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“We are taking engineering to another level”, says Babagana

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Babagana Mohammed

Engr Babagana Mohammed is the President and Chairman of Council, Nigeria Society of Engineers (NSE). In this interview with LAWRENCE NJOKU, in Enugu; he spoke about the challenges facing the profession and how they have been surmounting them among others. Excerpts…

When were you sworn in?
I was sworn on 11th January 2020 as President and Chairman in Council, Nigeria Society of Engineers.

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How long are you expected to be in office?
It is for two years. The person who is going to take over from me is already waiting for me. So there is nothing like a third term.

When you set out to vie for this office, what exactly did you have in mind and how far have you gone in achieving them?
First and foremost, we are a professional society. We have visions and missions and that borders on growing the practice of engineering in Nigeria. Our mission is that we want to be the best professional society in the world but in all these, how do you practice the profession? The NSE was established in 1958 in London and was moved down to Lagos. We have been working since then. It was a group of young engineers who started this thing in London because of discrimination by foreign engineers who were their mates and colleagues but were relegated to the background. They came up to form the NSE and since then, we are operating and we are doing our best. So far so good, we are okay. We have about eighty branches across Nigeria and in the Diaspora. We have four in Huston; Finland is coming up, London, Scotland, and France. What do we do? We partner with the government, academia, and any agency on professional development. We are a collection of professionals. We are a conglomerate of Societies under one name because I have divisions that are disciplined based. They include electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, civil engineers, water engineers, Chemical engineers; Petroleum engineers, etc. You can count about 25-based disciplines. Each stand independently but we brought them together under one umbrella and called it the Nigeria Society of Engineers.

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In essence, what am I saying? I read Mechanical Engineering; I am the President of the NSE. Does that mean, if there is an issue in electrical, can I just stand and make pronouncements? No, I will wait for the chairman of the Nigerian Society of Electrical Engineers to come and brief me before I make a pronouncement. He on his own cannot make pronouncements but because of the law establishing us, I have to carry more weight than him. We have been doing this for quite some time now. Where we are now in Nigeria, we always talk to the government. As President of the NSE, everybody talks to you because they need professional guidance and that is why in other climes, things are working but in Nigeria, you will need to shout, you need to knock very hard for the government to listen to you, especially when you have to give professional advice.

These are some of the issues we are facing. Why are things done differently in other places and not the same here? Are our engineers competent or not competent? That is the big question. Governments all over the world grew engineering capabilities deliberately and that is why you have a lot of foreign road construction contractors in Nigeria. The question is why; don’t we have indigenous road contractors, where are our own contractors? Those that you are patronizing are they better than our own people and will they be where they are if they are treated the way you treat our case? The answer is no. Everybody is carrying his bag and wants to go to Dubai. A few years ago, Dubai was a desert, but today, it is the world’s attraction and the indigenes are the ones leading. As I am talking to you now, all the major companies and facilities in Dubai are being headed by their indigenes. You come with something; they will tell you that some indigenous companies must be involved. It is deliberate and that is how you build capacity and grow the profession. You don’t grow a profession just by allowing everything to go bad. For instance, look at the Nigeria Railway Corporation. It was a foreign scheme that worked for a very long time and collapsed but all these while when the foreigners left, who are the people running the railway corporation? Who is maintaining the railway gauge? That is why I said in some climes, there is a deliberate government policy to empower people and grow the profession. The truth is that once you are not taking part in what is happening, you cannot know what it is. Somebody has to create that enabling environment for you and if you are an engineer, you have to be an expert in what you do but that environment has to be created for you. You go to the Ministry of Works, you appoint a Politician as Commissioner who does not know anything about engineering and you still want him to perform. The English in that place won’t understand it because they are all engineering English.

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So how do we move forward? Somebody will tell you that you don’t have to be an Engineer to become Commissioner of Works. The answer is that you must be an Engineer to become Commissioner for Works. In several Societies, they have crossed that level. In our society, we have not crossed that level. For instance, in America, you don’t have to be an Engineer to head the Ministry of Works and that is because everything is in the system and working well. But in a third world country where we are, you have to be an Engineer to head an engineering agency. They might feel I am biased but I am not.

