming the government so much. Yes there is hardship, but the hardship arose because for 50 years, we depended on commodities. We started with agricultural products and then moved to petroleum products; and we ended up with a mono product economy. And the price of crude oil crashed from over $100 to less than $30. And that’s the only source of revenue. What do you expect any administration to do? If not for the effectiveness of the president, what is happening in Venezuela would have been a child’s play to what would have happened in Nigeria.
Venezuela has the largest crude oil reserve in the world. They allowed themselves to depend entirely on crude oil just as we did. Today they have to go to neighbouring countries to buy food. And the questions Nigerians should ask is that with the level of mismanagement of the previous administration, what would have happened to our economy.
I accept there is hardship, it worries us, and we are very concerned. Exceptionally concerned. And we are doing everything humanly possible to make sure that we get out of this problem. Look at food; and our roads. Take for instance the Onitsha-Enugu road.
This is a trans Africa highway. But people were already farming on one side of the road. And we had all this money. Is it the railway system that we repaired? Is it our hospitals that we built? Is it our airport? Look at the Abuja airport. For 30 years the airport was not even maintained. Report everything that I’ve said. Let anybody come and challenge me. Our people now send their children to neighbouring African countries. Is it during this administration that these things started? And do you think these things can be corrected overnight? It can’t. It will take time and a lot of resources. And we came in at a time when the revenue to the nation is very low.
But one thing that Nigerians; and it’s important we keep talking about these things. Is that the President is not just determined to take Nigeria out of recession, but to change the direction that we have been going. Because if we continue with the idea of depending on crude oil, once the price is high we will get out of recession but we will get back when the price falls. Look at South Korea. With the collapse of petroleum price, they are not in recession. The Economic Recovery and Growth Plan is hinged on science and technology. And once we start investing, we will change and become a knowledge economy and employ our people.
Is it this administration that made engineers and scientists not to have jobs? Even though their number is very small yet they don’t have jobs. They were there and we are trying to rectify all these things. And we were earning over $100 a barrel on crude for a long time.
Some agencies under the ministry have discovered cure for epilepsy and sickle cell. What is the level of work done so far on these projects?
We are working on epilepsy and we have good results but you have to test these drugs over a long period of time to make sure the results that you have can be duplicated and that there is safety. Those who have tried it have given good remarks. But we want to follow all the known rules. For sickle cell anaemia, what is impressive with the work we have done is that we approached it from another angle, not from the point of view of a drug, but as a nutrition. The drug works when there is crisis but nutrition works all the time. It’s a part of the food. It’s a part of your nutrition. They are things that are common. They are our Nigerian agricultural products. Having these cures as nutrition rather than drugs ensures you don’t enter into crisis. We are doing a lot in that area. When we develop it to a level that is internationally acceptable then we will bring it out.