What have you done to correct these lapses because I see them as part of the problems that have hindered development in Nigeria?
Since we assumed leadership, we have raised advocacy levels. I took off in January 2020. I worked for three weeks, trying to study books, then at the end of the month. We came with our programmes. The second month in February, we set out with our list and then the COVID-19. There was a lockdown. But we cannot stop work because of the Covid-19. When I was coming, I came with a Marshall plan. People will tell you that a graduate that came out of the University, when he comes to the Industry, he does not know anything, but that to me is a concern. Babagana Mohammed has never been to the Nursery, I have never been to any special school. I went to Yaruwa Central School, I went to Government Science Secondary School and that was because I was intelligent. The Polytechnic I went to was a government school, the same as the University I went to. We were taught everything in school. So I have not gone anywhere special as a special school. In the schools we went to, we had the opportunity to touch machines like Milling machines, grinding machines, etc but today, these machines are in the labs and workshops. Apart from being obsolete, they are not functional. Two issues here – they are obsolete and they are not functional. Assuming they are functional, you can work with them and get the best out of them, irrespective of their age. The first thing I did was to write letters to Universities in the six geo-political zones and three Polytechnics. What did I do? It was basically to assess their dysfunctional equipment with a view of making them work. I don’t have that money to buy a new machine for anybody but those that are not working, I can make them work. So my people will go back and learn how to work with obsolete machines. I went there with my template which I gave to them. I visited the University of Jos, the Kaduna Polytechnics, the University of Maiduguri and I am still going round. My intention here is to make their dysfunctional teaching equipment work again. When I get this, I have now set the ball rolling. That is the first part.

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The second part is that during the UTME 2020 exam by JAMB, the best 16 students in Nigeria, I mean those that when you look at the least among them scored 336 needs to be supported. There was a lady from Anambra state who scored 374 and that was the highest, all of them said they want to study engineering. It was a thing of joy for me and I gave all of them a scholarship of one million nairas each. What am I doing here? I was trying to encourage them because they are the future of Nigeria. For a girl to score 374 out of 400 is a great feat. I did not stop there; I attached mentors to them; One from the industry and another one from the academia to monitor them for me to graduate. That is the starting point this year. I instituted scholarships for girl child education. I gave scholarships to more than 400 girls. What am I trying to do? It is basically because we want the best out of them. They are Nigerians and not my daughters. They are the future and I cannot give a scholarship to somebody who is not intelligent. I gave a scholarship to somebody who is intelligent. I am of age, I am above fifty years and will cross the line soon, but we will be proud to bequeath to those who will take over from us the sound knowledge and if that will be our legacy, so be it. But nobody should deceive anybody. We are no more moving down. We are going up.

What has become of those schools you wrote to or visited in your attempt to improve engineering education?
Those I met physically are very willing to work with me. They told me their story and their story is pathetic. I went to a school with several staff and discovered that their budget with the Federal Ministry of Finance was nothing to write home about. That made me begin to wonder how the school can fix its equipment. I looked at it and I was very sorry for the school. I went there and I advised them not to misplace priority. I came to realize that these are being done deliberately. Going forward, so many things need to be done. When I assumed this office, it was at the heat of Covid -19, apart from the palliatives I gave to my staff and all our branches, we gave other things like hand sanitizers which we produced. We bought face masks of over five million naira which we gave out. We made handwashing machines. Last few months, we gave the federal government of Nigeria through the NCDC ten million nairas to fight Covid-19, with hand sanitizers, face masks, and handwashing machines. These were built by our engineers. There are so many of them and we have invited the Standard Organization of Nigeria (SON) to make a Nigerian Standard for the hand washing machine. I told them the cost should be affordable. Before the Covid-19, most of us don’t know what is called a ventilator. A good ventilator cost between 30,000 USD to 60,000 USD. But I can tell you that our engineers are trying to produce ventilators. One of them is currently liaising with LUTH. The Ventilator we are talking about is one to eight persons. We are going to get a patent for it.

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How soon do we expect that?
We are working on it. It is a breakthrough; it has not happened anywhere in the world before. We are into something new and somebody has to take up the challenge. That is why I said, in producing the machines; you have to get other agencies to get it working. It has to pass through stages to get to where we want it to be. Places where they used Ventilator machines, it is one per person but what we are doing will go for eight persons per one. The good thing for me is that we are doing something and where our knowledge stops, others will take over.

Quackery is one major issue bedeviling every profession. How have you been responding to the issue in your profession?
Nobody should be happy with quackery but it is happening. In a set up like ours, you can only advocate for its eradication but it will never happen. Everybody in Nigeria is an engineer. The labourer on the street is an engineer. I also understand that we are Nigerians and that people must eat. But when it comes to engineering, we have to be careful because the word “Safety” is now involved; you cannot quantify it in terms of cost, in terms of damage. People need to value that. There was this guy in Lagos then that was answering an Engineer and collecting money from people to build. He built one that had cracks. But the owner of the house (a woman, a high court judge ) went to court. She slammed charges against the Nigeria Society of Engineers that we certified the builder as an engineer. Everybody calls him an engineer. When you give him money to buy a door, he buys a door, buys this and that, he does. It does not make him an engineer. I am sure he is somewhere now regretting all his life. So why go for quackery when you can go for a professional. All the buildings that you have seen collapsing, they are local buildings, built by local people a long time ago. Few new buildings collapse.

In Owerri, an eight-story building collapsed. Do you know what happened?
I don’t know what is in their head. How can you give an eight-story building to someone who left school, two years ago – someone who is not due for certification, somebody who has not been mentored because that is a major project? You should look for somebody who is not less than ten years and let that man work under him. Safety is key. Twelve people died and how do you pay for these lives? It was the same thing with the Synagogue building in Lagos. The person that did the design is not in the building industry. The engineer who endorsed it is a Chemical Engineer. How can you endorse a structure when you are a Chemical Engineer? So quackery is a major issue. You must have the right person to identify all these materials for you and people are running away because they don’t want to pay and I kept asking people, how much is the cost? People should not bother looking at the cost. As I am talking to you now, we have eight cases. I am a board member of the Council of Engineering in Nigeria and we have a tribunal and once there is any collapse, we step in and once we establish cases, we confiscate the building and the certificate and the person will face the tribunal.

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If you are not guilty, you go in for it. So far we have eight cases, which are facing a tribunal, and the outcome, I don’t know.

Your annual General Meeting is coming up soon, what are the intentions?
As a society, you choose your leaders every year. At that AGM, you give an account of what you have done, how you have spent money, and then you talk about your plans for the following year. We will start Monday 16th November. It is going to happen in Abuja. So we do AGM’s yearly where we elect leaders and present our reports. There will be activities to mark the AGM. We need to keep Nigeria safe and this is not the responsibility of the government alone. We all have to be involved in it in our own little way. During this conference, we will do teaching on bleach, air freshener, hand sanitizer, the cap for women, how to repair handsets and computers among others. We have done that with our spouses and now to the general public. We want to open it up because we need to get people doing something and it will be good for all of us.

Which election are we talking about when you assumed office a few years ago and your tenure is two years?
The President stays two years without seeking reelection. The Deputy President who will take over from me automatically will stay for two years without seeking reelection but the Vice President, every year they must contest for two years to qualify to be Deputy President

What legacies would like to leave at NSE when rounding off next year?
First and foremost, these students I gave scholarship. These ladies gave me scholarships after their graduation, I will be very happy. When I came on board, the NSE was at the point of collapse or tearing. Southeast and south-south were going their way, southwest was going their way. I brought them back together. At the last council meeting before I took over, south-east and south-south were not in the meeting but when I was being sworn in as president, I went down all these states in an attempt to bring the house as one and to the glory of God, the house is now one. They attended my inauguration and since then, they have been attending council meetings. I am happy about that. When we came on board, I inherited liability of over a 1.36million naira, as I am talking to you; I have paid all the money not minding that we are in Covid-19. As I am talking to you, we have purchased a new coaster bus for use at the secretariat of the NSE. So if these are legacies that we should leave for NSE, I think I have done my bit. It is a continuous process.

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